REVIEW: In the Middle of Somewhere by Roan Parrish
Dear Roan Parrish,
A number of my trusted Goodreads recommenders spoke highly of this book. I asked a friend “should I read this book?” and her answer was an unhesitating “YES!”, so I had it on my wishlist – then was delighted when it had been submitted to DA for a review.
It’s a book which kind of crept up on me. It has a quiet domesticity to it – a little reminiscent of Kaje Harper’s work in that regard (I mean that as a compliment) and not a lot actually happens in terms of action in the story.
The novel begins in February, when Daniel Mulligan is in the (fictional) small town of Holiday in northern Michigan to interview for a professorial role at Sleeping Bear College. He is 30 and was shortly about to gain his PhD in English (American Literature). He came to college late and started his higher education at a community college before transferring to a more “name” college to graduate so he could get into a graduate program. He is the youngest of four boys; his mother died when he was about five and his dad’s runs an auto shop. His dad and his brothers are all “manly men” who like cars and sports and beer (not necessarily in that order) and he has little in common with them. He has found no encouragement for his career from his family and, since coming out to them as gay, his relationship with them is more estranged. His best friend is Ginger. She is slightly older than him and runs a tattoo parlour. She is kind of friend/big sister and loves him unconditionally while also exposing all of his bullshit and encouraging him to be whoever he wants to be. It was largely Ginger’s influence which led him to apply to college.
Jobs are hard to come by and Daniel hopes that if he is successful in winning the position at Sleeping Bear College, he will be able to leverage that experience into a more prestigious role in a year or two.
While driving to his hotel after the interview, he accidentally hits a dog and crashes his rental car into a tree. Because Daniel is not a jerk, he tries to help the dog and starts a trek, dog in arms, to find help. Rex Vale, investigating a howling noise near his rustic cabin in the woods outside of town investigates and gives aid to both the dog and Daniel. Daniel is tall and slim and heavily tattooed (courtesy of Ginger of course) and very much the city boy. Rex looks like a lumberjack. He is big and brawny and solid and muscular and Daniel is instantly attracted. Rex takes Daniel and the dog* back to his cabin, where Daniel spends the night (alone on the couch). Rex is a man of few words but during the course of the evening, it is clear that both men are a) gay and b) attracted to one another. However, it is not until six months later, when Daniels moves to Holiday to start his new job, that the pair see each other again and begin, cautiously, to explore a relationship.
Daniel is the (first person) narrator of the story and in many ways, it is about his journey over the course of the first semester he teaches at Sleeping Bear (spoiler alert: he gets the job). Certainly, it is his character that experiences most of the growth in the book. Rex is as solid in character as he is in build. He has deep things in him but they are largely unexplored. In part this is because he has no POV in the book and in part this is because the story mainly focuses on Daniel finding a home (a someone-home rather than a someplace-home).
But Rex makes cooking and eating feel like part of my life— our lives. He expresses something of himself through cooking. Not just his personality, but his care. It’s like he cares about what I eat— if it’s healthy, if I like it. And so everything to do with it feels important. Even grocery shopping. Because I can feel him looking at the food the way you’d look at a shelter dog or something: as a thing that might come home with you, if it’s the right fit. Something that will be incorporated into our lives. Life. Our life.
There were some interesting devices used for Rex which fascinated me. He doesn’t know who his father was. His mother was a wannabe actress and they moved around a lot. She died when he was a teenager but it is clear, 20-odd years later that he loved her deeply. He speaks about growing up in a matter of fact way which is honest but very loving. Even when he is talking about how she left him to fend for himself so often that he had to learn to cook in order to eat. Even when he is telling Daniel that he had problems at school that Rex’s mother never new about because she was too busy with her career or her latest boyfriend. She sounds awful; self-centred and negligent – but Rex just loves her. Daniel never interrogates that dissonance. I’m not sure if it was because he knew it would be unwelcome or whether it didn’t occur to him (I hope the former) but it was a curious and clever little feature of the story when the words were clearly saying one thing and the tone and emotions were completely different.
I found the reliance on Holiday being “in the middle of nowhere” a little annoying at first. The phrase appeared in the first chapter too many times – fortunately, it wasn’t a motif that was repeated ad nauseum throughout the rest of the book. I like a good word picture, but I don’t like being hit over the head with it.
