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Hot Valley is just hot...
on 26 August 2007
For some reason, I got the impression that 'Hot Valley' was going to be more serious than James Lear's earlier work. I was wrong -- up to a point. Readers whose experience begins with his previous novel, 'The Back Passage', might be surprised at a difference in tone here; but if you've read 'The Low Road' or 'The Palace of Varieties', you'll discover a familiar Lear theme; the selfish, wanton young man, indulging in wild and indiscriminate gay sex until he's finally redeemed by the pricking of conscience and the cleansing salve of love.
Jack Edgerton is the scion of a rich Vermont family, sowing his wild oats - and believe me, they're wild - in the years just before the American Civil War. One of my favourite episodes has the nineteen-year-old Jack, determined to lose his virginity, going in search of the roughest of rough trade on the wrong side of the tracks. And so beginning a wonderful career of debauchery.
Later, he meets his match, in all senses, in Aaron Johnson, the son of a southern plantation owner and a slave woman. Aaron is everything Jack is not; studious, hard-working, thoughtful and restrained. (Though not for the whole book, you'll be glad to hear.)
Inexorably, both men get drawn into the war, and Jack's long journey to salvation begins. I know a bit about this period, and it all felt very authentic to me. Lear has a great broad-brush technique; he doesn't bombard the reader with historical information - something which must have been a temptation here. But the picture he creates is vivid. Yes, the preponderance of willing homosexual partners is wonderfully coincidental, but then it's a gay fantasy; one might say a historical fairy story. And indeed, some amazing coincidences are needed to make the story work, but somehow it doesn't matter too much.
Most of Lear's readers will buy this book for its sexual passages, and they won't be disappointed. This is real, raw sex; full of pain and pleasure, tastes, sounds, smells and bodily fluids. It's raunchy, rough and utterly without restraint.
But there is a serious aspect. After all, the themes are war and racism and prejudice, and Lear doesn't dodge them. Given the nature of his writing, there's something endearingly naïve about the simple moral message the story conveys. But the frankly sentimental and deeply satisfying ending is rescued from mawkishness, in typical Lear style, by the introduction of a wild orgy.
His prose is simple and flowing; easy, clear sentences which are a pleasure to read.
Readers will know how likely they are to be affected by the sex scenes; my advice would be not to read 'Hot Valley' on the Metropolitan line, or indeed, any other form of mass transport. And if, like me, you're assailed by sudden tears at times of emotion, that's another reason not to read it in public.
But do read it. This is Lear at his outrageous, raunchy best.