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Fantasy Discussions > An Arrow's Flight - Mark Merlis

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message 1: by Charles (last edited Aug 24, 2013 06:46PM) (new)

Charles (chuck-e) | 306 comments

An Arrow’s Flight is a joyous and eccentric tour-de-force by the author of American Studies and Man About Town. The siege of Troy has dragged on for ten years, with no end in sight, when an oracle supplies the Greeks with the recipe for victory. All they need is Pyrrhus, son of the fallen Achilles. But Pyrrhus has been putting his godlike form to profitable use as a go-go dancer in the big city. Why should he leave the party, give up his hard-bought freedom, just because some voice in a jar says he must strap on a suit of hand-me-down armor? Still, he has always known destiny had plans for him, some more glittering future than life as a used-up hustler on a park bench somewhere. So he sails for Troy, hoping to transform himself into the bronzed immortal history requires. Instead, on an unscheduled detour, he stumbles through his first lessons on how to be a man.

Magically blending ancient headlines and modern myth, Merlis creates a fabulous new world where legendary heroes declare their endowments in the personal ads and any panhandler just might be a divinity in disguise. Comical, moving, startling in its audacity and range, An Arrow’s Flight is a profound meditation on gay identity, straight power, and human liberation.


Lambda Literary Award, 1998


SPOILER ALERT!: This discussion is infused throughout with one of Chux patented rants, so you might want to consider skipping to the middle of the piece, which actually reviews the captioned work........or skip it all together. And miss reading about a really terrific novel.


There are good novels and there are really good novels; then there are a transcendent few that should be read by everyone. Too often these stories are not only not read by those cognizant of the very best stories gay literature has to offer, they aren't even known about. This is one of those novels. I stumbled across the author and his novel while Googling something like "The Top Ten Best Gay Novels Ever Written." Fortunately, I came across this site http://litreactor.com/columns/ten-gay... .

I had read four of the ten novels listed, and alternate novels by a couple of the other listed authors. Hooray for me.

Something about the short description Ed Sikov gave Mark Merlis' An Arrow's Flight caught my eye (before I went out and bought Gods and Monsters - because Brendan Fraser was hot in the movie), or Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (although I had seen the t.v. adaption which I thought it was interesting, but so British: i.e., really slow-moving, with no good sex scenes.) Since the four novels I had read, were topped by my favorite all-time, I'll-love-it-until-I-die novel, Dancer From the Dance, I figured that Sikov might know what he was talking about.

Oh, sweet Jesus, did he know what he was talking about!

Those of you who have lasted through this lengthy harangue will be equally thrilled to learn that this hilariously funny AU retelling of Sophocles'Philoctetes is a allegory for the AIDS crisis circa the 1980s.

Anyone still reading this critique?

On the (big site) Goodreads star-scale this novel rated a 3.90. (There are a lot of dumb shits who contribute to the big Goodreads site.) You want to know the top whinge about the book (after saying how witty, well-written and funny the first three-quarters of it is)? The last quarter is sad. *Boo-fucking-hoo!* Rhett left Scarlett; Marie Antoinette lost her head; and Sherlock Holmes went over the Reichenbach Falls. Life can be a bitch. Deal.

The story, if anyone still cares, is that Pyrrhus (aka Neoptolemus for some unknown reason) is the son of demi-god Achilles (yes, that Achilles....the one with Patroclus attached to his hip) and minor princess, Deidameia of Scyros. He is, therefore, a quarter demi-god and gay hustler doing a Magic Mike-like routine at a gay bar in a large unnamed town on the outskirts of Troy. *sigh! Yes, that Troy.*

Although the Trojan War has been raging for ten years, it has been prophesied that Pyrrhus will end the war, in the Greek's favor, by breaching the walls of Troy and killing King Priam. The novel's conceit is that, despite the Greeks and Trojans going at it and getting nowhere fast, the time frame is a circa late 1970's AU-ish New York. Wrap your minds around that.

In order to bring triumph to the Greek Army; glory upon his somewhat soiled self; and revenge on a father who always thought he was a pussy, Pyrrhus must hustle (in the sexiest possible way) Hercules' bow, which is currently in the possession of one Philoctetes. Phil is a warrior abandoned, by Odysseus, on the Fire Island-ish Island of Lemnos because he was bitten on the ankle by a snake, and the bite won't heal at least never permanently. (Get the AIDS reference?)

