Alex by William DiCanzio
Reviewed by August Cosentino
In 1971, the literary world was turned on its bowler-clad head by the posthumous publication of “Maurice,” E.M. Forster’s novel about the love affair between Cambridge-educated Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder, a groundskeeper on an English estate. Homophobic critics condemned the novel, hating the sin even more than the book itself. After all, being gay had been a crime in the UK up until 1967, and it was not exactly a walk in the Ramble anywhere else, either.
Fifty years later, in somewhat more enlightened times, William Di Canzio has written “Alec,” which tells the story of the relationship—but this time, from the groundskeeper’s POV. Alec, hailing from a working-class family in Wales, grows into a strappingly handsome youth (“with the beauty of a Giorgione” as Di Canzio describes him) who cannot understand why he is attracted to other young men.
Intellectually curious, yet hobbled by Britain’s highly stratified social class system, Alec forgoes university and takes a job as a groundskeeper at an English estate. One weekend he meets Maurice, who is a guest of the owner. The two begin a secret affair, forsaking their lifestyles (Maurice, his job and club, Alex his family). They board together in a crummy flat near the British Museum and confine their social life to get-togethers with other closeted gay men (and their aristocratic admirers) mostly from Maurice’s circle.
When World War I erupts in 1914, Alec and Maurice enlist together but are sent in separate directions (Alec to the trenches in Germany, Maurice to the Dardanelles.) They communicate sporadically and secretly through letters sent to a third party, as any suggestion of a male-to-male relationship is censored. As the war progresses and millions of Europe’s young men die like flies, the reader is wondering if Alec and Maurice will a) survive and b) reunite.
Whether you are gay, straight, or prefer not to say, you cannot help being moved by this novel. I personally found it spectacular. The writing and plot are unabashedly romantic (something I normally find cringeworthy but not here). Best of all, “Alec” is true to the tone of early 20th century novels written by D. H. Lawrence and even Forster himself. Speaking of true, the depiction of life before gay became mainstream—and between gay men of different social classes—is spot-on and heartbreaking.
I acknowledge that “Alec” will not be everyone’s.
cup of tea. But if you do fancy clandestine love affairs like Heathcliff and Cathie’s, Jack and Ennis’, and Laura and Alec’s (from “A Brief Affair”) you will find it as irresistible as I did. Somewhere in a far-off universe, E. M. Forster is looking down and saying, “Good Christ! The lad got it right.”