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Alec Clayton Art and Writing
ELDER ROMANCE AND SERIAL KILLINGS AT BARNEY'S WETSIDE PUB Romance blossoms at Barney's Pub between Alex, a leftwing Democrat, and Jim, a Libertarian-leaning Republican - old friends from half a century ago. Meantime, someone is killing off all the old drag queens, and Jim may be the only person who can catch the killer ... if he doesn't become the next victim.
Reunion at the Wetside is a love story and a murder mystery. Alex, an attractive, elderly left-wing Democrat, meets Jim, a Libertarian Republican, in Barney's Pub shortly before the 2008 presidential election. They are old friends who haven't seen each other in half a century, and despite their best efforts to avoid it -- not to mention their political differences -- they fall in love.
As their affair is playing out there is a string of murders in the town of Wetside, Washington. All of the old drag queens who use to perform at Barney's are being killed and Jim thinks he knows who the killer is. He thinks he can prove it ... if he doesn't become the next victim.
If a murder mystery were to be set in Wetside the murder would have to take place under the bare red bulb in the well at the entrance to Barney’s. On a rainy night. Picture a black body as two-dimensional as a paper doll face down in black black water, the blood like an oil slick as bright as neon.
Inside are plush leather booths and an antique redwood bar salvaged from a nineteenth century saloon in San Francisco and hauled north on a flatbed trailer. Behind the bar hangs a huge, ornately framed mirror, pitted and distorted. A profusion of flower pots hangs from heavy wooden beams above the bar, doubled by the mirror. Music comes from a 1950s-style jukebox loaded with 45-rpm singles from that era—rockabilly from the old Sun studios, Carl Perkins, Elvis, Jerry Lee—plus lots of Broadway show tunes and a smattering of Fats Domino and Little Richard, and the undisputable local favorite, “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen. Lounging against the back wall are cardboard figures of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis in a gold lamé suit, Rock Hudson and Doris Day. There are no beer ads or commercial messages of any kind, but on the night when Jim Bright showed up there was a single political poster featuring a pop art portrait of Barack Obama. It hung over the booth where Alex was seated.
Calling Barney’s a gay bar is something of a stretch, even if they do have drag shows once a week. It would be more accurate to call it a bohemian bar, a hangout for artsy types. Alex Martin was not a lesbian and never had been, unless you count a bit of experimenting back in college and that one summer when she and Mary Elizabeth Lucious shared a cabin at Camp Butterfly, which if you asked Mary Elizabeth about, she’d deny on a stack of bibles. Sometimes Alex wished she was a lesbian. Or black, or Native; anything but white. She liked her self: her looks and her mind, but she was not proud of being a member of the privileged and exploitive class. She frequented Barney’s because that’s where the most interesting people hung out. Wednesday night is drag night. It’s the lowest of lowbrow camp and really raunchy. Fridays is cabaret night. Singers, mostly jazz and folk. One of her favorites was a sultry jazz singer named Amanda Bright. Alex realized that the singer’s last name being the same as Jim’s was pure coincidence, but seeing Jim at the bar was what made her think about her. She hadn’t seen her in a while. To Alex it seemed like just a few months ago, but she realized it must have been years.
It was a week before the 2008 presidential election when she first spotted Jim Bright in Barney’s. Seeing him just slammed her right back to the dreaded years of high school.
Reunion at the Wetside
reviewed by Amos LassenAlec Clayton who wrote the very funny "The Backside of Nowhere" is back with a new book, "Reunion at the Westside", a murder mystery and a love story. It all begins at Barney's Pub in Washington State when Alex Martin reunites with Jim Bright. Jim is a right-wing Republican while Alex is a left wing Democrat and they had been friends some fifty years earlier. One would think that these two would have no future together but despite their political affiliations, they fall in love. Just about the same time a string of murders began and former performers at Barney's (drag queens) were being picked off.
Clayton draws us into the book immediately with a mooning in a courtroom and it gets wilder as the story continues. With an epic cast of characters who come and go, this tale of romance between two elderly lovers is one of the most fun reads I have had in a long time. I laughed through "Backside" and was not expecting to have a repeat occasion to do so but I was wrong. Clayton uses his wit to give us, of all things, a murder mystery and it is replete with twists and turns as well as romantic interludes. There are subplots and more subplots in this amazing novel.
