Tim Barrus was always a writer and mostly -- from high school where he won a city contest for poetry, a book called “Footprints in the Sand” -- without guidance except his own reading and sheer emotional force. I have not read the “Footprints” book nor have I read any of the successors during the years when Tim stood at the ferry slip in San Francisco with homemade stapled chapbooks for sale, asking the tourists, “Do you like poetry?” They often did. Those were the late Sixties and then Seventies. Tim was hanging out with the best and most verbal in that fermenting stew of creativity and possibility.
The first published book was “My Brother, My Lover.” Since it is first person, immediately presents the reader with the problem of what is “true” and what is “fiction.” What is possible? What is likely? What is shocking or even horrifying? My position would be that a book should be taken as it is on the surface of the page and not as an access to a private life. I have enough knowledge of Tim’s life to say -- I hope without violating boundaries -- that what he is doing and has always done is to try to heal abuse with love. The original abusive relationship was not brothers or cousins or peers -- it was not any equal relationship at all. He was a beautiful child and certain persons could not leave him alone.
First paragraphs are always helpful. This book starts off, “I don’t think that there was ever really a time that I wasn’t totally enigmatically connected to my brother. Thomas is only nine-square-months older than I am, but it seems as if I have always in one way or another found myself looking “up” to him.” So here’s the kernel of Tim’s stories: two males, deeply connected, not quite equal. In this first version, the narrator is the younger, the more vulnerable. The little joke about “nine-square-months” is typical and especially in this early novel Tim uses vernacular in a corny Ma-and-Pa Kettle way to establish that these are country people. Women say, “Land’s sake!”
Soon the other major fiction figure appears: the powerful, dominating, king-like figure that the “princes” dare not offend but cannot help admiring. “We had a daddy the likes of which we adored with an earnest fascination. Our daddy was a rancher-carpenter who not only ran our working ranch but rented himself out . . .” This is very much a Western and frontier figure. “Our daddy could do anything.” “Our daddy was built like a bear. He looked like a bear, talked like a bear, and our mamma always said he thought like one.” But this daddy has a granddaddy loving disposition.
Mamma is “the one who introduced me to the world of books. It was her world. She read. Constantly.” In this story it is the Mamma who gets the boys put into the same class at school and says, “They’re too close to be separate.” But the daddy teaches them to work until “it was just ingrained inside of us.” At bedtime the Mamma comes to read to them about Mowgli from “The Jungle Book” and calls them her coyote pups, so they rub noses, but this is not all sweet and soft. Mamma tells them that the coyote will teach them to endure. She tells them about the coyote who gnaws off his own foot to escape from a trap.
These two boys have enormous intimacy but no sexual relationship until adolescence. The advent of initiation is more ignorant than innocent. Sex is synonymous with “the city” which is San Francisco which accepts gay sex. How forbidden they might consider sex between brothers, I don’t know, but Tim’s stories are always about what is transgressive and always asks whether the suffering that ensues is necessary retribution. In this case the family home burns with the parents inside.
The narrator wants to rebuild the house. The barely older brother leaves. At the end of that chapter, after a night of hard drinking, comes this sentence: “Soon enough I could see the sun rising like a whore’s red lips in the east over the mountains subtly ending the night with light.” The poet has mugged the story teller. “Whore’s red lips” are not subtle. Nor do they shed light.
The story goes on, pulling in another favorite constant: the nurturing transvestite who resolves the problem about whether to marry Mamma or Daddy by being both. She’s also a source of wit and a mouthpiece for Tim’s rules for life: growth and risk are identical. The best drug is adrenaline. Bodies are not the locus of love, which is in intimacy, emotion. Porn is boring. By the last paragraph of the book, Barrus has control of his metaphors. As the lovers reunite at last, “the sky was drunk with thunder.” Also by this time the last essential element has been introduced: the dog, in this case an Irish setter puppy. In fact, if you need a good metaphor for this book, the pup is it -- lovable but a little clumsy.
The sharp remarks about the sex biz are earned knowledge. Copyright 1985 means that Tim’s career as a whore has been ended by HIV and his second marriage. He is thirty-five with an adolescent daughter. The AIDS plague is devastating San Francisco. “Time to get out of Dodge” is a Barrus principle.
The next book, “Anywhere, Anywhere” is mixed genre: poetry as a heading for each chapter, pop music lyrics larded through the story as they were through the Vietnam War that is the basic trigger for the story, and eventually this book became a play in Manhattan. The language is no longer innocent.
The jump in sophistication between the first novel and the second is big. And yet Tim says the impetus for “Anywhere” came from simply watching a pair of men take care of each other. It is the nurturing and protecting element that distinguishes Tim’s same-sex lovers but now the incest drops out and never reappears. He’s never this corny again, but keeps the preoccupation with money and social class. The earmarks that will persist are energy, earnestness, and the authenticity of Tim’s writing. A few phrases (“Stars in my arms”), the Dorothy in the Land of Oz trope, and the subject of same-sex love out on the edge of the world will be constant.
TO BE CONTINUED