The Mayor of Oak Street by Vincent Traughber Meis. Nine Star Press, 2021
Destination: High school and college.
For many gay men, this novel will read like a personal time machine. All the emotions associated with emerging sexual awareness are here—lust, confusion, anxiety. Along his journey, our protagonist experiences people and things that will resonate in a nostalgic way with many older male readers, namely, hope, rejection, addiction, and redemption. In short, this novel is the perfect gay Bildungsroman. That much of it is set in New Orleans makes it all the more better.
In the 1960s, Midwestern boy and Boy Scout, Nathan delivers newspapers and mows lawns. Nathan uses his cover to move about yards and sneak into the homes of his neighbors, uncovering their secrets.
In high school, one of the local misfits introduces him to diet pills, which help him overcome his shyness. In an amphetamine high, he meets Cindy, whom he hopes will steer him along the “morally straight” path of the Boy Scout Oath he swore to.
Nathan is infatuated with a young doctor down the street, Nicholas (Dr. B), who embodies all the things his mother would love him to be. On one of his secret forays in Dr. B’s house, he hides in a closet and witnesses his idol having sex with a man while the wife is out of town. Dr. B’s affair leads to tragedy, forcing the doctor to leave town.
At college in New Orleans, Nathan meets a group of rebels and expands his drug use. Marc, a bisexual Cajun charmer becomes Nathan’s first male sexual experience, but promptly leaves town.
Nathan has a chance encounter with Dr. B, who has moved to New Orleans. Dr. B is in a relationship, but still closeted. Frustrated by Dr. B’s cool reaction, Nathan goes on a six-month binge of amphetamines and anonymous sex. On one night of debauchery, he overdoses and ends up in the emergency ward.
Nathan’s near death rallies Dr. B and Nathan’s other friends to force him into rehab. On the way home from work one day, Nathan witnesses the gruesome aftermath of the 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire that devastated the gay population of New Orleans. As a result of the fire, Dr. B’s live-in boyfriend leaves town, freeing Dr. B to explore his feelings for Nathan.
Reading this book, my mind kept thinking of Dorothy’s epiphany in The Wizard of Oz. I doubt the author had Dorothy in mind when writing, but the parallels are there. A Midwestern neophyte lands in a magical place and encounters incredible danger before…before what? Self-realization? Returning home? Wallowing in despair? Learning to accept what is? You’ll have to read for yourself to find out. All I can tell you is that instead of a witch who travels in a bubble, Nathan has a good straight friend who tells him:
“That’s what I’m saying. It’s the fault of the society, not the individual. We have to change it. Being here, surrounded by free spirits, is a blessing. If you only want to be another brick in the wall, go back to your hometown and marry your childhood sweetheart, have two kids, and buy a house with a picket fence. But you’re never gonna escape what you are. Now eat your burger. It’s getting cold.”
Skillfully written in a beautifully lyric voice, this novel mines not only the complicated soul of a young man but also the times in which he came of age. Certainly worth a read.