Coming out isn’t always easy. And it isn’t always by choice. One encounter on a fateful afternoon leads to a lifetime of alienation and discontent for Kyle Turner, the central character in this debut novel by Lucian Childs. In elegant, emotionally resonant prose, Childs creates a nuanced and sensitive portrait of a life shaped by loss, abandonment, and generational trauma.
In Dreaming Home, Childs (who previously edited an anthology of LGBTQ+ Alaskan authors and is now based in Toronto) assembles a novel-in-stories; versions of five of the book’s six sections have been previously published as short fiction. They span several decades and are variously set in Texas, California, and Florida, vividly evoking a sense of place, particularly the segments that take place in San Francisco in the midst of the AIDS crisis.
It’s 1977 in Killeen, Texas, and teenage Rachel catches her older brother Kyle in the treehouse looking at a male pinup magazine, which he is using to sketch nude life drawings. Rachel snatches the mag and it winds up in their father’s hands, hands he soon uses on Kyle: “Dad yanked Kyle by his long hair into the living room and started whaling on him. Not with the belt, like usual, but with his fists.” Kyle and Rachel’s father, a military man battling his own demons since Vietnam, gay-bashes his son with great brutality. In the aftermath, Kyle is sent to “the Ministry,” an intense and hyper-religious organization for young men, designed to “pray the gay away.”
Scenes in the Ministry are shot through with a mix of shame and sexual tension. Far from being “cured,” Kyle meets his first lover at the Ministry and is eventually expelled. From there, we follow him to San Francisco, where he initially experiences homelessness, before getting involved with a much older man, and then later, a much younger lover. A witness to these relationships is Kyle’s mother Diane, who abandons her husband, chafing at the strictures of being a military wife, and moves to San Francisco to be with her son. Kyle’s younger lover, Jason, attempts a reconciliation between Kyle and his sister Rachel; the effort is a spectacular failure.
In Kyle, Childs has created a character who is not particularly agreeable. Lacking formal education, Kyle uses his good looks and muscular body as social capital; he manages to get to the gym even while homeless. In relationships, he is simultaneously jealous and insecure, while sexually withholding from his partners. Through his involvement with a man 26 years his senior, and in a mentorship with a straight architect who helps his career, Kyle seems to strive for the idealized father-son relationship that he lacked growing up. Thematically sophisticated, Dreaming Home also explores persistent issues in the gay male community such as sexual racism and the disparagement of older men.
Kyle may not be likeable, but in Childs’s competent hands, the character is understandable. And with the rising tide of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and legislation we are currently experiencing, Kyle’s fate is a very timely reminder of what can happen when the lives of queer youth are subjugated and squelched.