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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Close Shave

In Chapter 22 of Searching for Cunégonde, the protagonist Dallas shaves off his friend Justin’s beard.

I probably wrote the first draft of that chapter about this time last year when I myself was clean-shaven. Little did I suspect that, by the time of the book’s release, my own face would be covered by hair.

It had been many years since I had worn facial hair. I had a beard off and on during my college years, and then less occasionally after that. This current beard was my first in a quarter-century. I stopped shaving around the time of this year’s vernal equinox, as did a lot of men. As people found themselves stuck at home because of pandemic-related restrictions, it sort of became the thing to do. If the barber shops were all closed because of the pandemic, then our hair—or what was left of it—was going to grow. Why not let the facial hair grow as well?

As a result, I am now haunted by what I originally wrote last year. Back then I had to plumb receded memories for what it was like to have a beard and to recall details of the experience of shaving it off. Writing Chapter 22 was an exercise in nostalgia. Now I cannot stroke my chin without thinking to an indeterminate date to come when Chapter 22 will be my future. It isn’t exactly fun shaving off a beard. On the other hand, there is something satisfying about feeling one’s own newly clean-shaven chin. Beards make you feel mature, if not old. Smooth skin makes you feel young—even if it is only an ephemeral illusion.

Why does Dallas shave off Justin’s beard? Naturally, I advise you to read the book as a necessary first step to answering that question—if there is an answer. If you have read the book, you may still be wondering what that was all about.

In the trilogy’s previous book, Lautaro’s Spear, something is clearly left unfinished between Dallas and Justin, something left hanging in the air. Frankly, I was quite happy to leave it hanging. Sometimes these things are best left for readers to ponder and to work out their own understanding of things. Once I realized that I would be writing a third book, however, I knew I would have to explore it further.

There is something powerfully symbolic about the cutting of hair. As I suggested above, shaving can feel like turning back the clock. Moreover, there are instances in literature and history of forced hair-cutting as a form of humiliation, such as the French women whose heads were shaved because they had slept with German soldiers during the World War II occupation. There is also, of course, the story of Samson and Delilah. As for beards specifically, cultures going back to the ancient Greeks have viewed facial hair as a sign of potency. The standard barber-shop shave notwithstanding, it seems to me there is something meaningful and intimate in the act of one man shaving off another man’s beard. As Dallas reflects, while drawing a sharp blade across his friend’s neck, it is not an exaggeration to say that he potentially has Justin’s life in his hands.

When readers tell me who their favorite characters are in the Dallas books, hardly anyone ever mentions Justin. Some people see him as a distraction from the larger narrative. For me, however, his part in Dallas’s story is key and crucial.

If someone were to ask me what exactly the trilogy is “about” and I were in a flippant mood, my reply might well be that it’s the story of an irresponsible young man wandering from place to place throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, marking time and waiting for terms like “man crush” and “bromance” to be coined. As I tried to explain in a recent post, the books are about friendships, specifically male (more specifically, cis hetero, though doesn’t the Dallas/Justin thing kind of illustrate the limits of rigid labels?) attachments and their complications and limitations.

After Lonnie disappears from Dallas’s life, our hero makes half-hearted attempts to recreate that relationship with someone else, but there is no substitute for close childhood friendships. Yes, you can make a great and wonderful friends as an adult, but it is not precisely the same as those close bonds you forge as a child, the ones where you have a long, shared history with a contemporary. Of course, that is also why family is important, but like a lot of people of his generation, Dallas doesn’t spend a lot of time with his family.

As he matures, I like to think that Dallas learns how to form better friendships and relationships in general, but it’s a difficult and drawn-out process. At the particular moment when he becomes friends with Justin, his mental and emotional state is such that I think Dallas—like my readers—underappreciates Justin. Still, to mind, their relationship constitutes one of several important love stories in the trilogy.

After all, don’t we all need someone in our lives whom we can trust to hold a sharp blade against our necks?

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