BOOK BY J.E. SUMERAU
SENSE PUBLISHERS, 2017
250 PP.; $25.00
Cigarettes & Wine, by J.E. Sumerau, is a novel that illuminates fresh perspectives on living out humanist values concerning gender and sexuality, while portraying emotions in intimate relationships in a universal way. Respectfully, this review applies gender-neutral third-person pronouns in a manner that is common in the transgender community in the US, by which “ze” replaces “he or she,” and “zir” replaces “his or her,” etc. The story’s unnamed protagonist and narrator starts out as a self-described “thirteen-year-old boy” who is emotionally receptive to exploring close relationships, even at the expense of acquaintanceships. Through them all, the book offers an easy, engaging, and entertaining read.
The book opens with the protagonist having zir first sexual encounter. That it’s with another boy does not, by my experience, place it outside the experimentation that pubescent boys engage in. But we quickly learn that the protagonist has been in love with a different boy for a number of years already, portending an easy openness with accepting both romantic emotions and sexual experimentation wherever they may lead.
After the opening chapters, Sumerau establishes the protagonist’s effort to understand zir desire to dress in girls’ clothing, while enjoying experimenting with sex with boys as well as girls. The protagonist is curious, yet reticent about the former. But while ze possesses a careful awareness of the necessity of discretion, ze doesn’t exhibit significant self-doubt, guilt, or shame about sex or romantic love that I would expect from a young person growing up in a small town of even average religiosity and sexual uptightness in the US.
Maybe it’s just me, but this ease of the protagonist and also some of zir friends to accept, in the novel’s setting of the 1980s, their dawning realizations of their individual sexual desires and loves outside of the mainstream is extraordinary—futuristic, even. Certainly, that ease is what those supporting gender rights want to achieve for each child growing up. It induced me to imagine a world in which Sumerau’s narrative were an ordinary coming-of-age story. Humanism advocates the freedom to discover oneself, and that implies the social conditions necessary for doing so with ease. But this book takes that ease as a given without attempting insight into how to foster it in adolescents or the adults in their lives. Nonetheless, it made my imagination take one step further, to a world in which youth could cross-dress in their daily lives, without question.
At the same time, the narrative portrays how young people might help each other answer their own questions and understand their own romantic and sexual feelings and gender identity. As ze tells a female friend,
I think it really depends and you kind of just have to figure out how it works for you and what you feel drawn to if that makes sense. This or that type of body or person might not fit for a lot of people, but for me, best I can tell, you only know if you like them enough by trying it out and seeing how you feel.
Throughout their high school years, the protagonist uses zir emotional sensitivity to assure zir friends that they have a right to explore their love and their sexuality. That they may even get more out of life by doing so. This crucial distinction between love and sex, the oft-neglected love-lust split, comes through in ways that add some pleasant turns to the story.
A number of those turns depend on what I have to call the protagonist’s very good luck. Zir friends generally are very understanding and open-minded, sometimes to their own surprise. Ze even has a grandma who gives zir some of her clothes after ze admits to grandma that ze likes to wear women’s styles.
Sumerau’s handling of the protagonist’s encounters in love and sex is highly sensitive. Ze portrays the protagonist as initially treating zir early sex with girls rather lightly. In contrast, zir anxiety over the prospect of bedding zir childhood love elucidates its greater meaning. But as the protagonist and zir friends pass through high school, ze finds a bond with one of the girls growing into something that ze also doesn’t want to give up.
Now, the book is marketed as engaging the context of having these experiences in a milieu of disapproving churches and unaccepting family. The fact that the aforementioned first sexual encounter is in a church storeroom contributes to the impression that the book will dig deep into those issues. In fact, those issues remain peripheral, and the story focuses on the intense self-actualization of the protagonist and those dear to zir on sexual and romantically emotional levels, as well as zir preferences in fashion.
While disapproval on the part of community and family is part of the backdrop, it only occasionally rears its ugly head in the plot. More prominent are the impacts of different views within the LGBTQ community. For example, the protagonist’s love joins a gay church with a number of members who expressly disapprove of hearing that the protagonist professes zir sexuality as “bisexual.” One of the protagonist’s girlfriends reports to zir: “They think that it’s just like a phrase or something, you know, and that you can’t trust people who are that way. They talk about how they’ve heard of bisexual people who all end up either really being gay or go back to straight people.” Likewise, the protagonist only cross-dresses in private, until supportive new friends open the right doors for zir. As with so much in life, half the battle for the protagonist is finding zir people.
As ze finds out, sometimes the range of people to whom an individual is sexually attracted is different from the range of people whom the individual can love romantically. Discovering who those people are allows the individual who searches zirself to maximize zir chances for happiness throughout life. That the protagonist in Cigarettes & Wine is zirself a relatively undamaged, shy romantic may be the key to the ease of the story. While not everyone has that advantage, it sure makes for a great read about a loving circle of friends. They hang out a lot, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine, while getting each other through the challenges that life throws at them, attaining a great degree of self-awareness by early adulthood.
If I lived in the future world that I imagined while reading this book, I might end my review there. Instead, I live in a world in which humanism still has issues with recognizing the value and place of the humanities and of human emotion. Sumerau weaves another instance of how the humanities can reveal a greater understanding of human plurality commensurate with humanist values. The emotional perceptiveness of zir writing captures the fundamental similarity of the nature of love and sex in the mainstream and LGBTQ parts of US culture. It’s a beacon on the path to that imagined future where that subaltern is as second nature and widely accepted as the center is now. A good short-term step would be for more individual humanists to get themselves there, to help bend the arc to that future. Sumerau leads the way.