Impotence is very hard to capture in fiction. Notwithstanding Martin Amis’s famous line about trying to squeeze an oyster into a parking meter, the effects of erectile difficulties on one’s sex life rarely make it into even the most male-focused literature. But it’s a topic that Aaron Shepard tackles head on in his sparkling debut novel. His protagonist, a struggling Ph.D. candidate in ethnography named Paul Rasmussen, uncommonly contracts prostate cancer while still in his early thirties. The subsequent surgery leaves him both impotent and incontinent, which becomes an extended metaphor in this tale about small-town powerlessness in the face of corporate greed.
Paul’s cancer diagnosis is as close as Shepard’s novel comes to improbability. With highly polished and hyper-realistic prose, the author unwinds a story involving Paul temporarily leaving academic life to take a job counting fish in the fictional British Columbia community of Immitoin Valley. Paul battles isolation and his damaged masculinity by striking up a tentative romance with a single mother named Gina. In the process, he becomes embroiled in the community’s tragic past: a part of the valley was flooded to make way for a hydroelectric dam, displacing several of its citizens. This history becomes Paul’s new ethnographic focus, but he soon learns just how difficult it is to get the citizens of a small community to be honest about the history of their hometown.
Virtually every beat of Shepard’s prose is bang on. His sharp dialogue, well-drawn characters, and incisive descriptions work to make this tale highly believable. He captures both the sclerotic inanity of grad school and the insularity of small-town life with equal gusto. The novel is tightly plotted, yet leaves room for convincing moments of reflection.
What really stands out is how Paul’s battle with his physical impotence affects both his sense of masculinity and his relationship with Gina. Their painstakingly slow march toward a sexual relationship is the most heartbreaking aspect of this novel. When Is a Man is both gripping and sad – a tale full of tenderness and tension.