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Posted on 6 Jul 2023 in Fiction |

LUKE RUTLEDGE A Man and His Pride. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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Luke Rutledge’s debut novel is both a social comedy and a moving story of coming out.

Luke Rutledge has written a delightful comedy of manners set against the backdrop of the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite. It opens at a cracking pace, introducing us to 26-year-old Sean Preston as his relationship of three months collapses and he becomes homeless.

I was initially exhausted by these chapters; the wisecracks and the one-liners come at a relentless pace as Sean’s background of hook-ups, Grindr and gym culture are exposed. It felt as though Eve Arden had supplanted Margaret Meade in describing the rituals of a remote and isolated community with which I was unfamiliar.

After the set up, however, the story settles into an Austen-ish tempo as Sean goes to visit Meredith, who resides in a nursing home. There he meets William, a new nurse at the facility.

It is clear that despite our initial view of Sean as a shallow young man, there is more depth to him, and while her relationship with Sean is unclear, we can gather that he has been visiting Meredith, now suffering from dementia, for several years at least.

Everything was silent and still. For the first time I noticed a clear bag containing yellow liquid hanging off the end of the bed, the attached cord disappearing under the sheets.

I walked over to the bed and sat on the chair, putting myself in Meredith’s line of vision.

‘Hey, Meredith. It’s me. Sean.’

Meredith’s eyes widened ever so slightly. Maybe I was imagining it, but I thought I saw something dance in them. Gently, I touched her hand, her skin as thin and soft as a tissue, and wrapped my fingers around hers. Then, after a moment, her fingers twitched and curled.

‘Sorry I haven’t seen you in a while. I’ve been a bit … caught up in myself.’

William is a naive young gay who pushes against Sean’s nihilism and his attempts to brush him off. On learning that Sean is homeless, William offers him a room while he sorts himself out. William is sweet and shy, and despite himself Sean becomes inveigled into his life as he drifts through his own unravelling.

I nodded and tried to appear engaged, though there was a strange ache in my chest.

‘Dad’s a construction worker,’ William went on, and there was something alive when he said this. ‘Reckons he’s had chats with all the blokes on his site about voting yes.’ I needed to put some distance between myself and this conversation. I put my plate in the dishwasher and announced I was turning in. My head felt full and confused, as if it had endured an interrogation.

See, this is why it was easier to have friends who weren’t interested in your life. Much easier not to talk about these things than to psychoanalyse every detail, as William clearly liked to do.

Sean works as a reply guy on a bank’s social media accounts, where he is hated by his boss for sleeping with her boyfriend at a staff party. At present the bank is under pressure to announce its stand on marriage equality. He hasn’t visited his mother for months and a mysterious stranger named John starts sending him enigmatic texts.

As Sean seeks to guide William through the mores of gay dating, he also works to bolster his best friend and ex-girlfriend Abby in her attempts to negotiate hook-ups in the straight world. It is clear he is flailing as he attempts to anchor himself, despite the best efforts of his friends. He encounters hostility from his mother, William’s ex-boyfriend, and Jake, his ex-lover and former landlord.

One of the most powerful pieces of writing is when Sean accompanies William to an activist meeting campaigning for marriage equality and Sean takes to the phones to speak to people about the plebiscite. He has an epiphany after being abused over the phone and finally understands the issues and the prejudice still to be overcome. His own mother is detached and ambivalent about the plebiscite and we get an insight into why Sean’s own coming out has been so difficult and unresolved.

I was no longer in the mood for drinking, especially with these guys. All I wanted was to isolate myself in my apartment and have zero contact with anyone.

It had been a long while since someone had called me a fag. I didn’t even think people used that word any more, at least not as a means to hurt someone.

Something was seriously wrong. I felt strange, my mind foggy. Something in my brain was slowly shifting, a rusty cog running painfully into place.

While trying to process my thoughts on the drive home, it occurred to me that as much as I couldn’t stand Kyle and his pompous superiority, I agreed with what he’d said.

There is a lot going on in this novel, despite Luke Rutledge’s light and breezy tone. I admired how deftly he introduced the darker side of the plebiscite and the concerns of the Queer community. I also liked how we were kept guessing, right to the denouement, as to the tragic story behind Sean’s coming out. I challenge any reader to remain unmoved as we learn why Sean visits Meredith.

The author nicely winds up all the strands as the result of the plebiscite is announced – but Reader, he doesn’t marry. This is a work that deals gently with a world of hurt and looks beneath the surface to explore why people can be the way they are.

It is a timely novel, written six years after the plebiscite and as the Queer community finds itself challenged as part of the current culture wars. The novel is populated by real characters – I felt I had met all these people and knew them well; I understood their weaknesses and their strengths. Luke Rutledge can be very proud of what he has achieved in his debut novel. A Man and His Pride is an engaging look at a young man seemingly bent on self-destruction as he finally comes of age.

Luke Rutledge A Man and His Pride Michael Joseph 2023 PB 320pp $32.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen

You can buy A Man and His Pride from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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