Book: The Red Shoes by John Stewart Wynne
Rating: 3/5 lines of finely chopped cocaine
Recommended if you like: graphic sex scenes, books about cis gay men, modern retelling of fairy tales, introspective narrative
First lines: “Every day has its misgivings. Man lives by faith, they say, but personally I think man wants to render faith unnecessary. If I slipped off a tightrope I’d for damn sure rather know there’s a safety net down there than not.”
Published: Magnus Books, October 4, 2013, 300 ages
A review copy was provided by Magnus Books.
Y’all, I have some mixed feelings about The Red Shoes.
On the one hand, there are some incredible passages of beautiful prose that exactly describe loss and finding yourself in unanticipated situations and just generally trying to figure out how to navigate the maze of life. The elements of the original fairy tale are evident in their modified form and the characters are secure in their homosexuality.
On the other hand, the ending was sloppy, the secondary characters underdeveloped, the narrative arc uneven, and when I hit Part Two and discovered it was just more of Part One with one tiny variation I got super fucking bored.
However, I think I would have liked it much more if I were a cis gay dude who was interested in having sex with other cis gay dudes. When I consulted my two best friends — who happen to be cis gay dudes– who both have VERY active and colorful sexual histories I was informed that the length, number, and intensity of sexual encounters described in this book “sounds about right.”
So take that for what it’s worth.
The Red Shoes is a retelling of the little known (unless you are a ballet enthusiast) fairy tale of the same name by Hans Christian Anderson. In the fairy tale, a girl named Karen is given a pair of red shoes that force her to dance without ever stopping, fusing themselves to her feet. She finally manages to convince an executioner to cut off the shoes– and her feet with them– so she can go into the church and repent of her sins. Then she dies.
In this retelling, John Laith – our protagonist and narrator – acquires a pair of red shoes from an 18 yr old kid named Jared, who was once a dancer (the only dance tie in, much to my disappointment) but now is a drug addict and possibly a prostitute. When we meet John, he is deeply morning the death of his partner, Frank. He attends, and sometimes leads, a support group for those dealing with loss and is generally trying to get his life together.
Like the fairy tale, the acquisition of the red shoes signals the beginning of a downward spiral for John into a world of drugs, sex, and emotional manipulation by a narcissistic psychopath named Crewe.
Now first let me say that I don’t think that drugs or sex are necessarily evil in and of themselves, but the way Crewe wields them is.
Crewe barges into John’s life — literally inviting himself into John’s apartment. He is a master manipulator. A married man with a wife and daughter who, we discover, has sex with numerous men – strangers – on a frequent and regular basis. He manipulates John slowly. First into doing a line of coke with him (“it makes the sex incredible”) and then without really knowing how it escalated, John is soon buying it for them from a crack addict/prostitute who lives nearby. Crewe wants to make John “his boy,” tells him that he’ll “take care of everything” (read “personal sex slave”) and when John bolts at the end of Part One, there is a legitimate concern that Crewe might try to kill him. In the meantime John has cut ties with his support group and his friends at Crewe’s demand, leaving him isolated and friendless- a common method of narcissistic psychos.
This relationship is the most interesting thing in the book. The way Crewe subtly and slowly takes over every aspect of John’s life. The way John both wants and hates Crewe. These sections drew me in and had me rapidly turning pages. However, they were quickly interrupted for lengthy discussions of blow jobs, sex positions and penetration.
Now, I’m not at all opposed to graphic sex scenes of any kind. But after the the hundredth page-long description of cocks and balls and condoms and semen I was like WHATEVER I’M BORED SOMETHING INTERESTING HAPPEN!
So when it turned out Part Two was just a whole lot of another dysfunctional relationship with a guy named Bailey (this time featuring crack instead of coke) with a new set of underdeveloped characters I’m not gonna lie– I speed read that shit. More of the same, and not as interesting. That whole relationship could have been deleted and the story would have been tighter for it.
Crewe does make a reappearance and there are a few twists toward the end I won’t reveal. But the twists were sloppy– they didn’t really make sense. They came across as rough coincidences rather than either causal reactions or the hand of fate. They only seemed planted to line up more solidly with the original fairy tale, and the ending itself had me rolling my eyes and saying “really?”
So all in all, not a bad read, but not one to jump up and down about. I’m certainly interested in what others thought of it, but don’t feel a burning need to put it on your to-read list.