Monday 30 January 2023

Guest review by John Case: I AM NOT RAYMOND WALLACE by Sam Kenyon


"Sam Kenyon's stunning debut novel ... a beautifully written story of love, loss and redemption; a tale of the emotional costs we can so often suffer for failing to be true to our true selves ..."

Training initially as an actor, John Case spent his early 20s working in theatre in the UK, before moving into the Arts and Heritage Sector, working as a senior manager with Surrey County Council’s Cultural Service Department, covering Performing Arts, Libraries and Heritage. Since 2020 John has been the Festival Director of the Rye Arts Festival, one of the South-East’s largest multi-arts festival, held every September since 1971. John is now working on the establishment of an exciting new project - The Rye Bay Book Festival, which he hopes to launch in 2024.

‘It is Monday October 14th, 1963, Raymond is twenty-one years old, and by the time he leaves Manhattan a mere three months later, on January 8th, 1964, he will have made the greatest mistake of his life.’

So ends the first paragraph of Sam Kenyon’s stunning debut novel, spanning a 30 year period from Manhattan in the winter of 1963, a month before President Kennedy is assassinated, to Paris in 2003. It is a beautifully written story of love, loss and redemption; a tale of the emotional costs we can so often suffer for failing to be true to our true selves; of the role that parental pressure can exert throughout our lives, but it’s also a snapshot of the wider intolerance that existed in 1960s America towards homosexuality; a time when homosexuality was still considered by many to be a ‘disease’ that could, at best, be cured by the psychiatrist or by religious correction. A time when gay men were forced into a dangerous illicit underworld, where to gain entry to gay bars and clubs meant knowing that particular secret ‘knock’ on the door to gain entry, and where the danger of arrest or attack was ever present. It was also a time when the The New York Times could actively publish scaremongering articles about an homosexual epidemic spreading across America - ‘They’re sick, you know? The result of inadequate parenting; absent or detached fathers, overbearing mothers; lack of significant masculine figure in the household…”

Into this 1960s world comes Raymond Wallace, a virginal 21 year old, newly minted from Cambridge University, to work at the offices of  The New York Times on a three-month bursary, where he is assigned to work with top journalist Robert C. Doty (a real life figure, but in Kenyon’s novel Doty is fictionalised) to undertake research for a leading article about the ‘growth of overt homosexuality’ in New York city. Remember we are still four years away from the Sexual Offences Act 1967 in the UK which permitted homosexual acts between two consenting adults over the age of 21, and even further away from legalisation in the United States.

Raymond, encouraged by Doty to venture into the hidden underworld of the gay bars of Manhattan, meets the charismatic Joey Maniscalco, and quickly begins an intense relationship, a relationship that will last physically for a mere three months, but one that will resonate across a generation for the next thirty years.

The relationship between Raymond and Joey is liberating, joyful, loving and beautifully brought to life by Kenyon. Even the intimate sex scenes, which can so often be the downfall of many a writer, work well here, blending perfectly within the main narrative. Both these men will, in time, become famous - Joey, a free spirt, confident in his own sexuality, supported by his beloved Papa, possesses a rare singing talent, whilst Raymond, the ironic observer, the recorder of stories, will find fame as a writer. Kenyon is adept at creating fascinating believable characters - Joey’s relationship with his loving Papa contrasts with the intense controlling relationship Raymond himself has with his own mother, desperate to see her son live a stiflingly conventional life, and who is instrumental in Raymond’s decision to walk away from Joey and return to England, eventually marrying and having a son of his own called Joe.

The novel is divided into three parts - the first covers the intense relationship of Raymond and Joey over that winter of 1963/4, the second, epistolic in form, taking place 20 years later, are letters sent by Joey’s Papa to Raymond, and unsent letters by Raymond to Joey,. The third part, set in Paris, see’s Raymond’s son, Joe, seek out Joey, who has now become a world famous classical singer. The three separate parts and the range of characters and timescales demand a deft, accomplished writing style and Kenyon pulls this off admirably.

It is difficult to write about this book without giving too much away, and I don’t want to spoil the final part, so do grab a copy and read it. I’m pleased to say that despite a significant sadness that takes place, Kenyon does give us, and his characters, a happy ending, and happy endings are something that we all need, particularly right now!

Full praise to Nathan Evans and Justin David from that wonderful independent publisher, Inkandescent, for giving us Sam Kenyon’s novel. This book deserves a very wide audience, as its themes are universal, irrespective of sexuality.

I am not Raymond Wallace is published by Inkandescent.

Sam Kenyon is a writer, composer, performer and teacher. His most recent theatre work is Miss Littlewood exploring the life of Joan Littlewood, which opened at the RSC in 2018. Find out more from his website.

Inkandescent Publishers: website

Rye Arts Festival website

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