Friday, April 13, 2012

Mark Merlis rewrites a classic.

Because Madeline Miller’s novel was so engaging, I decided to go back and read Mark Merlis’s novel on a similar theme. It was just as delightful as I remembered from reading it in the 1990s.

An Arrow’s Flight

Mark Merlis’s own novel about the Trojan War is called An Arrow’s Flight (384 pages, Stonewall Inn Edition, $15). In this novel, Merlis tells the story of Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, who emerges after that hero’s death to take part in the destruction of Troy.

Merlis rewrites that legend in a fascinating way. Pyrrhus is a young go-go boy/hustler who has escaped his island home to come to the big city, where he lives a 1980s gay life but at the same time seems to be following the plot of an ancient epic. All the details of this urban existence, including the clubs, the other go-go boys, and the smitten roommate, are told with wit and precision.

Almost out of the blue, as it were, an older man, a eunuch called Phoenix, comes to find him and persuade him to fight in the Trojan War. It has been foretold, it seems, by the oracle, and Pyrrhus decides to give up the wild life and see whether he can become a persuasive soldier.

Before going to Troy, though, Odysseus needs to stop along the way to try to persuade Philoctetes also to join the campaign. This soldier had been left behind on an island because of a wound that would not heal. And when they approach the island again, they decide that the handsome, young, demigod Pyrrhus should try to seduce him into returning to Troy.

Philoctetes illness very quickly seems analogous to AIDS as it existed in the 1980s and 1990s: a slow wasting disease in which a sufferer feels always a little more exhausted and rarely able to shake it for more than a month or two at a time. When Pyrrhus meets this older man, he falls in love for the first time. Merlis tells a beautiful story of the emotional awakening of Pyrrhus and how much trouble it causes him.

Merlis uses his classical frame and the characters of the Iliad to tell a story all his own, and a wonderful story it is. If you read it with a knowledge of the Homeric source, it is an utter delight. But even if you know very little about Homer, you can find this story surprisingly moving.

I am pleased to have read it again, and I recommend it for anyone interested in recent gay fiction. This is one of the great novels of the 1990s.

Mark Merlis

An Arrow's Flight is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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