I've read many reviews of WITD over the past couple of months, and I admit thinking that surely it can't be as good as people were saying. Even though the people saying it were mainly my peers. people from The Macaronis and Speak Its Name, people whose own writing and opinion I value highly. I think that's because I'm the same about any review, be it a film or book or TV programme-I'll take reviews on board, but I'll generally watch or read it anyway.
I wasn't, therefore, expecting to be as impressed as I was.
Whistling in the Dark has a fairly simple premise, a young man from Kansas moves to New York. In this we have a classic set-up for the "innocent abroad" except in this case, Sutton Albright isn't really quite as much of the innocent as he appears. He's a little too serious, gay, just been expelled from school for an affair with a teacher and before that he had been serving in France in the first world war. Although ostensibly relatively undamaged on the outside, he carries the darkness of war with him, buried deep. He's the son of a wealthy man, and his surname betrays this to all he meets, although he's penniless and doesn't talk about his past, immediate or otherwise. Down to his last pennies, he lands a job at Ida's diner and tries to settle down.
Next door lives Jack Bailey, a careless ne'er do well, who has taken over his parents' novelty store and is struggling to start his own radio station to boot. With these two characters in place, the book could have progressed in a predictable manner, to be read and forgotten as many romances are but it does not do that.
Ms Allen herself calls this a "cuddly romance," and I have to disagree with her. Yes-granted-on the surface that's one level. It works well as a romance, and the journey that the young men take has the necessary ups and downs along the way; but I can understand why Lethe grabbed this book with both hands, because it's SO much more than a "cuddly romance." Ms Allen does not shy from introducing a huge cast of characters: from Ida the grumpy suspicious diner owner, to the myriad homosexuals in various joints that Jack flits between-each one a distinct personality, to the neighbourhood thugs, attempting to claw their way up the social ladder and better themselves. There are a lot of issues dealt with in this book. Shell-shock, homophobia, the influenza epidemic, the beginning of Prohibition, the birth of commercial radio, the gay scene in 1920's New York...Just to mention a few. However these are not overdone, they bend and shape the story and the characters, they do not break them and it in this that Ms Allen achieves a hugely realistic story of a world of Bright Young Things and wannabe BYTs that has gone forever.
I felt-and that may be because of the war theme, and the time period covered-the ghosts of Renault and Fitzgerald in this book, the dialogue is beautifully brittle, hiding much, saying little, even the love scenes are almost as repressed in private as they are in public. The party scenes are delicious: jazz, champagne (always present, even if it means not eating) and tuxedos. I quite fell in love with Theo, Ox, and Woody, but you'll have to buy the book to meet all of them.
With this book, a further step has been taken. It might only be a small step-although if there is any justice in this world it should be bigger and this book should get the accolades and attention it deserves-but Ms Allen has proven without a doubt, that not only that women can write great gay romances, but great gay fiction.