The months from August to December, which take up the bulk of the book, are a close examination of Daniel stuttering his way into a relationship with the stoic and calm Rex. Daniel, apart from Ginger, has never felt a sense of love and belonging in his life. He is frightened of good things because good things are taken away. In some ways he is still the five year old boy who lost his mother. It’s not made explicit but my sense was that this was such a profound event for Daniel; it ripped at the foundation of his life and he hasn’t felt “safe” with anyone since (except Ginger, and even then, his relationship with Ginger isn’t romantic, so Rex is a whole new universe for him). Daniel has hooked up but not really dated. He thought he was in a relationship with someone but it turned out that belief was entirely one-sided and the dude was hooking up with everyone else on campus at the same time. Daniel feels ill-equipped to be in a relationship. He’s not sure what to do or how it is supposed to work. Daniel is the fly buzzing about in the bottle, exhausting himself with whatifs and fear and (to mix the metaphor) Rex is the calm in the eye of the storm. It’s not a wonder Daniel is attracted. He finds in Rex an ability to be still and to feel safe.
Daniel is a fun and funny character to share headspace with and I enjoyed his frazzled overthinking and self-deprecating humour.
“You bought me the Internet.”
“Well, in a manner of speaking.” He fidgets. “Is that— I mean, is it useful to you?”
“You….” I don’t even know what to say. I can hear Ginger in my head, yelling at me to just act normal, act like myself, don’t overthink every little thing. What would I say to Ginger? What would I say to Ginger?
“You’re so fucking nice,” is what comes out. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.”
Rex laughs and grins at me . Yes! I said the right thing. Note to self: just pretend Rex is Ginger. Wait. That’s a terrible idea in several contexts.
Toward the end of the story, there are some heavier things which happen regarding Daniel’s family and Rex again proves himself to be Daniel’s rock. That loyalty and strength is what gives Daniel the courage to love Rex with no holding back. Rex is only in his mid-thirties but he seemed much older to me for most of the book. He loves classic black and white movies and old Hollywood starlets, he listens to vinyl records in a non-hipster way and he’s very self-contained. In contrast, Daniels sometimes seemed younger than 30, but he never felt childish and I liked their dynamic together. It wasn’t a daddy thing at all (not that there’s anything wrong with that if that’s what floats your boat).
There are some wonderful secondary characters in the book; a friend and ex-lover of Rex’s, Will, and 18 year old Leo, who Daniel meets in the park one day when Daniel scares off some bullies and Ginger of course (I loved her, she was awesome and super funny).
“Tell me something happy, ” I tell Ginger. Whenever we talk about heavy shit, we always end with something happy, like conversational dessert. “Tell me about Christopher. The burrito holder,” I say to Rex.
“He smells really good, but like a grown-up,” Ginger says.
“That’s important,” I say, nodding.
“He holds eye contact for the exact right amount of time, so you can tell he’s focused on you but it doesn’t feel creepy.”
“He called me Gingerbread once and I only hated it, like, 65 percent.”
There were parts of the book which had me snort-laughing – the Pictionary scene was hilarious. Seriously, if I’d been drinking at the time, liquid would have come out my nose.
I loved how much Leo loved bacon (and his mourning over Daniel’s inability to cook anything, including bacon) and the banter between Daniel and Ginger. What is extra delightful is that adverbs and dialogue tags are largely unnecessary in conveying tone – the words themselves make it obvious in the best of ways.
“Mmmm.” I can hear Ginger mentally flipping through my (very limited) wardrobe. “Wear the black jeans you got last year, your boots, and any shirt that doesn’t have writing on it.”
“Uh, okay, if you say so.”
“Ooh, no. Specification: wear the maroon button-down I gave you that that guy left at the shop after puking like a tiny wuss and running outside without it.”
“The sleeves are too short.”
“Cuff and roll, baby; cuff and roll. It’s hot. It draws attention to your forearms.”
“You like my forearms?”
“No, not yours in particular. I mean, they’re fine. Just, it’s a sexy body part.”
“I totally agree. I just didn’t know girls liked them too.”
“Oh, yes , Daniel . All girls like forearms. Every single one. No really, I’ve asked all of us and we all agree. We don’t even agree about whether or not the long arm of the law should be able to reach into our vaginas, but we agree about forearms.”
The interaction between Rex and Daniel was quietly beautiful, gradually building on strength and companionship and of course, sexual attraction. The sex is steamy and plentiful but I didn’t find it intrusive. This is a place where Daniel can express himself and Rex too – they have different reasons for it, but both struggle to get their words out sometimes (although generally, Rex is the braver of the two in terms of being emotionally vulnerable).
The book has a kind of open-ended feel to it – Rex and Daniel are definitely happy and together. I’d certainly describe it as HEA. But, their future is undecided and exactly what is next for them is undetermined – apart from that they will be together.
In the Middle of Somewhere is a deeply character driven book, which I found at turns to be charming, delightful, fun and poignant. Some of the prose is beautiful and so very apt. I recommend. Grade B+
Maybe the point of I love you is that it is a tether. A connection so you can find your way back to someone even when shit seems huge and unmanageable on your own.
*Rex keeps the dog – he names her Marilyn, after Marilyn Monroe, so even she gets a happy ending.