By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
‘Black Diamond Fall’ by Joseph Olshan
Joseph Olshan’s 10th novel, “Black Diamond Fall” (Polis Books, Sept. 18), entwines three rich narrative strands: a crime drama, a lush love story, and a poignant reflection of the damage socially regulated gender roles can wreak on the innocent.
Luc, focal point of this literary mystery, is a bright college student with a lingering, childhood brain injury. After a game of ice hockey with his college roommates, Luc is hit on the head by an unseen assailant and wanders off into a frigid Vermont night. Suspicion shifts from one character to another, while a choir sings Rachmaninoff in Luc’s mind and he stumbles across ice and snow and memories, pitting his closeted sexuality against society’s expectations for a straight male athlete. His inner turmoil and altered thought process are both real and painful and perfectly reflected in Olshan’s writing.
Luc’s much older, erstwhile lover, Sam, has his own struggles confronting the prospect of aging alone. He’s so conflicted he is willing to risk life and loved ones on an extreme ski run to prove his ongoing vibrancy, while
mourning his breakup with Luc and the younger man’s attempt to create a relationship with a fellow student, a woman.
The concurrent desecration of the historic Robert Frost Homestead, although well integrated in the mystery of Luc’s disappearance, is not nearly as powerful a player as the wintry Vermont landscape that envelopes Luc and much of the story. Olshan’s descriptions bring the snow and ice and dropping temperature alive, driving the reader to reminisce of a feather comforter and propelling the mystery to its resolution.
His descriptions are so adept in part because Olshan’s fiction is based on fact. He lives in Vermont amid the harsh beauty of its winters. Like Sam, he knows the pain of cradling a dying pet. And, Luc’s disappearance is based on a local case of an actual missing student.
Olshan says of the novel, “This is based on real stuff. One of the reasons I write autobiographically, I find it really daunting to create a whole other life. I find one’s own material difficult enough to understand and that’s your own life. Trying to understand someone else’s life seems like an insurmountable challenge.”
Nonetheless, Olshan achieves both. His first novel, “Clara’s Heart,” published in 1985, won the London Times/Jonathan Cape Young Writers’ Competition. It was subsequently adapted as a film starring Whoopi Goldberg and Neil Patrick Harris. His novel, “Nightswimmer,” was nominated for a Lambda Award. And he has earned the admiration of literary stars, including, Louise Erdrich, Ian McEwan, Robert Olen Butler and Grace Paley.
But with “Black Diamond Fall” and his previous novel, “Cloudland,” Olshan is taking a new literary path into the world of crime fiction.
“Earlier on,” he says, “I might have written a novel just about that [Sam and Luc], but I want to broaden my audience in a way. I want to write a book that has broader appeal, so I’ve embraced the crime drama. … I’m trying to marry the two, the crime and the interior lyricism of love. An example, ‘Ordinary Grace,’ by William Kent Krueger, it’s a very personal coming-of-age story set against a crime. It’s a beautiful blend. It won the Edgar Award. That really inspired me to try to write something very personal. I’m interested in trying to find another way to frame a gay love story, not a typical way.”
In “Black Diamond Fall,” he has done so. The reader cares for Luc and yearns for his survival—for exposure of the villain who has harmed him—while sharing his epiphany of love and passion, the depth of connection he and Sam experience. The book’s erotic scenes are exceptionally accessible; they will move any reader who appreciates gifted writing.
As Olshan says, “Sex can be a transcendent journey.”
Yet a certain sadness pervades “Black Diamond Fall,” and the author acknowledges it.
“I remember when my first novel was reviewed in The New York Times,” Olshan recounts. “The headline read ‘Why are the suburbs so sad?’ It’s something that goes throughout my writing, and it might have to do with early experiences. I witnessed the drowning of another child when I was 6, and my mother had a child who died. I’ve written about it. It sort of sets things in motion, which is interesting, because you can say the death of my younger brother set my life in motion. I was very aware of grief very early. … I can’t say I’m the happiest person I know, and I’m always aware of the fact that there are a lot of people happier than I am. I try to work out some of this stuff in fiction. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.”
Such is the personal drama of a writer’s life. It’s a challenge Olshan contends with—and poses to readers.
“What readers don’t understand is that a writer can’t do it every time,” he explains. “That’s just the nature of creativity. Choreographer Jerome Robbins was telling me a story about George Balanchine. He said Balanchine did a ballet and then he did another ballet and then he did another ballet and that one was the masterpiece. Not everything Balanchine did was genius. That’s the nature of creativity. You can’t knock it out of the ballpark every time. Readers expect that and they’re disappointed when they don’t get that. I wish it was something that was discussed—the sort of volatility of creativity.”
This time, for Olshan, it’s working. A crime mystery, a May-December love affair, and a gay coming of age story; the combination is riveting and poignant and heartily recommended.
— Kit-Bacon Gressitt writes commentary and essays on her blog, “Excuse Me, I’m Writing,” and formerly wrote for the North County Times. She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.