After a night of sexless, but real, love with Philoctetes, Pyrrhus still hasn't laid his hands on the bow, but now knows where it is stashed. The ins-and-outs of politics around the stricken Philoctets, and whether he needs to be carried to Troy along with the bow, provides the central motif of the story.

All of this is a helluva lot funnier than it sounds and, if you think being a gay quarter demi-god is a piece of cake, this just might disabuse you of that idea. The scene of Hercules trying to self-immolate himself into the heights of Mount Olympus are worth the price of admission alone.

Why Merlis chose to set his story in this Alternate Universe is beyond my poor powers to add or detract. I can only say that, as I came to the end of the novel, I actually was really depressed the story wasn't longer.

Oh, and just to fuck with the reader, and his or her expectations, (view spoiler). Hah!

This is the best novel I've read since Dancer From the Dance, and for those of you who don't know me, that is one hell of a rave. Plus, Merlis has the sense of humor my beloved Andrew Holleran rather sadly lacks.

So, if you don't have to have a HEA (and I'm getting bloody sick of them myself....along with the vast majority of m/m romance literature in general), this is a novel that, like Sikov says, you'd be a fool not to give a read.

If the final chapters are *oh, my stars and garters!* kinda sad, suck it up; and see what really excellent writing is all about. It might even spoil you for the ephemeral "cotton candy" that passes for so much of today's m/m literature.

And wouldn't that be just too tragic?


message 2: by Dana (new)

Dana (danarohinsky) | 5 comments Well, I'm one of those readers who only gave the book 3 stars, though I did appreciate Merlis' creativity. I actually thought the ending was the best part of the book.

My question to you is: what did you think about Merlis' decision to leave out Patroclus? Seemed odd to me. Was it just because he didn't fit into the story Merlis was telling?

(Also, yay me!, I've read 7 out of the 10 books on that list, haha.)


message 3: by Charles (new)

Charles (chuck-e) | 306 comments Dana wrote: "Well, I'm one of those readers who only gave the book 3 stars, though I did appreciate Merlis' creativity. I actually thought the ending was the best part of the book.

My question to you is: what ..."


I do remember Patroclus being mentioned, very much in passing, when Achilles was discussed. I think you hit on why he wasn't more of a part of the story: Merlis uses Achilles as an anti-father figure and, hence, he appears infrequently (until his death), and then in a purely negative context.

This is the story of Pyrrhus and the people in his life, something Merlis takes care to say Achilles was not; whenever he's there he's dissing the poor kid.

I've noticed a number of people who have downgraded the novel because of its not mentioning the Achilles/Patroclus relationship (since the son is gay, where dad was bi), but he's such a peripheral, and highly negative, influence on his son, that I think Merlis made the conscious decision to simply include Patroclus with the rest of the Myrmidons and leave it at that. That's what I feel anyway.

You do win the book-reading contest. There are several on the list I've always intended to read (and still haven't): particularly, Gods and Monsters and, forgive me everyone, Maurice. I just haven't been drawn to Forster's novel although I quite enjoyed my several viewings of the film.

My experiences with Edmund White have been insomnia-defeating and B.O.R.I.N.G. I realize he's a "great man" of gay letters, but *excuse me while I yawn* not for this particular reader.

Of course the list is purely subjective on the part of the author. I would have NEVER included The Lost Weekend and, as noted, would have gone more with one of John Rechy's groundbreaking novels, particularly The Sexual Outlaw or his less racy City of Night.

All 10-best lists are purely subjective almost by their definition, so I refuse to read A Boy's Own Life; will eventually get around to Maurice; and, definitely, Gods and Monsters. Also, based on my reaction to The Swimming Pool Library, I think Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty would be a particularly sensual read.

But, then, this is all my own subjectivity at work. ;-)


message 4: by Dana (new)

Dana (danarohinsky) | 5 comments I see what you're saying about Achilles' absence from Pyrrhus' life making Patroclus unimportant to the narrative, though I think it might also have been interesting for Pyrrhus to learn that his father had had a gay relationship. But the way Achilles is portrayed in this book, it didn't feel at all like a relationship with Patroclus would have even been possible for Achilles.

