King of Angels is a novel by Perry Brass with a deceptively simple coming-of-age plot that operates on several levels. In addition to adolescent identity and gender issues, it is about creating and assembling one’s own theological construct, as the title of the book presages. It is also a metaphor about the transition of conservative southern USA society on the threshold of the civil rights era. Of course, it is a gay manifesto as well.
Essentially the story is about 12 year-old Benjamin Rothberg falling love with a boy and over the next two years having to deal with it and an avalanche of other issues. His family is part of the elite of Savanna, Georgia, or at least they belong to the comfortable upper crust. It looks as if all Benjy has to deal with is being an inter-religious son of a not very religious Jewish father and a very not religious Christian mother, and his discovery of sex and love. His home setting is on a white, upper middle-class island, and he is enrolled in a Roman Catholic military academy. But Benjy’s issues multiply as he has to deal with:
As the perils mount and Benjy’s situation deteriorates, a languorous maturity process is out of the question. The very precocious boy has to grow up quickly, and the adults who are supposed to (and who try to) undertake various roles in his nurturing and guidance all falter. They do not fail completely. Each makes a contribution, but none fully succeed in their role. All the care-givers have issues of their own that undermine their dependability. In the end there are two who help Benjy the most in coming to terms with the disappearing lovers in his life: a teacher, Brother Alexis, who is driven, in the process of helping Benjy, to confront his own identity and commitment issues squarely, and a dysfunctional friend and sometime-mental patient in whom Benjy recognizes the most honesty and integrity of anybody. (This fellow, incidentally, is quite unfairly identified as crazy because of his homosexuality).
One of the ways Benjy deals with his collapsing and menacing situation is to create a theological construct of his own devising. Without being inside any faith system, but being on the periphery of two powerful ones, Benjy manages to extract enough bits and elements to keep himself spiritually viable and thereby to have the courage to challenge and joust with his most significant adversaries and the agility to handle and avoid others.
Benjy’s biggest challenge was to pull together a bar-mitzvah that had meaning for him, was fulfilling to his father, acceptable to the Catholics who hosted it, and not obstructed by the conservative rabbi who refused to conduct it. Both the Jewish and Catholic sectors of his life proved, like the adults in his life, to be unable to assimilate Benjy in his “abnormality”. Both in their way were actually threatening to his integrity and even his welfare. Benjy had to create his own theological construct and find ways to avoid those that would not work for him. The big issue for him was that to be either truly Jewish or fully Catholic he would have had to be born into its entire ethos. In other words, by the time of his “bar-mitzvah/confirmation” full identity and incorporation in either of those religions was no longer possible.
His final synthesis was that his dead lover, whom he failed, and his dead father, who failed him, both of whom he loved and by whom he needed to feel loved, were angels residing with Jesus, the King of Angels, whose identity became clear to Benjy in a Nativity pageant.
As readers, our greatest challenge is to accept the analysis of everyone in the story that Benjy has wisdom far beyond his years, and that even at his tender age he exceeded almost everyone in his ability to understand whatever information he managed to acquire, and he had the energy and maturity to demand that information that was systematically being withheld from him, ostensibly for his own good but inevitably to protect the reputation and comfort of those who held onto the truth and bend it to fit their own needs. This, in the end, is the author’s expectation, that we will suspend our disbelief that a thirteen-year-old boy facing such challenges with such courage, perseverance, insight, instincts and sensitivity could really have existed in Savanna, Georgia between 1962 and 1964.
I liked this book. I did.
Find King of Angels by Perry Brass, published by Belhue Press in 2012 on the Internet or from Amazon.com. For more information, please go to www.perrybrass.com
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.