Full disclosure: I’ve known Kergan Edwards-Stout for the better part of thirty years. I was there for many of the events depicted in his book and am even mentioned in it. Despite this, I am going to be as objective as I can with this review. Truth be told, I would have read this book without having this pre-existing relationship because its subtitle, (Or, How I Married A Lying, Psychopathic, Wannabe-Murderer And Kinda Lived To Tell), is totally my jam! I’m all out of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy reading materials, so let’s do this!
In his debut novel, Songs For The New Depression, author Kergan Edwards-Stout experimented with structure in recounting the life of a partner succumbing to AIDS. Starting with his tragic death and working backwards to end with his brighter, hope-filled teenage self, the book moved me by peeling back the onion layers of a prickly, difficult personality and showing the lost innocence underneath. It served to remind us that every single one of the over 32 million people we’ve lost to AIDS had so much to offer and had lives defined by much more than just their deaths.
Edwards-Stout tries something different with his latest. Calling it a fictional memoir, despite the fact that so much is true, he lures you in with an exciting premise. What if the person you trusted the most, your husband with whom you adopted a child, turned out to be a pathological liar who led a double life? What if he lied about his HIV status and had boyfriends in other cities? What if he faked a cancer diagnosis, going so far as to shave his head and claim he had to travel to another city for chemotherapy? It sounds like a salacious page turner, right? File it in the Jacqueline Susann section of the bookstore and this puppy will fly off the shelves. You’ll gasp when the author catches his partner upstairs with an employee. You’ll cringe when the husband lies about his whereabouts. You’ll feel numb when you realize that the author needs to bite his tongue or risk jeopardizing the adoption.
Luckily, Edwards-Stout has the smarts to go much deeper than that soap opera surface. In fact, he lays out the premise and then informs the reader that he’s not going to get to that for a while. Instead, he looks back at his own life to provide us with great insight as to how a person like him could fall for such a monster in the first place. It transforms a cautionary tale into something far more instructive and introspective. So many of us put blinders on when Mr. Perfect presents himself. Here, we learn to identify those blinders by delving into his childhood, with his disapproving, often distant mother, or his role as caregiver to his aforementioned dying partner. With his self-esteem issues and a bedrock of kindness towards others, he found himself ripe for the picking by the narcissistic sociopaths of the world.
Despite such heavy subject matter, the author has a breezy, conversational style to his writing. With most chapters comprising of only 2-3 pages and with interstitial paragraphs called “Life Lessons” strewn throughout, this 360 page novel reads very quickly while covering a lot of ground. He doesn’t really introduce his husband, here ominously called “Eyes”, until the halfway point, layering on his own backstory first. Many chapters may feel anecdotal or tangential, but in retrospect, they all serve a purpose in helping us understand the “How” behind the “What”. You may find yourself wondering why we follow the author on dates with the A-list of Gay Hollywood only to realize it all smartly supports what comes next.
Thus, when we finally meet “Eyes” and the tornado of destruction he leaves behind, it pays off beautifully. We understand the denial, the patience, and understanding Edwards-Stout has for his husband, because we see what led up to this horrific period in his life. One chapter in particular, and for me the most brutally honest, gut-wrenching section in the book, details the lengths he went through to care for his previous partner, who died years prior to his meeting “Eyes”. It’s really tough to read, but this type of candidness brings the really dark years of the AIDS crisis into full focus. From that experience, Edwards-Stout really learned the beauty of unconditional love, and moved on from it knowing he had the capacity to be wonderful for someone else. That “Eyes” took advantage of his kindness only adds to the tragedy, but how he survived and thrived beyond this marriage offers us a glimmer of hope in this despairing yet often hilarious memoir.
Unfortunately, things sometimes go off the rails in the pages following the main event. I understand and appreciate that the author wanted to show off his ability to survive and thrive in the aftermath, but some of the chapters felt like random musings, however entertaining they may seem. While it’s enjoyable to read the funny quotes from his children, or try to guess the name of a celebrity he has a very awkward encounter with, not all of these moments feel essential and on point. It’s like reading a great detective novel with an explosive reveal, only to spend the remainder of the story at lunch with our heroic sleuth as he or she shows us pictures from his trip to Cancun. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m nitpicking here, but a little pruning in the last third could have gone a long way towards allowing the core of this terrific, inspiring memoir to shine that much brighter. All told, anyone, LGBTQ+ or otherwise, could learn a lesson or two in how the road to happiness has a lot of speed-bumps, and all of them have a reason for being there if you’re willing to appreciate them.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Never Turn Your Back On The Tide will be published on September 8th 2020 and is available for pre-order here, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble or your local bookstore.