I too have been intending to read Gods and Monsters, but it's been pushed far down on my mental list because I've read 2 other novels by Bram (Hold Tight and Surprising Myself) and didn't like either of them. On the other hand, there's probably a reason Gods and Monsters is more well known than those other 2!

I agree with you about White; I thought A Boy's Own Life was rather boring, so while I have the other 2 books of this trilogy, I've never been that interested in reading them.

And you're right, it's surprising that City of Night isn't on the list, which I found much more insightful than anything I've read by Bram.

But yeah, this list is obviously very subjective. I personally hated The City and the Pillar and I felt The Line of Beauty was overrated (though I do want to read some of Hollinghurst's other work).

Maurice, though, I really did enjoy that book, if for no other reason than the hopeful ending that you never get (understandably) in older gay literature.


message 5: by Dana (last edited Sep 03, 2013 05:18PM) (new)

Dana (danarohinsky) | 5 comments Oh, also, I'm surprised none of Mary Renault's books are included on the list. Or The Front Runner.


message 6: by Charles (new)

Charles (chuck-e) | 306 comments Dana wrote: "Oh, also, I'm surprised none of Mary Renault's books are included on the list. Or The Front Runner."

Good point.

I always try to steer people to The Charioteer as an incredibly early example of subtle, but rather defiantly (considering the hammering the critics gave it) gay lit. Also, Renault's writing is so beautifully dense that I can't help but wallow in it. But maybe today's readers want nothing but simple declarative sentences, and ALWAYS a HEA. (Not that the Charioteer's climax doesn't point in that direction.)

I'm guessing Front Runner might not have been included because it's so very well-known that people have either read, or skipped, it because someone told them the ending. (See above for required HEA.)

I think it's virtually impossible to encompass the best gay lit in just ten titles. Sikov was trying to include both novels that had been best-sellers along with those not well-known (to today's gay male audience for whom the list was prepared.) I would say one would need twenty titles minimum. Even then I'd have trouble deciding whether to include something like the Song of the Loon trilogy, which is pure trash, but was cutting-edge for the novels' use of an overt gay sexuality not seen outside porn at the time the books were written. Our discussion of that novel here proved that a lot of people weren't aware of it or, like me, had simply forgotten that they had read it (and loved it) for its sheer vulgar existence.

Charles Nelson's The Boy Who Picked the Bullets Up is another largely unread and/or forgotten novel that describes the terror and heroism of a medic's job in the Vietnam War. (Today's reader would have to overlook the overt racism of an author writing as a Southerner in the late '60s and early '70's.) I really have to find my copy and re-read, or get an e-book of same. I've grown an awful lot since I originally read the novel, and I've got a lot more m/m fiction under my belt. I remember it as being quite entertaining and definitely graphic both sexually and in its description of the horrors of that particular war. Yet it's barely even known nowadays. Naturally, I have its infinitely inferior sequel right at hand, but I'm damned if I an find the first book in the duology.


message 7: by Dana (new)

Dana (danarohinsky) | 5 comments Yeah, it is very hard to just pick 10 titles!

And it's so true regarding books like Song of the Loon. They might not be great literature but it's important to remember them because of their historical significance.

I'm going to check out the Nelson book!


message 8: by Charles (new)

Charles (chuck-e) | 306 comments Dana wrote: "Yeah, it is very hard to just pick 10 titles!

And it's so true regarding books like Song of the Loon. They might not be great literature but it's important to remember them because of their histor..."


Remember the warning about the racism in the Nelson book. What was accepted about 30 years ago in literature is absolutely persona non grata in today's lit. However, it was a wonderful chronicle of the life of a man who got dragged into the Vietnam War.....as I recall. Others who've read it more recently have found the Southern-isms fairly hard-going. Fair warning is all.


message 9: by Jax (new)

Jax | 981 comments Mark Merlis news! There was a short post about him at Band of Thebes and they mentioned that he has a new book coming out in the fall. They provide a link to read the first chapter. It's been 10 years since his last novel so this is very exciting.


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