Today I’m hosting the first guest post of 2022 and it’s a huge pleasure to welcome fellow Muswell Press author Jon Ransom whose debut novel The Whale Tattoo joins their superb LGBTQ list this week. I discovered Jon’s writing last autumn when we both had work included in the Queer Life, Queer Love anthology. His short story A History of Sheds made me sit bolt upright practically from the first line, creating expectations of his imminent debut that felt slightly unreasonable. Surely nobody could keep that up over the course of an entire novel? Well, it’s not a long book but he did and you can find out more in my review at the end of this post. Jon has chosen to share some insights into the emotional dynamics between the main characters Joe and Fysh.
We’ve driven forty-two miles for me to be beneath a big slab of sky, because he knows when I need to get out of my own way, there’s nowhere else but here. The riverbank. Cloudy water running alongside us, stretching into the distance, where it mixes with sky until it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. He watches me tie-up my boot laces. Tells me he’ll be back in an hour. Yanks up the metal zipper on my coat another inch. Though this small gesture is more than it appears. More than reminding me it’s bone cold outside. And that’s why I’ve come here to walk along the muddy bank; to understand what stays unspoken. To unravel queer resilience in this landscape where I grew-up. As the car pulls away, he honks the horn, twice. And I can’t help but smile.
After fifty feet the landscape opens up about me. A sudden freedom. But beneath this expanse I’m reminded how easily everything can shift. It’s more than the weather moving in from the Wash. Or the water pounding the bank. This place can be brutal. Isolating. And unforgiving. When I was younger, navigating this part of the world, along with the lads I grew up with, we didn’t sit around unpicking ourselves. Talk about what we were feeling. Or articulate our desires in any meaningful way. Instead, we hunted for distraction; alcohol, drugs and anonymous sex. Without wondering why. Boasting about busting out. Away from these things that were decided for us as small boys. Shaped by codes gathered on the concrete playground like collecting stickers. Admiring our older brothers. Watching our fathers silently. These men who conjured our own understanding of what it means to come from such a place.
This is the reason I wrote Joe Gunner and Tim Fysh the way I have in The Whale Tattoo. Two lads tied together by their desire for one another, an attraction they don’t need to understand. It hadn’t been easy to find characters navigating rural environments, depicted in books in a way I found believable. Emotionally these lads might seem incapable of articulating their desires. But this isn’t true. They just can’t speak them. Instead, they perform small acts of tenderness where their actions give up what hides beneath social constraints and inherited masculinity. The most Fysh can do is push his knee against Joe’s beneath the tabletop while necking a pint in their local pub. But with this small act of tenderness Joe understands everything at once; that if he was a girl it would be the same as holding hands. That Fysh is saying ‘I love you.’ Their affection for one another is quiet, but not misunderstood. Often raw like the land. And untethered. Be it bumped shoulders. Joe rubbing cream into Fysh’s bruised cheek after his mum’s boyfriend beat the crap out of him. A shared cigarette. Or hasty hands. These ordinary young men have carved out another way to say three unspoken words.
Rain’s hammering my hood, and I’m keen on the way it sounds. But it’s time to turn around. My boots are heavier than they were before, ruined with mud. I’ve come far enough. Feeling a surprising gladness for the warm car that’ll be waiting for me. I’ve unravelled the reason I came here. Just the very edge. As like the river, some things I’m looking for stay hidden beneath its surface. Tides are clever like that. On the ride home, he doesn’t ask me about the riverbank. Just cranks up the heat. And I’m soothed by the wipers racing back and forth across the windscreen chasing rain away. Later, after he’s pulled over, ahead of us in the queue at Costa a couple are holding hands. I feel no desire to put my palm in his. Though he bumps my shoulder to move me along the line. When I place our order, I ask the barista to put two tea bags in his cup; because he comes from Yorkshire. And with this small act of intimacy, he’ll know everything I can’t say out loud.
Thank you so much to Jon for this very personal and moving piece which has such strong parallels with the novel.
IN BRIEF: My View of The Whale Tattoo
When I began to think about today’s review it was hard to know how to approach a novel this unusual, so let’s start with that and the thrill – rarer than it should be – of reading something so unique and arresting. The thematic constellations – sex and death, desire and grief – have been covered a million times but never quite like this. I’ve been fascinated by the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness (as broad concepts) since discovering Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal at sixteen and through its fragmented structure, stark and haunting language and coastal setting, The Whale Tattoo injects bleakness and brutality with exquisite tenderness and raw lust. The explicit sex reminded me of first reading Alan Hollinghurst many years ago and – not that I’m suggesting it needs to be justified – the way it’s portrayed is entirely consistent with the relationship between Joe and Fysh as described above. There’s a quality of uncut fearlessness about Ransom’s work that I admire almost above all else; writers are always being told to ‘write as if nobody’s going to read it’ but that’s easier said than done, and plenty of people are going to be reading this.
Hopefully I’m going to Paris in a couple of weeks to belatedly carry out what’s an essential step for me: seeing the city through the eyes of my new protagonist. If all goes to plan, I’ll write about it here. It’ll be such a relief when France can resume its rightful place at the centre of my life.