TOM SPANBAUER'S NEW BOOK I Loved You More isn't a memoir.
It reads like a memoir: first person, introspective, reminiscent.
It looks like one: It's published by Hawthorne Books, a local house that's built a reputation in part on the strength of personal narratives like Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water, Jay Ponteri's Wedlocked, and Frank Meeink's Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead.
It even fact-checks like a memoir: It's about a gay man from Idaho who moves to New York City in the 1980s, works as a building super, contracts HIV, writes novels, moves to Portland, becomes a writing teacher. That's Spanbauer's own bio, cribbed from the "about the author" page of novels like The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon and In the City of Shy Hunters.
But I Loved You More is fiction, insists the book jacket. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty; the main character goes by Ben, not Tom.
With this dodge, Spanbauer shrugs off an accountability to capital-T Truth even as he makes no attempt to disguise that the novel is based on his own life. The line between fiction and non-fiction collapses even further if you're familiar with Spanbauer's previous books. There's a passage in I Loved You More where Ben visits a remote cabin in Idaho with his friends and takes mushrooms for the first time. At the cabin, he sleeps in a bed that purportedly belonged, in the 1800s, to "Peg-Leg Ida," a whore, his friend explains, who "got her leg froze off." Spanbauer's second novel, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, features a prostitute named Ida; it's about, among many other things, how Ida lost her leg. Other recurring preoccupations in Spanbauer's work: impotence, HIV/AIDS, gender-bending, Native American rituals, Idaho. These plainly biographical elements converge in I Loved You More, which tells the not-quite-linear story of Ben's complex friendship with another writer, a man named Hank Christian. Their years-long friendship is competitive, affectionate, tinged with desire—Hank is straight; Ben is not—and it's ultimately doomed by a love triangle involving a woman, Ben's co-teacher, who falls for first one man and then the other.
I figured out who the real Hank Christian is, and the woman, too. It was easy; I just looked at the acknowledgements page of The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon and Googled the people who were thanked. The "real" Hank Christian was a writer who died of liver cancer, just like in Spanbauer's book.
It's good gossip, if you're interested in that sort of thing, but I'll let you follow that down your own Google-hole. Fact-checking I Loved You More feels like a betrayal, both of the mantle of fiction Spanbauer assumed to write the book, and of the terms of Spanbauer's work in general.
Because there's something anachronistic and pre-internet about Spanbauer as a writer, reflected in a body of work that always seems to be looking backward: Faraway Places is set in the 1950s, In the City of Shy Hunters in the 1980s, Now Is the Hour in the 1960s. It's as though his sensibility developed entirely apart from the world of click-baiting think pieces and gossip blogs and Reddit AMAs. In some ways, in fact, he's out of touch; his work doesn't always pass the progressive sniff test, finely honed as our sense of smell is these days. In The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, which came out in 1991, a Chinese doctor mixes up his Rs and Ls for constant, comic effect. I Loved You More sees Ben grappling with some fairly essentialist ideas about gender and sexuality. It's as though Spanbauer has never heard the words "politically correct."
And I guess if this were Twitter, that'd be cause for public shaming, but it isn't, and that's the point. I Loved You More is a messy, intensely personal novel about a man figuring out how to live in the world and love other people and himself. Mistakes, necessarily, are made along the way.
I've been reading Tom Spanbauer's books since high school, when I picked up a copy of The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon at a suburban chain bookstore that doesn't exist anymore. The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is a minor masterpiece; his follow-up, In the City of Shy Hunters, is a boisterous, big-hearted snapshot of New York during the height of the AIDS crisis. They're books you find and read as a teenager, and they make you believe that the world is full of interesting people, even if you haven't met them yet. Spanbauer's work has been important to me—and it's also been important to Portland. Hundreds of writers, including big shots like Chuck Palahniuk and Monica Drake, have found their voices in his workshops.
I Loved You More is the most personal book we've seen yet from an author who's important to so many of us. It reads like the deliberate unpacking of one man's personal mythology—self-delusion and doubt and vanity and anger and lust and all the bad parts, along with the good. And that's why I read it like a memoir—even though it isn't.
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