April 8, 2016 by kitmoss
This novel has so much going for it, I hardly know where to start. It is a sweeping story of the development of the American West, an unusually complete and honest family saga, and has one of the best portrayals of a character with a disability in historical fiction that I have read.
City of Lovely Brothers takes its name from the town built on part of the Caldwell ranch in Montana. Caladelphia describes the four Caldwell brothers, all of them strikingly good looking, but it also fails to describe the four men’s characters or the relationship between them. The avarice and narrow view of the eldest, Calvin, ultimately holds the potential for destruction for them all. The third brother, Calhoun, so hates Calvin that he pretty much withdraws from the family. Caleb’s happy-go-lucky demeanor hides inner conflicts and pain. The protagonist and youngest brother, Caliban, is good hearted and anxious for harmony in the family but himself by his nature alone proves part of the inevitable fragmentation.
The novel is constructed as fiction written by the novel’s periodic narrator based on materials he found while doing some genealogical research. Throughout the book he pops in to describe some historical find, how he came across it, and what he feels it means. That the narrator then chooses to recount the stories of this family as dramatized fiction is one reason this novel is unique and gratifyingly innovative. I am tempted at times to list four main characters, Caliban, the Caldwell family, the ranch and the narrator in that order. In the last case, I am referring to the story of the narrator that comes out in his interpretations and reactions as he unfolds his story.
At the start of the book the four brothers find themselves alone after their father dies in the 1870s. They are all to inherit the ranch but whether unified or divided into four is subject to each brother’s interpretation of the father’s intent. Calvin, the eldest, sees himself as the head of the family and the ranch. His brutal treatment of Calhoun results in the first division of the ranch as the young man and his wife take over an old house far from the other brothers. Before that, however, the youngest, Caliban, is seriously injured in a fall from his horse, causing him to be lame for the rest of his life. Not able to take his full responsibility as a rancher, Caliban instead becomes a teacher. The school he takes over is part of the slow turning of Calvin’s part of the ranch into a town, which becomes Caladelphia and is the barometer for the growth, dissolution and ultimately the fate of the young men’s patrimony.
Caliban, not surprisingly given his name, is in many ways, though also the peacemaker and catalyst between the others, the interloper, a gay man who must remain outside the family values that ostensibly hold the ranch together. The fact is that connections between the others in the family are strained and even hostile at times, while Caliban and his lover Nick are as harmonious a relationship as you could hope to find. The irony, of course, is that these two lovers must leave the ranch while the destructive elements of the family remain.
It is refreshing to come across an example of a thoroughly satisfying and beloved genre of historical fiction, the saga of a pioneer family, with the realism of a gay family member included, namely Caliban. Statistically every family must have had gay brothers and sisters, but it is rare to come across this in literature. Viz provides an illustration of a happy couple against the brutality of the time where being that different was dangerous.
That the character Caliban is also as faithful a representation of a person with a disability* is astonishing. Disabled myself, I saw in Caliban a resourceful man dealing realistically, neither heroically nor pathetically, with the limitations he is forced to accommodate, and I recognized so much of how other people and in particular strangers treated him.
Another bonus with this novel is that though it is a gay romance and the central characters are ostensibly the brothers, the women in the story are complete, realistic individuals and not just mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. This is not uncommon in pioneer family sagas, but Viz does an unusually good job with it.
There is a lot of explicit sex between Caliban and Nick, but one thing different here is that the two men’s sense of fun and obvious enjoyment of and affection for each other as they make sex into a game between them results in lots of variety and a complete avoidance of objectification. I really loved being in on their playtime.
City of Lovely Brothers just happened to touch on something that sorrows me, the fact that just a couple generations back lived people who loved, struggled, dreamed, mourned, and managed to live their lives without any knowledge of all this by their descendants, namely us. The narrator often comments on how the people of Caladelphia don’t even know where the town’s name came from or that this spot which is now a public restroom is where Caliban and Nick first made love, or that is where the church stood where Hester and Charlie were married, or that those unmarked graves contain the mortal remains of Calhoun and his family. There is something so heartbreakingly poignant about this memory lapse of ours, one that I think is one of the strongest cases for writing and reading historical fiction. Even if the names are right there on the family tree, it takes the skill and imagination of a historical novelist like Anel Viz to make it personal and real. Gay and lesbian people have a mostly invisible history, so it may take historical novelists to correct this historical poverty.