Jim thinks he knows who is responsible for the killings and the only thing that might hamper him in catching him is that he might be killed first. We see that the past is not easily forgotten in this novel because it rears itself again. In such a preposterous set-up, one would think that this novel is a bit "far-out" but the opposite is true. Clayton gives us characters that he has drawn with skill and I found myself rooting for our heroes while trying out how to figure out who committed the murders. This is a fun read that is skillfully written and wonderfully related and just the perfect book for one of these cool autumn nights.
People and Mystery
"The Wetside" is what Washington-states call the part of the state west of the Cascades. It's also the name of a fictional town and the iconic bar of that town in Alec Clayton's new mystery novel, "Reunion at the Wetside." There's a series of killings which the two main protagonists gradually realize are the work of a serial murderer. Sixtyish Alex Martin meets again and falls in love with her sixtyish long-lost school chum (and sometimes antagonist) Jim Bright, the former holder of the state record for the mile. She would be considered left of center, and he's a (libertarian) Republican.
But before you start making assumptions, you should know that there has been a regular drag queen show at The Wetside bar ever since the sixties, one of the bar's most popular features, and that the serial killing victims have all been female impersonators who have appeared in the show, and that Republican Jim Bright was one of the stars of that show when he was young, still legendary after all these years.
And that he may be the intended next victim.
This is a more complex and more satisfying account of humans involved in a murder mystery than you may be accustomed to. The story turns out to be a history of the town. The neighbors, the kids that Alex and Jim played among, the crazy affairs, the man with two wives, the cops--it all percolates and simmers. There are reveals you never see coming, but it's fair to say you will applaud the unveiling of the culprit, and you will not be surprised but the ending won't be anti-climactic.
That's because this is a mystery with a difference. These are real people with real lives, not the cardboard cliches of most mystery fiction. No stereotypes allowed. Jim may have been a highly successful drag queen, but he's all male. And so it goes.
In retrospect, the murders pretty obviously grow out of the vindictiveness of some, the confusion of others, the mistaken assumptions of the times, and more. That's where the satisfaction of the book comes from. It isn't the satisfaction of the loud click of an empty mechanism. It's the double satisfaction of reading a full-blooded mystery and a true account of human nature at the same time.
Past Secrets and Current Crimes
reviewed by D. Cloyce Smith
Now in her sixties, Alex Martin has the astonishing luck of running into her teenage crush--in a gay bar. (The description of their reunion is one of the best set pieces in the book.) Fortunately for Alex, Jim Bright turns out to be straight, unmarried, and gay-friendly--but he has a secret. And it's not that he's a diehard Republican ready to challenge anything a leftwing activist like Alex might have to say.
Alec Clayton's latest effort invites a few comparisons to his previous novel, "The Backside of Nowhere." Although the setting has changed (from Mississippi to Washington State), both stories feature a couple that reunites, rekindles a romance, and looks back with both nostalgia and mortification to their high school days. In the first, a cataclysm brings things to a head; in "Reunion at the Wetside," there's a serial killer on the loose.
But where the narrative of the masterfully told "Backside" was focused and its characters were larger than life, "Reunion" seems scattered and its cast is a bit far-flung and sometimes indistinguishable. Part of the problem is the book's very structure; the faux newspaper clippings, informally chatty blog posts (with comments), and similar interpolations give the entire work a scrapbook feel, like a high school yearbook in which the memories and the jokes mean more to the participants than to the observers. In addition, there is a stridency here that is often misplaced; the stultifying political arguments over the 2008 election, while somewhat (and sadly) realistic, are overdone, and the descriptive homilies on LGBT issues and history, meant to be edifying and supportive, seem oddly defensive and discursive and resemble so much preaching to the choir.
These shortcomings and asides, however, are occasional distractions rather than essential elements of the fiction. There's far more to this book than high school memories and political arguments, and ultimately Alex and Jim--along with their unlikely (but wholly believable) adventures and romance--make up the core that holds this book together.
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