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Book Review: "The Scar Letters"

Posted on December 1, 2013 at 2:55 AM

By Dback


(Note: This review contains some spoilers.)


There is a crackling, go-for-the-throat thriller lurking inside of Richard Alther’s novel The Scar Letters. Alther, however, is interested in more than just tightening a reader’s thumbscrews; he has tried—admirably, if unsuccessfully—to turn a story of a man recovering from a brutal hate crime into a larger exploration of a gay man’s psyche, and his search for love and meaning. Yet every time The Scar Letters starts to get too emotionally grotty—to deal full-on with the psychological fallout from the crime committed in its first six pages, or issues of self-loathing and body image in the gay community, or the knotty complications involving love and sex—the author pulls back and unleashes another slew of paragraphs that only serve to distance the reader from Rudy’s journey. While in some ways this may be psychologically apropos (Rudy has spent most of his life intellectualizing away his feelings and the icky stuff he can’t/doesn’t want to deal with), it can make for some tough sledding as a reader.




Even before he is assaulted at age twenty-two, Rudy Dallmann has had a rough go of things: absent parents, being raised by stern, almost grim grandparents, a sad and lonely childhood. Most of his early sexual experimentation is loveless, unfulfilling, and/or embarrassing, and he has at least two other past incidents of sexual assault before he leaves a New England gay bar one night and is jumped by two teenage boys. They drag him into the woods, where one carves Rudy’s chest with a double “F” (for “f____ing faggot”), sodomizes him with a plunger, and cuts him all over with the razor blade before a completely unsympathetic cop shows up and scares them off.


The cop’s callous reaction—he blames the naked and bleeding Rudy for everything—might work, were it not for the clunky dialogue he offers as part of his chewing-out: “God almighty, the weirdest most revolting scene yet on this beat. You call this gay liberation? S & M shit.” Rudy waits eighteen years before going to the police to try to report the crime, but he eventually gets the identities of his assailants. Ninety more pages go by before he initially confronts his primary attacker, and then another eighty before he returns for more resolution. 


What happens during the other pages? Rudy almost has unfulfilling sex with a “straight” man who comes over for a massage. Rudy has more unfulfilling sex with a Jewish widower who’s just lost his partner (and yet, frankly, still has a lot more joie de vivre than Rudy does). Rudy has better sex with a Jesus-look-alike named Blake, whom he dumps soon afterwards. Rudy pines—endlessly!—for his college-sex-bud-turned-platonic-best-friend Tex, who takes up about forty more pages than necessary. Rudy contemplates an affair with his kind, bearish therapist, Jack. He finally seems to find the complete (?) package in a hot, married, bisexual named Stan—who, inconveniently, was Assailant #2 eighteen years before.


This is, in outline form, basic pulp material, a classic build-up to a potential revenge fantasy out of the Death Wish school. We wait in vain for some lurid, cheap thrills in the form of payback—surely, with Alther’s detailed description of the attack, we are firmly in Rudy’s corner as he stumbles along his journey towards manhood and self-acceptance. Yet Rudy doesn’t take up martial arts, or properly learn to box, or take a class in gun safety. He just keeps working in his gardens and slowly starts going to the gym regularly enough to buff out and become more physically attractive, a la The Mirror Has Two Faces.


The novel’s climax should involve the three characters from Chapter 1 facing off in a grimy room. Instead, Alther seems to think the climax is Rudy breaking up with yet another partner who, it is implied, isn’t “good enough” for the newly buff, now psychologically-at-peace Rudy. This isn’t a new development; Rudy has broken up with everyone he sleeps with, while still gassing on about unattainable Tex. If the reasoning was clearer—Rudy previously didn’t think himself worthy of love, but now doesn’t want to waste time on people unworthy of him—this might work, but the resolution collapses into high-minded psychobabble.


Throughout the novel, the other characters barely register. Tex, Rudy’s idol, is a confirmed playboy who doesn’t return Rudy’s romantic feelings and who alternately berates him and flirts with him. Therapist Jack initially seems to be a lovely, healing figure, but as ugly-duckling-turned-swan Rudy no longer needs him, Jack becomes noticeably less attractive to Rudy before revealing deep mental and emotional problems of his own. (Yet another potential mate for Rudy proven unworthy.)


Bud, one of Rudy’s assailants, is sketched much more vividly, as is his embittered ex-wife, but they barely get a few pages. Stan, the other assailant, gets a lot more time, but somehow remains a bit of a cipher—he’s basically straight except for falling for Rudy, he’s an investment banker with a wife (also bisexual) and daughter, he looks great in and out of swimwear. That’s pretty much it. (Rudy’s various paramours aren’t around long enough to garner much investment, though Rudy’s breakups with Ari and Blake sting a little due to their abruptness.) Aside from Rudy, Tex, and Jack, most of the other characters never meet or interact with one another, and this lack of friction—of potentially interesting people clicking and colliding with one another—tamps down the plot. We spend too much time stuck in Rudy’s head. (The climactic scene with Rudy, Bud and Stan is a notable exception.)


Alther seems to be much more interested in describing various scenes and incidents of violence than sex—Rudy’s various erotic misadventures are largely left to the imagination or buried in verbiage, and though Stan is supposedly “the best sex” Rudy’s ever had, we don’t know why. Alther is also fond of variations on the word “tumescence” (it crops up at least three times in sexual moments), not so fond of commas in long sentences, and thinks nothing of bringing the plot to a halt to have a multi-page digression on gays vs. ex-gays vs. ex-ex-gays. (Alther seems very interested in men who occupy the “other” or “questioning” space in LGBTQ, and who don’t necessarily define themselves as gay despite same-sex relationships and sex; this could be an interesting topic for a novel on its own, but here it’s just distracting.)


Ultimately, The Scar Letters could still make a great screenplay by trimming all the navel-gazing and obsessing about Tex, dropping the litany of sad-sack lovers, and keeping the focus on Rudy, Bud, Stan, and their haunting, eighteen-year saga of crime and punishment, horror and forgiveness, hatred and love. The core of this novel is still a gangbuster tale with a final twist that’s breathtaking. But first, Alther needs to strip away the verbiage he hides behind, the digressions and feints that keep him from getting his hands really dirty. (Is it supposed to be ironic that Rudy works with mulch every day, yet he and the author both seem so afraid of life’s messiness?)  The Scar Letters is too intelligent, and has too many moments of emotional resonance, to be considered a botch; yet ultimately, it’s too flawed to really connect with a reader as profoundly as it should.

Categories: Other Voices

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1 Comment

Reply Dennis Stone
1:34 AM on December 2, 2013 
Dback - Oddly, even though your review is negative it still has me intrigued by the book. Different people respond to art so differently (and I see the book has some really good reviews from other reviewers) that I can see between the lines the potential that I might appreciate it more than you do.