I must preface this review by stating that I first met Jeff Mann while a student in his undergraduate Appalachian literature class. He endeared himself to me when on one of the first days of class we discussed regionalisms peculiar to southern Appalachia. I was one of the few kids in class who said things like “slicky-slide” rather than slide to describe that simple piece of playground equipment; and “toboggan” was the name of the hat you wear on your head in the winter, not a type of sled. There were more. Before that class, I knew I was different than many of the other students, many of whom hailed from the Northern Virginia suburbs; but I thought it was because, comparatively, my family was poor and uneducated. But in Mr. Mann’s class I discovered this place called Appalachia—a place of my blood and bones—and it was then that I began to develop an identity as an Appalachian person.
I’m a fan of Jeff Mann’s essays, something I had investigated while a student in the English Department at Virginia Tech. But I had never explored his fiction until now, many years later. I had taken a break from all things Appalachian, but began to take an interest in my homeland again around the time Country was released. The novel falls under the genre of gay romance/erotica, as well as regional fiction, and is just over 400 pages long.
Country is about a successful country music singer who is from Hinton, West Virginia–the burly, 40-year-old Brice Brown. When we first meet Brice he is pretending to be a straight man for the sake of his career (he’s married to a woman but separated), but often buys sex from young hustlers while he’s out on the road. His only relationship was a brief affair with Zach, a former band mate. Zach puts the story in motion when he gives a salacious interview to a tabloid detailing their affair.
After deciding not to deny Zach’s story, or to seek conversion therapy (his manager’s suggestion), Brice “tucks tail” and moves back home to Hinton where he meets harassment and humiliation from many fundamentalist Christian locals who feel betrayed by their hometown hero. His parents are deceased, but his sister, a lawyer, lives in town with her husband and son. Brice is happy to be near his sister, and to see a sympathetic childhood friend, but eventually he becomes fed up with the constant harassment from folks in Hinton.
Brice accepts an invitation to hole up at a camp for troubled gay youth in West Virginia. There he meets and falls in love with 27-year-old Lucas. The strong, but slight-of-build Lucas rebuffs Brice’s attentions at first. Lucas has had a rough life growing up in poverty; he’s been out of prison for only a year when we meet him. He was wrongfully imprisoned for assault and solicitation. In order to help his mom pay the bills, Lucas dropped out of school and became a “lot lizard” to supplement his retail job income. When one man tried to rape him, Lucas attempted to defend himself; but was wrongfully accused and landed for a stint of time in prison where he was repeatedly beaten and raped. Not surprisingly, it takes Lucas a while to begin to trust Brice. Eventually Brice and Lucas deepen their relationship and fans of erotic fiction will not be disappointed.
Generally, Country is a novel rich in erotic content, but most of all, it is about the trials of being gay in Appalachia. In Country, homophobia is rampant and dangerous—at one point Brice is nearly beaten to death when he and Lucas are attacked by a group of young men. But there is a glimmer of hope. Several times when Brice expects trouble, he meets folks who are sympathetic and kind to him, and occasionally part of the LGBT community in the region. Mann’s most damning criticism of Appalachian culture is directed at fundamentalist Christians and comes to a head in the character of Kim Bryan, Lucas’ mother. Their relationship was already strained, and when the tabloids report that Brice and Lucas are a couple, she visits Lucas for the purpose of disowning him. Her vitriol is couched in religious language and she clearly is under the influence of a hateful pastor who has encouraged her to cut ties with her son. As a reader, my heart broke for Lucas and for all the other gay, lesbian, and transgender youth who are excised from their families of origin.
As someone who studies intimacy and family ties in general, and in southern Appalachia in particular, to be cut off from one’s family, one’s heritage, often one’s family home and land, has powerful psychological repercussions. In a place where social mobility is limited for most, those family ties carry significant social and cultural weight. In that regard, the novel is unresolved. Until true acceptance of same-sex love is internalized by the majority of Appalachian people, the story will remain unfinished.
Mann has done an excellent job of highlighting the beauty and contradictions of Appalachia. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys erotica or regional fiction.