“Book Review: Two Natures”
Reviewed by Jack Messenger
Glamor and grief in the shadow of AIDS
Two Natures is a coming of age literary novel about Julian Selkirk, a young gay man in early 90s New York who is “dependent on the kindness of strangers.” An aspiring fashion photographer, Julian’s career lows and highs often alternate—and his quest for love in the middle of the AIDS crisis does too.
The spiritual and the carnal, the beautiful and the sordid, interweave in complex patterns in this debut novel by Jendi Reiter. As the years before 1996 prove to be intensely personal and politically fraught, Julian learns to cope with the vagaries of love and ambition while mourning his friends and lovers.
Two Natures is an admirably ambitious work that plunges into New York’s rent-controlled apartments, gay bars and nightclubs, and the overlapping world of fashion shoots and lifestyle magazines, in pursuit of the spirit of the times.
“I felt the chill of embarrassment, the familiar sickness. From the locker rooms of my suburban high school to the bars of New York, that echo would never die, the baying of the pack.”
We accompany Julian as he enjoys one-night stands, interacts with models and photographers, and jousts with publishers and agents on whom his career depends. A great deal of this whirl is ephemeral, but then, every so often, something permanent is created – a beautiful design, a miraculous photograph, a loving relationship.
In Two Natures, Julian displays his appetite for any kind of congenial faith that has the grace to accept him, unlike his conventional Christian upbringing in Georgia. Thanks to his flat-mate Dmitri’s poster of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, he even helps us recognize a new perspective about how, in religion, there exists “a picture of life where nobody’s trapped by being different. I feel like, if I took a fresh look at myself, I don’t know what I could find.” But also: “It’s always the wrong people who can’t see themselves in mirrors.”
Yet all this sadness and anger is laced with humor, especially when Julian’s family visits New York and he feels he has to put on a heterosexual front in order to keep the peace. “My family. Here. Next week.” Readers share his dread at the prospect, as he states, “Lying is my family’s preferred form of communication.” With such weighty subject matter to tackle, it’s a nice touch that Reiter finds a way to include genuine humor to keep us turning the page.
“The birds of the air have nests, and the foxes have holes, and Julian Selkirk needs a place to bring his boyfriend if he should ever find one who returns his phone calls.”
In addition to the sadness, anger, and humor, there is also the sacred: those little experiential epiphanies for the everyday reader, like a homeless man accepting the gift of a dead lover’s clothes: “Have a bleshed day, man.” Sometimes the gift of happiness is hard to accept, as when Julian’s friend Peter looks love in the eye: “It feels like a mistake – this can’t be for me, it’s too good.” The lucky ones among us, surely, have all felt as unworthy.
There is sex and lots of it in Two Natures. Described in minute anatomical detail, in all its sticky messes, pains and pleasures, guilt and innocence, this major theme in the work helps us recognize that sex is not the opposite of the sacred but rather a manifestation of it, surprising us with true passion even when our appetites are at their most lustful. And while the scenes can occasionally get a bit repetitive, the book is still all the more powerful with the inclusion of this important theme.
In the milieu of Two Natures, sex is a refuge and reassurance, at once dangerous and companionable, an assertion of togetherness and belonging in a wider culture that rebuffs and ridicules.
Occasionally, I did find myself searching for something different to occur in the novel though, for the story to take narrative paths that aren’t too similar. There are fights and falling outs, failures and successes aplenty, but I kept clawing for a bit more variety to keep me cued in. And, while Julian is a truly memorable character, I didn’t always believe that his emotions are his own, since his self-reports always seem like they are happening to someone else.
Yet, Two Natures taught me a lot about New York’s gay community and the awful pressures it faced in the 1990s. It’s an enlightening and challenging novel that is often compelling and always frank. Above all, it is a book for all readers with a love of fine writing, witty repartee, and genuine feeling.
Publisher: Saddle Road Press
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