Reviewed by Nathaniel Drenner
This literary novel bursts at the seams with humanity.
Some writers cultivate a lack of belonging. Only by being on the outside, the thinking goes, can one produce truly clear-eyed, groundbreaking work. But what happens to an outsider without an anchor, an artist without a vision? Are we ever truly free from our obligations to each other, or to ourselves? Jonathan Harper’s You Don’t Belong Here ponders such thoughts while exploring a character who is lost in more ways than one.
The novel follows Morris, an aimless writer who finds himself stranded in small-town America after a week at an artists’ colony. He unexpectedly encounters a man from his past, setting off a series of tragicomic events involving a power outage, a lost wallet, questionable locals, and far too much alcohol. Every time Morris thinks he will be able to return home to Washington, D.C., a new obstacle appears. He doesn’t belong in this place, but it will not let him go.
“He grabbed his clothes by the handful and crammed them into his duffel bag, gathered up the loose trash and beer cans, sped washed the dishes, all while thinking about the heaviness of Yasmin’s scowl. Let there be enough time. He offered a little prayer. Please don’t let me miss my flight.”
In his personal life Morris is a man who wanders through relationships with both men and women, but rural America, as a whole, is no friend to those identifying as LGBTQ+. He is stuck in a town full of contradictions. On the surface it is welcoming. Underneath it is uncertain at best, threatening at worst. Morris finds charity and peril at a local pub. The sheriff maintains his own definition of order, at a cost. A site dubbed the Oasis by the local gay community does not live up to its name. Morris cannot rest anywhere too long—he needs to trust but can only trust so far.
Harper is a stylist, imbuing scenes with tension and eloquence. Rich in detail, the writing is particularly strong at evoking a sense of place. Though the town is never named, its character materializes in the descriptions of specific locales and the people who inhabit them. Reading this novel is a deep sensory experience. It is a pleasure to inhabit.
“The streets were clogged with a parade of cars, in which ghost-faced children stared out the back windows, waving at no one in particular. The B&Bs had gone silent and dark and were shuttered as if abandoned. Even the trees were patchy with bright oranges and reds, a reminder that the promiscuity of summer had finally ended.”
This town is where Henry, Morris’s friend, has landed. Henry is a complicated figure, immature and distasteful on a number of levels but intriguing and sympathetic on others. Having faced both overt and implicit abuse in this place, he does not belong there either but has nowhere else to go. He is a mirror and a warning for Morris: the man Morris could become if he stays put, the man Morris could have been had he chosen a different path in life. Even though the two spend far more time apart than together, their relationship forms the core of the novel. It is a relationship based on thrill, restlessness, sex, and estrangement.
Morris’s own flaws are more subtle than Henry’s, but no less present. He lacks dedication to himself, his work, and his partner Yasmin back in D.C. Even his novel, ostensibly the reason for the trip, is rarely mentioned. Morris is aware of this all-too-real deficit. While he may not have become like Henry, forlorn and destitute, he has not become much else, either. Sometimes we want to tell him to push past his anxieties and challenge his comfort zone; other times we wish he would listen more to his internal brakes. These contradictions make for a fascinating character worthy of exploration.
“He wanted to tell Henry about his life, to wallow in that painful nostalgia for those nights when they had loitered in cafes for endless hours, talking about anything and everything. He wanted to feel sentimental and for it to hurt, if not emotionally scar, one of them or both. ‘I’ve missed you,’ he said aloud. ‘Even if you were an asshole.’
Harper gives us fully realized, well-drawn characters, especially in the duo at the heart of the story. This novel is filled with humanity, beautifully written on every page. With strong pacing and development, it succeeds in depicting lost souls who need to be set free in order to find a way home.
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