In the spirit of 2014’s 365 Short Story Review project I am going to attempt another, this time a novel review a week. Since I launched the first project by focusing on a story by one of my favorite authors, Jeff Mann, it seems fitting to begin with his work again. He recently released the novel, Country, and that would seem a good starting place, but I’m going to resist and begin with his 2014 novel, Cub, instead. I’m not sure how I managed, in reading about Country before its release, to miss the fact that the two are linked, but I did and they are. It was a delightful surprise and one which added a depth and level of anxiety to reading the new novel that I wasn’t expecting, giving me another set of characters to think about and worry over.
Cub is the coming-of-age tale of West Virginian teenager Travis Ferrell, and it was—and still is—a breath of fresh air. This is a POV that was missing and is solely needed. Travis is not your classic, cliché, skinny jeans wearing, soy latte drinking kid pining away for the freedoms of a big city. He’s a hirsute, hefty young man who wishes only to trade some of his fat for muscle. He doesn’t yearn to be a heroin chic, sick-thin clubkid haunting Manhattan. Well, okay. He is planning something of an escape from his rural hometown, but his sights are set on Morgantown and the West Virginia University campus rather than either coast, and even so he has decidedly mixed feelings about leaving. He loves his hometown and his family and their shared traditions. They suit him. The only thing is, Travis is gay and he’s not stupid; he knows a vein of violent homophobia runs through his beloved mountains alongside the coal.
At the opening of the book only Travis’s friends, lesbians Bill, Brenda and Jean are aware of the single, secret element of his multi-faceted personality – and, make no mistake, his is a delightfully complex one. Travis revels in his physical strength; embraces his romantic streak by indulging in the reading and composing of poetic works with every bit as much zeal as he indulges in the consumption of the rich, home-cooked meals his Nanny prepares; reveres nature; enjoys his budding sexuality; and finds expression for all of it via a spirituality that’s every bit as expansive as his soul. It seems inevitable that he will follow in his friends’ footsteps, staying closeted until he can leave home in search of acceptance and freedom in Morgantown.
But this is fiction, and as Albee said, in fiction shit hits the fan. At the start of the book Travis meets a classmate he’s admired from afar, a boy named Mike Woodson who’s from the other side of the tracks. Sparks fly. Mike’s life is much different from the one Travis leads. Mike’s mother is dead and his racist, homophobic father, Buck, drinks too much and likes to hit people. Though Mike is a kind, smart, and handsome boy, he has self-esteem issues stemming from his upbringing. Falling for him turns Travis’s world upside down and makes the fast-paced Cub into a rollicking, ulcer-inducing and thoroughly recommended read.
Mann, Jeff. Cub. Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press. 2014.
$15. 215p. PB. 978-1-59021-339-1.
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