Victor J. Banis
Available: Print & Amazon Kindle
Because there are so many wonderful books and authors, I intended to review no more than one book by each author just to be fair, but sometimes a book comes along that just has to be talked about. So I guess I have to rescind my original decision.
Angel Land by Victor Banis will keep you off balance like nothing you’ve ever read before. It switches not only p.o.v., sometimes within the same chapter, but switches voice as well, from the first person narrative of the escapee, Harvey Milk Walton, to the third person thoughts of other characters. Only a master like Banis could pull this off without driving the reader crazy.
Angel Land is sly, sardonic, and funny. It’s also frightening and will make your scalp crawl with the feeling that Banis is channeling George Orwell and you’re reading the next 1984.
Angel Land is a tale set a century or so in the future, after the global society has been devastated by wars and pandemics, all the things we see now, carried to their ultimate end. It was an end that came “not with a bang but a whimper”, to quote T.S. Eliot. Among the other curses of the 20th and 21st centuries, the HIV virus has mutated repeatedly until reaching the always fatal HIV-VII, known as Sept, a virus so virulent it does not even require human contact. And there is a soul-chilling reason for the mutation, one that will make you gasp.
Into this vacuum of power came The Reverend Elihu Gaston, founder of The Fundamental Christian Church. Is he the antichrist? Though such a thing isn’t suggested in the book, as one who read the Bible many times when I was younger I couldn’t help thinking that he certainly fit the requirements. The other churches were swallowed up by Gaston’s new church; everyone not a believer in Gaston was suspect, especially Jews, Baptists, and Catholics; though free in theory they are severely restricted in every way . Supposedly as a way to deal with AIDS/HIV, Gaston divided much of the nation into Fundamental Christian Territories, of which Angel Land was the first. There, tourists can “See—close up—the Bridge of the Golden Gate, once crossed by motor cars,” and the walls of the ghetto that, in the dim past, been known as the Castro, that is Angel Land’s Zone of Perversion. Officially sanctioned violence and murder of gays makes some of the inhabitants of the ghetto believe it might not be such a bad thing after all: if the walls keep them in, they can also keep the brutes out. It doesn’t always work that way.
Angel Land has a twisted plot about marginalized people in a disintegrating world run by a rabid demagogue aided by a committee of equally rabid demagogues, a world in which the European Middle Ages seem to reoccurring with a dark helping of Hitler and Stalin at their worst, stirred in. It’s a society where books are banned, knowledge by any but the rulers is illegal, freedoms are virtually unknown except for the few; a society where a form of slavery is perpetuated, particularly upon the young, and gays leave their ghetto at the risk of their lives.
The characters in this book are vintage Banis: brave with the courage of the mythic Stonewall drag queens; defiantly smart and smart-ass like the first Harvey Milk; able to sometimes find love in spite of the danger; daring to flip the bird to deprivation and hatred.
Our hero is, perhaps, an unlikely one: Harvey Milk Walton, a skinny kid who’s not particularly beautiful (imagine that, in a gay novel!), a slave who has accidentally killed his master and fled for his life. In the ghetto Harvey finds friendship, love, sanctuary, his courage, and a purpose that transcends and transforms his life. There is Dell, the blustering, blunt, and brave lesbian and Sarah, the abused, feral child she adopts. The endlessly quotable “Auntie” Tom, present in spirit if not in flesh. The elderly Manager, a man of age, wisdom, and quiet defiance. Chip, Harvey’s friend. And many more wonderful characters worked in true Banis fashion.
Is every gay character brave and admirable? Not at all. Banis would never create such an unrealistic cast. And that’s one of the things you can count on with a Banis book: the situations and plots may be unusual; the people are always believable.
When Harvey, to his amazement, finds love it is with a tormented soul named Aram; more than that I’m not going to tell you; you’ll have to read it for yourself. The Bad Guys are bad to the bone, some of them, like the jack-booted, taser-armed Lay Workers, are overtly bad. Others wouldn’t lift a finger to crush a bug and who mouth scripture and platitudes…but who are the Ultimate Evil because they are the creators and maintainers of the evil.
Books of froth and fun have their place and sometimes even I like them. But as you undoubtedly surmised, Angel Land isn’t a froth-and-fun tale. It’s full of grim, black humor and it’s a book that gets the thought processes whirring, a book that grips you by the gut. It’s a book that would make certain people froth at the mouth from indignation if they dared to read it. My kind of book.
Because I find Banis’ language usage so engaging, I can’t end this without quoting a sampling of my favorite lines. The Sept. virus: “A dish, a fork, a spoon, probably a cow jumping over the moon, almost anything could be the instrument of infection, almost anyone the messenger of death.” Legendary things called automobiles: “Of all the jewels of antiquity, none fascinated me more than those, the automobiles, songs of freedom sculpted into metal.” The suppression of other faiths: “One by one the lesser fishies succumbed to the great black shark in the sea of religion.”
I know you won’t be surprised when I say Angel Land is highly recommended.