Wednesday, March 05, 2014

"GENTLE WARRIORS" by Geoff Mains: a Review

Urban Aboriginals” was a focused orderly account of a sub-culture.  “Gentle Warriors” is a murder mystery, but with no single assassin and a host of victims.  It is a complex and entirely believable interweaving of many elements of the San Francisco gay and straight forces in conflict brought to a climax by the idea that HIV virus was deliberately designed as a weapon of mass destruction targeting gays.  This idea is then turned around to deliberately target those who block the protection of the vulnerable, including gays.  

Mains was uniquely qualified to write this book because of his background.  I would include his Brit/Canadian/far-north identity.  This sort of idea mushrooms up in the aftermath of crisis.  One of my ministerial cohort, a classmate at seminary, lost his final church because he believed and asserted that 9/11 was not the work of Middle Eastern terrorists, but rather the planting of explosives by the CIA, only triggered by the airplanes.  We like our enemies familiar and named.

Always I’m delighted to find a powerful book that is about the part of the continent I know, and not just the major cities.  Mains used his knowledge most effectively in the Metis character of Marc, who is a mystic and knows the forest.  The sex scenes (both extreme and simple cuddling) are for me less moving than the visions of near-muskeg, fusion of a different kind.

Chapter 19 is a “vision” by Marc that moves the issue from sex politics in SF to a broad “ecology of evil.” (My phrase.)  He is sitting on a stump near the beginning of the northern muskeg, looking “into the tangle of stems and sedges and sphagnum at the bog’s moist edges. . . Here was Labrador tea, cloud berry and crowberry, blueberry bushes and various wintergreens.  Here was bog laurel, and throughout, the brilliant tiny red coins of swamp birch that clung tenaciously to the delicate branches of the little bush.”  He sees “a late-blooming one-leaf orchis, its delicate spike of tiny flowers poked tentatively into the cold air, its base lost in a tangle of browned sedges.” . . . 

Given this specific, he draws a principle:  “Here was that rare and special side in each of us; here were those hidden delights we refused to recognize or actively suppressed.  By denying them in ourselves, in others, we created hostility, fear.  And so often when others chose to express those very feelings, to live those delights, we stoned them with hostile envy.”  
Louis Riel

This is the “Gentle Warrior,” a person of vision, skill and generosity who can allow others to be different.  In the background hovers the spirit of Louis Riel, mystic, who tried to lead the Red River Rebellion, a breakaway community on the Northern prairie.  In the year this book was published, I was teaching in Heart Butte where many of Riel’s followers had taken refuge to avoid being hung in Canada.  Their descendants had mixed with Blackfeet.  Some of them were gay, as is true of every place.  But I had not expected to meet Riel in this book!

Here are the characters we follow in the order that they appear in vignettes.

1.  Marc, the Metis, begins the story.  He’s been tending bar at the Ambush in SF.
2.  Gregg, ex-Marine racked with PTSD.  He’s guiding his motorcycle down the streets of the West Hills of Portland, OR.
3.  Sam, who’s gripped by an ingenious plot, and Brian, his lover, are driving south through a winter storm, stopping for supper in Grants Pass.
4.  Back to Gregg remembering how he connected with his group of plotters in the past.
5.  Allan Bennett, straight, a politician out of the “House of Cards”, also plotting.
6.  Back to Sam and Brian, trucking through the Siskiyous, while over the radio comes the news that Ed Stevens has admitted that he helped the CIA deliberately create AIDS and spread it.
7.  Gregg was previously married to Ed’s sister, Jo-Lyn, who is the only female main character, who tries to take action on her own fundamentalist terms, and ends up collateral damage like all the others.  Jo-Lyn’s connection to her nursing infant is as erotic as any of the encounters between leather men.

These characters, along with a few others, weave in and out of the plot line in a “long arc story” worthy of a television series.  Some of it comes directly out of Mains’ experience and other parts derive from news accounts, books, and long evenings of listening to unguarded talk.  The central obsession is that AIDS was knowingly imposed on a whole category of men for political reasons disguised as moral reasons.

Those were early times, so the detailed and specific knowledge of the actual virus that we have accumulated now -- the proof (still doubted by some) that HIV was a species jump from SIV, specifically from the chimp version, though it can jump from gorillas or gibbons as well -- the proof that the virus was slipping around like an evil shadow at least a hundred years ago -- the knowledge that it usually (but not always) takes more than one brief exposure to be contagious but is satanically hard to get back out of the blood once it takes hold -- the actual ports of entry on each cell and the specific places on the genome that allow those two key ports to exist -- all this was unknown at the time.  

Because Mains is coming at this unfinished tragedy through multiple storylines, it conveys a lot of information about how lives are affected and why anyone would continue exposure because of their intense passion for physical relationship.  It’s a premise often followed in heterosexual novels.  In fact, some of those historical novels pick up on the mystical principles of courtly love and irresistible fate.  Mains is frank about the greed, fear and viciousness of humans who have power and always want more.

There are 59 short chapters, the first and last both belonging to Marc.  This character brings to awareness a kind of new religion that comes from appreciation of the complexity of both the cell and the cosmos, and marries that ecologically to the nature of human society.  “Another sister on this terrible guillotine of life, this machine that kills so coldly, that slices with presumptuous accuracy, so disdainful of charity.”  

The last paragraph of the book is this vision:  “At a window in the city where one can watch the Sun God climb Mount Parnassus, lifting his train of fog up the hills as he goes, a man wipes the tears from his face and smiles in remembrance.  The owl hoots one final time and sinks into silence.  The passage has been made, the message given.  It’s time to go on.”

That’s the message of both biochemistry and forestry -- process: life goes on.  But for all his warrior-words and their explosive charge, he’s a botanist.  In his tangled bank it is the plants that struggle against each other.  No mole gobbles worms, no wolf pack brings down a moose.  It’s the humans who are unreasonable and needy.

This book was published by Knights Press.  The editor-in-chief at the time was Tim Barrus.  He was able to get the book into Geoff’s hands just a day before he died.  This morning when I looked, “Gentle Warriors” was available as a pdf online.  I hope that means more people can read it.

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