Flying Without a Net by E. M. ben Shaul (November 17, 2016); 300 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.
Two Jews walk into a bar… and one of them says, “Ouch!”
I have always thought that joke was hilarious and, being too young to perform Vaudeville (I was born in 1970, so I missed the boat), I have never before had the opportunity to tell it. But right now, I’m writing a review of Flying Without a Net by E. M. ben Shaul, a novel which tells the love story of Dani (an Israeli who has grown up in a culturally-Jewish-but-secular home in the U.S.) and Avi, who is a practicing Orthodox man. They meet, find attraction, and must struggle with the conflict between their relationship and Avi’s religious devotion.
(Actually, the joke I REALLY want to tell is “Who is Anette, and why is she so important to fly with?” but see how I’ve refrained?)
Avi and Dani don’t exactly walk into a bar, but they do go for coffee at a coffee shop which, at least in New York where I’m from, is kind of like a bar in the daytime. (I used to go to actual bars in the daytime, but that was back in graduate school, and was mostly to play pool. I do not recommend it, unless you are looking to hang out with some very questionable day drinkers. Yes, jokers, I do count me-at-25 among them.) These guys live in Boston, with which I’m not very familiar (except for experiencing some homophobia, bad driving and White Frat Dudes on the Loose while on vacation there many years ago), but I’m going to assume the equivalency holds.
In many ways, the novel is a version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, recast as a coming-of-age (this can happen at any age, and for Avi, it happens rather late in life) story about a young religious man finding his world rattled when his sexuality (he’s gay) becomes more than theoretical. As with that novel, it’s epistolary: most chapters begin with a letter to God (from Avi). Avi’s trying to find his way into his newly-relevant sexuality (in the same way that Margaret is trying to find her way into her sex/gender). The story even, at one point, makes a direct shout-out to the book.
Avi’s family is large and very welcoming to Dani, and they embrace the budding relationship between the two men immediately, as does everyone in the novel. This is not a book that has dealings with the (very real) struggle against homophobia many of us face, or about the (very real) worries we queers have when coming out in our own communities and families, it’s a fantasy/love story.
While Avi is out to his family, he’s not had a relationship with a man before, and doing so constitutes another coming out, whether the character recognizes it or not… coming out isn’t a one-time deal; most of us queer folk come out over and over and over, in every new situation, every time we meet someone new, every time we figure something out about ourselves that our culture has worked very hard to prevent us from coming to know. That experience is very particular to being queer and hard for most other folks to recognize. But this novel isn’t about that, or about homophobia, or danger of any kind; it’s about the struggle to reconcile one’s faith with one’s desires, and that struggle is pretty universal, something nearly anyone can recontextualize and understand on their own terms. And that struggle is no joke.