Wednesday, March 29th, 2023

Charles Jackson’s “The Sunnier Side”

Reading Alan Gurganus’s stunning reflection in the new Granta on police entrapment and small-town will not to know (but, when forced to know, total rejection follows as if inevitably), sent me back to finish Charles Jackson’s Sunnier Side. He signaled homosexual desire several times. In “Palm Sunday,” his first published story, there is acknowledgment that when the narrator was an adolescent “molested” by the town queer “my fear had turned into something else just as frightening” (p. 97). He recalls the adolescent jacking each other off that men are supposed to forget about (“it’s not only better to pretend it isn’t so, but that it never was,” “The Sunnier Side,” p. 34; and less directly, “though we did not know it, these wrestlings soon turned into a kind of affectionate fond tussle as much as anything else,” “Tenting Together,” p. 132). The Fall of Valor is about gradual recognition of (and prompt violent response to) homosexual desire, and it is implicitly the reason for alcoholism in The Long Weekend (and closer to the surface in the male nurse seeing through the drunkard). Married and producing two sons, Jackson apparently passed as a straight novelist, most readers not wondering about the recurrent coded acknowledgments of homosexual desire. Other stories deal with the press of small-town gossip for imagined heterosexual sins of women (Don covering for Marvin and Arlene on the basis of believing the gossip about them in “Sophistication,” his sister having to spend her last summer in town so that people would not think she went away to have a baby in “Rachel’s Summer”), attempts of the adolescent Don to stop masturbating (“The Benighted Savage”), not to peep at Joan Daley (“By the Sea”) fallen women (the title story, “The Band Concert”). Sexual secrets and class are the material of the Arcadia stories, as for John O’Hara’s more heterosexual ones. They are more like Cheever’s in the perspective of the stigmatizable at a time when force (arrest) was the only way masculine men came out. “In a small town it’s practically impossible not to know practically everything about practically everyone else” (p. 56) “Your mother probably knows what the score is “ (p. 276) re Arlene and Marvin, as about Vern the organist who pounces on boys: “I began to realize that my experience with him had not been unique… everybody in town knew about him.” She tells him about Eudora’s affair, “Where have you been all these weeks? It’s been going on for some time, everybody knows it, and there’s nothing to get excited about. Forget it, pay no attention, these things happen.” She might have added, “Pretend it isn’t so,” which was always Arcadia’s attitude when trouble was brewing. As long as it wasn’t so, anything could be going on and it was all right. Which I suppose is a fairly adequate substitute for what Arcadia really thinks it is: tolerance. (p. 30: perhaps the severity of the sanctions encourages trying not to notice what is obvious, as in the penalties for sodomy in early modern Europe) Gurganus can speak the unspeakable (the boy desiring the man) directly and “He’s one, too” is a powerful indictment of the town that shunned the upstanding citizen caught in a restroom (and social death for his wife and children) and of the policeman who used his son as bait (as those who associated with other homosexuals knew, so that only an outsider would get caught—just as in the early modern European cases, so that a distorted record of whatever subculture existed survives, and outsiders fell into the Inquisitor’s net in Aragon, especially). circa Oct 01, 1996

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.