A.B. Gayle's Reviews > All Is Well

All Is Well by Dirk Vanden
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it was amazing
bookshelves: first-person-pov, gay-erotica, shelf-32

I recently read the “All” trilogy by Dirk Vanden: I Want It All, All Or Nothing (also known as “All the Way”) and this one, “All is Well”.

The first book was released before the Stonewall Riots, and to quote Dirk: “My books weren’t considered worthy of editing when they were first published.... We were lucky just to get the books published and to get a few bucks for an outright sale.”

Once I “got over” the excessive use of exclamation marks in the first book, the other books were fine. There are no more typographical errors or formatting problems than there are in many other ebooks on the market today.

Dirk's writing style is fluid, his dialogue natural and his characters are vivid.

Drugs feature unapologetically strongly in the book. Both the upside – the euphoric feeling that you had all the answers, understood the essence of life and the universe and then the downside as reality stabbed euphoria in the back and painted black shadows around everything.

Apparently, one publisher wanted Dirk to “apologise” for all the drug use in his books, but as he explained it to me in an email: “We were illegal, immoral perverts in those days and anything we could do to our heads to keep from thinking how terrible we were just to have sex with each other and how even more terrible we were to write about it. As a result, I tried marijuana, mescaline and LSD and discovered that they “opened doors in my mind.”” He assured me that: Drug use in Gay bars in the 60s and 70s was as common as beer and cigarettes, and, of course, like nicotine, and alcohol, the drugs were addictive.”

The books are set solidly in the late sixties, early seventies, an era famous for its music, its hippies and its drug taking, but still a time when homosexuality was illegal in most States. The times they were a-changing though. The hero’s son, Chuck, sees it as a time when sex was not a big deal, and who you did it with was almost irrelevant.

The three books stand alone, each told from the first person viewpoint of a different character. However common characters and a couple of common events link them together.

In each book, a man who always thought of himself as straight, discovers he is happier being gay. Remember that in those days, this was a fate considered worse than death. Hounded by the law, consigned to the depths of hell by religion, rejected by family and rebuffed by their peers.

Making an apology is another theme in common. In each book, the viewpoint character has to acknowledge and seek forgiveness for a hurtful act. Until this is done, the character can never find peace within himself.

I’ve reviewed the other books, but “All is Well” is different. It’s a lot more cerebral for a start. A lot of the “action” takes place inside the hero, Bob’s, head.

Being the son of a Mormon Minister, for Bob, religion played a large part in his upbringing. I’ve read two other books that use this religion as part of the plot: James Buchanan’s Hard Fall and Z.A.M. Maxfield’s The Pharaoh's Concubine. While these two authors may have done meticulous research, they don’t capture that overwhelming feeling of guilt and stultifying constriction of attitudes and beliefs that Dirk conveys so well, having been brought up a Mormon himself.

From correspondence I’ve had with him, I gather his current attitudes and beliefs permeate the book through the viewpoints of his different characters.

Near the end there’s a classic description of why he has little patience for “queens” as he describes why “Sophie” felt uncomfortable in the steam baths.
Among these men, in this atmosphere, naked, there would be no way for such a person to call attention to himself—to make such a desperate point of the fact that he was different-by-god-GAY! His sort of posturing and “cleverness” would be totally invalid here, not only unnecessary, but undesirable. An alien from another world would have been no more out of place. All the formalities and socializations had been stripped away; “personalities” had to be hung up with the clothes, left behind in a locked room. He’d been lost, maskless, stripped of his identification.... he probably thrived on rejection...who became disoriented and helpless when something good happened to him, and no matter how much he thought he wanted something good, he had to twist it and torture it until it became bad. Such people were miserable, because misery was their only identification.

You can tell Dirk Vanden is also an accomplished artist. His description of the scenery is as vivid as a painting
I looked up, straight above me—and fell helplessly into the color of foggy violet! Helplessly into an incredible vastness of sky! As I watched, darkness deepened, creeping up from the east; the color lost its fogginess and became a fantastically soft purple, and then ultramarine; and then a star, just the tiniest pinpoint, started to sparkle, and then more. I felt the light fade from my face. The stars brightened. The sky deepened. The universe opened above me.

“All is well” is not for the faint at heart. Not because there are gruesome murders or anything but because we delve into the deepest recesses of the mind of a troubled man.

It’s uncompromising; by no means an easy book to read, but worth it in the end. Dirk’s writing makes you care even when the guy is at his worse, wallowing in his misery. You just want him to break out of his funk. I’m not a fan of paranormal, and this is a good example of what you can do without resorting to that level of fantasy. We all have the capacity to do these things ourselves. Be the strong invincible vampire, the werewolf that can change to a form that can vanquish its enemies and we can all harbor the demon from hell within.

In some ways, this novel covers the steps of the archetypal hero’s journey, complete with the wrong goal, the black moment and the mentor (in this case drugs). As in all such journeys, the hero has to reach deep inside himself to find the solution to his predicament and confront his worst fears in doing so.
I had created the problems myself, however childish or ill-advised I had been, and now I had to solve those problems myself.

I don’t know whether this was intentional on Dirk’s part - to follow Joseph Campbell’s prescription, but there are definitely elements there. There’s even the symbolism of the epiphany happening on Easter Sunday when the hero leaves his past behind and is reborn, complete with the biblically significant three day turnaround from the time he leaves San Francisco and returns.

None of these literary elements intrude on the narrative. Many readers may not even see the story at this level, but I enjoyed the book that much more after I recognised what had happened.

Another theme that ran through the book was: “I had to keep an open mind, adjust myself to the changes in the world.”

The world was definitely a-changing. Another book that came to mind as I read was Andrew Holleran’s The Beauty of Men. Set in the nineties, after AIDS had decimated the gay population, the different scenes in steam baths bear comparison. Although there are two very different establishments in “All is Well” neither have that pathetic lost quality that imbues Holleran’s classic.

In Dirk Vanden’s time:
Here there were dozens of men wandering around, most of them young, and many of them very attractive, manly-looking, well-muscled, with white towels narrowly wrapped around trim tanned waists. One or two I saw were clean-shaven and short haired, but most of them had long hair, moustaches, sideburns, many with full luxuriant beards.

While in Holleran’s book, the middle-aged Lark describes it thus:
Driving to the baths in 1983 was like going to Valhalla, he thinks as he walks down the hall. Going to the baths in 1995 is like driving to have his tires rotated and oil changed.

In the end, the title of the last book takes on a new triple-edged meaning as the different worlds collide and become one. Not only do the three characters come together, but for Bob, the hero of “All is Well”, "all" the facets of his personality converge as well. Very neatly done.

There is almost a messianic fervor in the closing pages. The certainty hippies had in the seventies that a New Age was coming: The Age of Aquarius. Forty years on we can see that unfortunately the Roberts of the world didn’t quite lose their grip. And while the Bobs may no longer be jailed for their sexuality, there is still room for more change to happen.

“All is Well” is definitely worth reading as a record of the time, but even more so because it and the other books in the trilogy are a “Good read”.

Just one final question. Is sex between brothers classified as incest?
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
February 26, 2011 – Shelved

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