Binding the God Ursine Essays from the Mountain South
by Jeff Mann
Bear Bones Books (Lethe Press). 231 pages, $15.
“A WRITER’S OBSESSIONS are more obvious than most,” explains Jeff Mann in the opening sentence of Binding the God: Ursine Essays from the Mountain South. In this collection of seventeen first- person essays, the Lambda Literary Award-winner delineates his many passions, including a voracious leather-bear appetite for BDSM, an ardent fantasy affair with “Major Country-Music Boyfriend Tim McGraw,” and his love for the American South, especially his native Appalachian Mountains.
An assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech, Mann teaches creative writing and can tell a good story, as is evidenced by his fluid and vivid writing style. But obsessions, which usually make for interesting reading, whether in a Shakespearean drama, a Harlequin romance, or even a Manhunt profile, become tiresome when an author states and restates his fixations too often. Mann repeats themes and details so many times, it can feel like an assault on one’s patience—or an insult to one’s intelligence.
For example, the author’s first mention of his Wiccan faith makes sense, since Mann is delineating his personal beliefs. But the fifth or sixth repetition of this fact grows wearisome, as does his incessant recapitulation of his Celtic heritage, his issues with fundamentalist Christianity, his lust over singer McGraw (mentioned over fifteen times, not including an entire chapter on the subject), and his desire to appear butch or masculine (I stopped counting). While the self-proclaimed “Unreconstructed Queer” only defends the Confederate flag twice (“Heritage, not Hate,” he exclaims), it’s still two times too many for me.
Fourteen of these pieces have been published previously, but it appears little or no editing went into this project as a whole. Expository information needed at the beginning of a stand-alone essay should have been eliminated after the first or second mention in this assemblage.
The best chapters are those on “the bear life.” In an essay about his worship of the “Holy Bear Trinity of Beards, Body Hair, and Brawn,” Mann’s examination of his attraction to the ursine subculture is engaging. His reminiscences about his undergraduate study of forestry and a budding sexual desire for hirsute men can be entertaining, such as when he recalls the first day in a senior year mammalogy course, when, as the professor highlights the distinguishing traits of mammals, Mann finds himself aroused by a shaggy classmate. The revelation hits him that three of the four mammalian characteristics mentioned in class—warm blood, fur, and nipples—are features in men that give him a sexual charge. (He “didn’t care” about the fourth, live birth.) It’s an interesting observation that Mann carries further by pointing out that on some level furriness represents “our inner beast.”
A published poet, Mann has an eye for detail that gives his occasional sex scenes a sense of verisimilitude. For example, his anecdote about initiating a curious and willing neophyte into the dark arts in “Bondage Tape in Budapest” shimmers with playful eroticism. “I almost never get to play with an uncircumcised cock,” Mann writes, “and when I do, I’m like a bright-eyed child with a new toy.”
The writer merits respect for his unflinching honesty, such as an accounting of an illicit affair with an already-partnered man, and the grief Mann suffered upon his lover’s departure. However, it is impossible to review this book without mentioning Mann’s disturbingly brutal candor concerning his inner fantasies, particularly during descriptions of severe sadomasochism. In the chapter entitled “How To Be a Country Leather Bear,” Mann praises one artist for his “arousing images of muscle bears bound, gagged, tortured, and raped.” In the final chapter, “Binding the God,” he daydreams about stripping, chaining, and gagging a swarthy high school friend, stating, “I would beat him till he bled, till his body was wracked with sobs.” In the next sentence, he adds that because of his interest in vampires, “the blood tasted good licked from his [friend’s] broad back.” Later, he writes of a handsome bartender, “I wanted to bind him, gag him, suck him, fuck him. I wanted to eat him, drink him, incorporate him, make him a part of me. Like an Aztec priest, I wanted to hold his heart in my hands.”
Mann’s relish here starts to sound Dahmer-esque. Sexual assault, sanguinary torture, and cannibalism—even if only imagined in sex play—are only the most disturbing features of this repetitive, obsessive book.
Court Stroud lives in New York City where he teaches a college prep literature course at GMHC’s G.E.D. adult education program.