THE TITLE of Marshall Moore’s debut novel, The Concrete Sky, brings to mind the title of Paul Bowles’s classic novel, The Sheltering Sky. In that work, Bowles portrays three Americans adrift in the North African desert who ultimately destroy themselves because of their lack of knowledge of the terrain—and a lack of comprehension of the motives of the native characters they encounter. While Moore’s novel cannot match Bowles’s poetic prose about a Saharan walkabout, he has created a credible story of characters adrift in their own desert, failing to comprehend the events going on around them that will lead ultimately to death, destruction, and psychological horror on a Grand Guignol scale. Moore also injects a fair bit of humor into the mix, which helps balance the often macabre underpinnings of the story.
The novel begins with twenty-something Chad Sobran accidentally falling off a balcony (at a party he didn’t want to attend in the first place) and being committed to a mental institution in Washington, D.C., by his brother Martin, a homophobic stalker. Chad has attempted suicide in the past, and Martin is obsessed with becoming his brother’s keeper for reasons that aren’t explained until much later in the book. Indeed, this delay is one of the failings of this novel. What Martin did to drive Chad to the first suicide attempt is so mind-boggling, it’s amazing that Chad is not already in a psycho ward.
The novel’s pace soon accelerates and heads into controversy when Chad hooks up with an underage patient named Jonathan (who’s almost eighteen). We learn that the rest of the patients on the ward are on their guard because they believe that Jonathan is killing other patients who get on his nerves. Jonathan’s incarceration, after all, is based on claims by his wealthy father that he had gone on a shooting rampage, killing his mother and then trying to kill himself. This doesn’t stop Chad and Jonathan from embarking on a torrid affair in the hospital, exchanging witty, sometimes hackneyed, bon mots at machine-gun pace, and cautiously falling in love. Once they’re sprung from the nuthatch, Moore throws the book into a new gear and sends Chad on a road trip that takes him into another heart of darkness, his Mayberry-gone-to-seed North Carolina hometown, where he’s to care for his dying mother. Chad arrives to find momma Mona in a lung-cancer-induced coma. Mona has left behind her last wishes for her son: he is to pull the plug on her life-support in exchange for some money that she had secretly hoarded over the years. Jonathan mysteriously shows up to continue the heated affair and help Chad find the hidden money without having to commit matricide.
When Mona turns up dead shortly thereafter, the police want Chad for questioning. Chad races back to Washington, waffling between his love for Jonathan and his fear that the young man is a killer, given all the evidence pointing to the lad as the murderer of his family, a number of mental patients, and now perhaps Chad’s own mom. Once back in D.C., Chad finds his fag hag roommate murdered and his brother Martin drunk and homicidal, ready to take Chad back to the mental hospital or the morgue, whichever comes first.
It’s not until the last quarter of the novel that Moore introduces a grisly twist into the story. It’s a good one, but could have been foreshadowed a little earlier so as not to come as such a sucker punch. From this revelation the book rushes headlong to its conclusion, and I do mean headlong. Loose ends are tied up too quickly, and a gauzy, riding-into-the-sunset ending on a river in Istanbul is supplied, but it’s a conclusion that belongs in some other book, not one rife with mental disorders, rape, and gruesome deaths.
What saves this novel from farce is the character of Chad Sobran. While the things going on around him may strain credulity, Chad is one of the best realized gay characters in recent memory. His financial troubles from his younger days as a carefree party boy are now coming back to haunt him. He is adrift in a sea of temp jobs and living with a roommate with hardly any possessions to call his own. He has essentially been pushed off the circuit party, pretty-boy wheel, and must now face the reality of getting older and learning to lead a normal life. Chad’s disillusionment, his inability to find love, and his broken home all ring plausible for a modern gay male.
Moore also writes good dialogue (and occasionally overwrites it), and gives his characters their own sense of self. Jonathan’s suspected homicidal tendencies give way to a fairly credible tale of how someone so young has wound up in a mental hospital, and the comatose mother hangs over the proceedings—despite the fact that she’s in a coma through the whole story—like a cloud of smoke from the cigarettes that ultimately kill her. Chad’s memories of his impoverished youth, his single mother, and her loose morals and lack of parental skills are deftly conveyed.
The Concrete Sky is a bona fide page-turner, one of those stories that could go in just about any direction and ultimately does. Despite the sometimes implausible plot turns, Moore makes you care about his boys on the run and offers satisfaction that two mismatched people can find each other despite the chaos in their lives. Moore may not be Paul Bowles, but he has an eye for pulling back the veneer of deeply troubled lives and making them breathe deeply and face the challenges before them.
Collin Kelley, managing editor of Atlanta Intown magazine, recently came out with his first book of poetry, Better to Travel.