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Oct032018

Book Review: Face Your Fears

Face Your Fears Bill MathisRogue Phoenix Press, July 14, 2018Trade Paperback and E-book, 323 pages.

Reviewed by Renee James.

In Face Your Fears, author Bill Mathis tells the story of Nate McGuire and Jude Totsian, from each man's childhood, to his earliest rumblings of attraction to other males, to the adult life events and romances that eventually lead them to each other. It is a novel with significant flaws in craftsmanship and pace, but it has redeeming qualities that recommend it, especially its gentle and touching telling of how gay men experience life, love, and the search for happiness.

Nate and Jude alternate the narration of this story. Nate has Cerebral Palsy, which renders him a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic. He is completely dependent on others for even the most basic life functions but compensates with a caustic wit, a loud voice, and a willingness to wield both qualities without fear or reservation in any situation. His suburban-Chicago family is supportive and well-heeled enough to make sure he has the services he needs.

Jude is ten years older than Nate and provides a sharp contrast: he's athletic, active, and fully integrated into his conservative Iowa farm community as a child. Yet he feels a growing distance from that community as he becomes aware of his sexual orientation and how his family and community would regard that.

The contrast between the two boys' journeys of self-discovery is profound and one of the elements that most recommend this book. Nate's life is a succession of physical challenges non-handicapped people might have never imagined—getting a meal, getting to the bathroom in time and needing someone to clean him up afterwards, and dealing with the stares and discomfort his presence causes when he ventures into new places and situations. He deals with these embarrassments by being loud and bold, sometimes in a funny way, sometimes like a brat.

Jude is Nate's opposite in many ways. He's physically gifted, relatively quiet, and obedient. He goes along to get along.

The contrasts continue as each boy reaches puberty and begins feeling a sexual attraction to other males. Outspoken Nate wastes little time telling his loving and supportive family that he's gay, while Jude begins a cycle of many years of a secret life by keeping his sexuality a secret.

The scenes depicting each boy's early experiences with attraction and love are deep and moving, making this book the kind of read that will linger in one's memory for many months and perhaps years to come.

As Nate and Jude evolve into their adult years, Face Your Fears becomes more of a romance novel, with frequent twists and turns, angst, and tears in each man's struggles for love and fulfillment.

While the portraits of Nate and Jude in their early years make this book special, the lapses in storytelling craft slow it to a crawl in places. Author Mathis tells his story in first-person, present tense, which is effective, but it often lapses into long passages filling in back story in past tense. Some transitions in time and place are unclear. And some of the dialogue would be better condensed into summary narration to keep the story moving.

Despite these shortcomings, Face Your Fears rewards readers with moments that are deeply engaging and can change one's understanding of the world in which we live—a quality not always found in today's most popular fiction.

 

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