Unmentionables by David Greene is set in the American Civil War south and recounts the intertwining stories of two couples, Jimmy and Cato, who are gay, black, and enslaved, and Dorothy and William, who are straight, white, and wealthy. If this time period and subject matter seem a tad too distant to relate to your present 21st century lives, fret not. History in this work is used masterfully to transform the specific into the universal. Unmentionables is about love - romantic and otherwise.
Take for instance a conversation that Cato has with Erastus Hicks, a traveling painter from Pennsylvania who arrives at the Tennessee property of Augustus Askew, the slave's master, to paint a portrait of Lucille, Augustus's wife. Cato is engaged to assist Erastus on his commission. When he asks the artist why he paints, Erastus replies:
"It has something to do with yearning...yearning to get hold of what I see. Sometimes I'm overcome, Cato, truly...When I look at this world and see it, I wonder if what I see...is this what others see too?...Because I think if others saw it as I did, they too would be compelled to take up paints and brushes-to try to rope the magnificence of this world onto a canvas...just to try to get hold of it..."
Erastus is later implicated in the romance of William Askew (the son of Augustus and Lucille) and Dorothy (whose parents own Jimmy, Cato's eventual love interest). Erastus's acute perception of the world recurs throughout the novel and seems to mirror that of the book's author, David Greene, who writes with exceptional insight about both the human and non-human condition. In the following excerpt, for example, Mr. Greene provides a wonderful description of how the character named Venus, who happens to be a dog, looks upon her two-legged, upright friends:
"Then again, all humans were at a disadvantage. Walking as they did with their noses so high up off the ground, one could hardly expect them to catch most of the essence of the world. For what was the earth if not a sniffable, whiffable, smorgasbord? The world was a bouquet of fumes and traces, redolent, spicy, sometimes sweet or savory, sometimes foul or fetid. There were stinks of rot-and there were lovely perfumes. There were damp smells like creek water, or wet grass, or spring mud. There were dry smells like hay in the hot sun, or the grainy, dusty smell of weeds, browned and dessicated from days without water. There were exciting erotic smells of urine, sweat and body aromas: those powerful, heady wafts that brought the atoms of one body into the nose of another. How could humans not read these sexual signatures, the intimate imprint, the very particular smell of each being, traveling like a cloud of emissions, the fumes of physicality, dragged in a trail of musk behind all creatures?"
Mr. Greene's great appreciation of all that is sensual is equaled by his intellectual understanding of relationships that cross established racial, social, sexual, and political boundaries. In a style that is straightforward without being encyclopedic, poetic without being over-embellished, and informative without being didactic, he achieves that balance of form and content required for a successful, and, in this case, beautiful work of art. When Erastus explains to Dorothy why he has chosen his itinerant lifestyle, he states:
"As I said before, so much that is beautiful in life happens in an instant. But one must contrive to be in the right place at the right time and have one's eyes open."
For me, one of those instants began when I received my copy of Unmentionables.