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Cumberland

by Michael V. Smith

Closeted gay men can suffer excruciatingly, especially in society’s rougher quarters. Where platonic love between working men is still viewed with suspicion, romantic and/or sexual love is most certainly taboo. A challenge to that taboo is at the heart of Michael V. Smith’s first novel, Cumberland.

Set amongst mill-working society in the small Ontario city of the same name, Cumberland follows the lives of four people over one summer. Ernest is a morose, divorced mill worker in his early fifties, tormented by secrets. Bea is a lonely, 43-year-old bar waitress who is attracted to Ernest. Aaron is the young son of Ernest’s drinking buddy, Nick (a “cable guy” and recent widower). Amanda is Aaron’s 17-year-old babysitter and Bea’s impressionable, selfish roommate.

Looping the narrative perspective from one character to the next, Smith strings a fairly intricate web between these folks. Ernest and Bea sleep together, then he moves into her apartment. Ernest, however, leads a double life, cruising gay men at a local park. Aaron, meanwhile, takes up with a bully named Fletcher, who manipulates him into sexual play. Amanda, estranged from her family, falls in love with Nick.

Smith’s writing shines occasionally, but his story never rises far above melodrama. Wanting to address the issue of love between men, and of sexual tolerance in general, Smith contrives a scenario to which he can be puppet master. He has Ernest fall in love with the utterly flavourless, heterosexual Nick. He has Amanda discover Aaron and Fletcher’s sex play. He gives Ernest a haunting past involving a dead son. Amanda confides in Ernest. Aaron runs away. Bring on catharsis.

By the end of the novel the reader is far ahead of Smith’s dilatory, cyclical pacing. Like the reverse of an exercise in social anthropology, Smith crams his characters into sociological moulds, rather than letting reality rise from the forces of their lives. Thus, with lamentable irony, he belittles the suffering of real people, and his novel disintegrates into movie-of-the-week clichés of tearful group hugs and dirty old men offering children candy.