OVER TWO DECADES AGO, Kathleen Norris published Dakota, a wonderfully poetic and ruminative memoir about life on the Great Plains from a spiritual point of view. Now comes Taylor Brorby’s Boys and Oil, an equally contemplative book, this time attempting to capture the experience of growing up gay in that beautiful but bleak environment.
As Brorby writes, the Great Plains makes one observant, and that he certainly is as he painstakingly details the subtle color gradations of a prairie sunset: “The dome of the sky smolders cerulean, sapphire, indigo, crimson, amber, saffron, lavender, periwinkle, and plum.” It is also a landscape where things can turn on a dime, and not just the weather—things like the quiet bar with Hank Williams playing on the jukebox, old-timers drinking in the shadows, the sharp crack of billiard balls. It all sounds very pleasant and peaceful, until suddenly it isn’t.
Probably someone who didn’t grow up gay in a small town can never understand the constant need to hide, the ever-present sense of danger, and the persistent feeling of shame thrust upon them for who they are. Brorby realizes at a tender age—as most gay and lesbian people do—that to survive in the world, he’ll have to hide what he actually likes. He recalls secretly watching Will & Grace in the basement with the volume turned low, and would quickly change the channel whenever anybody came in. He takes up wrestling because it’s the only way a boy is permitted to touch another boy—that is, adversarially, with only power and subjugation of the other as the goal.
“To live on the prairie,” Brorby writes, “is to be hunted, whether by a coyote, by a pack of boys, or by the sting of loneliness.”
Dale Boyer’s latest work is Columbus in the New World: Selected Poems (OhBoyBooks).