MAN ON THE BRIDGE
By Stephen Benatar
ISBN 13 978-1-62798-869-8
It was interesting to me to see Dreamspinner Pressbranch out into more serious literature with Stephen Benatar’s MAN ON THE BRIDGE. I had heard comments about the imprint Bittersweet Dreams but this went beyond that to something actually important. The novel is neither HEA (happily ever after) nor HFN (happily for now) but addresses a great deal of pain and redemption in the final analysis. I applaud Dreamspinner Press for producing this fifth edition of this remarkable, may I say, astounding novel.
John Wilmot meets the suave and rich Oliver Cambourne when he is no more than 19 in the year 1958 and quickly becomes his lover. They reminded me of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, with the older man’s affection for the younger and the callousness of the younger man’s selfish regard in return. There is a great deal of witty badinage in the first third of the book as Oliver and John jet about, almost literally, on Oliver’s checkbook, to Biarritz, and with no responsibility for John paying for anything. One gets the sense that John in his way really cares about Oliver, but he talks himself into betraying the older man, with dire consequences. That may sound like the plot of the novel but it is in fact about John’s guilt at those dire consequences and how he manages to deal with what he has done.
Benatar does an astounding job of showing the good and bad sides not only of the youthfully selfish John but the overcompensating Oliver who manages to belittle and demean John by turning him into a pet. The gray areas of the mutual affection are quite well portrayed. Even when John has moved on to his new life the selfishness and callousness keeps coming through. What Oliver has done more wholly punishes John and one is left wondering if Oliver did that on purpose. My eyes grew wider and wider as I realized just how poetic the justice was. If John can find redemption given all that has happened, it will be a remarkable accomplishment.
One point made is that John does not believe he is homosexual and, in fact, marries a woman with whom he has a satisfying sex life. That it is little more than that says more about the importance of the two man’s relationship than if John had only been interested in sex with the woman. He is bisexual, yes, but that’s not the point of his bond with the important person in his life. This may b the case with a huge number of people living now, but we are so polarized that we mistakenly insist on the either-or.
That all this happens at the time of the Wolfenden Report when the British finally realized how devastating their laws against homo sexual acts were is no coincidence. The creative and artistic community in Britain took a very hard blow from its sensitive same sex loving man being imprisoned while the death penalty for murder was outlawed. The irony of these two bits of jurisprudence comes through with the actions of the main characters. Early in novel the “man on the bridge” is a painting by Oliver of a young man arrested for, tried for, found guilty for and executed for a murdered he did not commit simply, it is implied, because the real murderer was his male lover. This single image informs the ironies, injustice and cruelties of the entire story. It is painful to realize how recent this all took place.
Benatar handles all the excruciating details with sensitivity but lets the injustice hit the reader nonetheless. This is not a novel that one will easily recover from, no less forget...