“We Only Flinch When It Isn’t Necessary” by Jonathan Harper from Daydreamers (Lethe Press, 2015).
This volume will be released in March. I was given an advanced reader copy by the publisher.
On his way to graduate school, Grant pays a visit to the home of his father and stepmother. It isn’t his idea, it was his father’s. Grant’s father is an opinionated, controlling sort, though he’s never up front about it. He plays a passive-aggressive game of quietly articulating how Grant should behave. A high-ranking member of an evangelical church, he makes it clear that his estranged son should dress more conservatively, attend Sunday services with the family, eat dinner with them, and not talk back.
It’s all lip-service to ideals the man preaches but doesn’t practice. Grant is a child of divorce because his father had an affair that resulted in a pregnancy. It broke up two marriages and created a third. Grant’s staying under a roof chock-full of tension. He has a step-sister who feels just as trapped there as he does, and a half-sister who wastes no opportunity to flaunt the fact that she is the only one being raised in an unbroken home, never minding that she’s the product of the two people who created the strife.
In between his battles with them, Grant pays a visit to Lunch Copeland, another member of his father’s right-wing church, which wasn’t nearly as evangelical the last time Grant lived in town, back before his parents’ divorce. His father and Lunch are part of the crew who overthrew the former church leadership and radicalized the congregation.
The reader doesn’t know what to make of this character because Grant, too, seems conflicted. He looked to Lunch as a mentor and surrogate father, but Grant is also gay (or perhaps bisexual), and was dealing with those burgeoning feelings. There are hints that something has gone on between Lunch and the boys he’s mentored, one after another, for years. It’s all hazy, compounded by the fact that they don’t talk openly about anything. All we know for certain is that like Grant’s father, Lunch is duplicitous. He presents one face to the world and another in private.
I like this story very much, but then I’ve always been simultaneously fascinated and horrified by people like Lunch Copeland. (That name, by the way, is perfect, calling to mind Kenneth Copeland, Oral Roberts and their ilk.) I used to rush home from high school, flip on the television, grab the phone, and dial one of my friends. (Yes, someone from the group I made reference to yesterday.) Together we’d watch/mock The PTL Club and its hosts, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. We loved to challenge everything they said, and laugh at the pendulum swings in Tammy Faye’s (alleged) mood. One minute she was all bright smiles, the next she was weeping for the sinners of the world. Six seconds later the smile would be back and she’d be singing some joyful song of praise. It was a trip and a half and we couldn’t fathom that anyone could take it seriously. To us it was obvious that it bore as much resemblance to spirituality as WWE bears to wrestling. We watched it every day. Dare I say we did so “religiously”?