Category Archives: Skylar reads…

Skylar reads… Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

“Skylar reads…” is a new series of book reviews by writer Skylar Baker-Jordan.

By now, most people will be at least passingly familiar with André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. The story of two young men who fall in love on the Italian Riviera, it was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 2017. The novel, like its setting along the northwestern Italian coast, is lush and beautiful and inspiring. Bittersweet like an overripe peach, Call Me By Your Name is part romance novel, part bildungsroman, and—like the passion between protagonist Elio and his beloved Oliver—all-consuming. I enjoyed being transported from a dreary winter in Tennessee to the scalding hot summers of 1980s Italy almost as much as I enjoyed reliving what it feels like to be young and in love.

Indeed, I want to talk about that, partly because (as I said earlier) the novel has been out for so long that any review I provide here is unlikely to add anything new to the cultural conversation. One could write entire essays on the symbolism of the peach and the poo (if you don’t know, read the novel) or of the frequent references to feet and the tactile language Aciman uses to evoke the electricity even the slightest touch can spark between two young people in love. I’ll leave it to the literature scholars and critics to do that, though. I’m more interested in what feelings this novel evoked in me, not because I’m a narcissist but because I suspect they’re universal.

If you’ve ever loved and lost, especially if you loved and lost at a young age, prepare to have those old scars heedlessly cut open. Aciman’s novel takes place in the mid-80s, but Elio tells the story from, doing the math, the mid-00s (which makes sense; the novel came out in 2007). The distance of decades allows him to tell the story of his adolescence with the perspective of an adult, replete with the hindsight, wisdom, and nostalgia that invariably entails.

All of us, at one point or another, have looked back on our teenage years with a sort of longing tinged with regret—whether it’s for a life choice we’d like to change, a lover we might not have even realized we miss, the general loss of innocence, or some combination thereof. Younger readers (say, anyone under 25) might not fully appreciate the wistfulness that thinking about your deep past can evoke, but older readers certainly can. Aciman captures the languor of lifelong regret in a way few authors have.

For me, this meant harkening back to a time ten years ago when I met the man who would become the love of my life. Like Elio and Oliver, we had a tortured will-they-or-won’t-they relationship which culminated in a passionate love affair and ended far too soon because he wasn’t ready to accept his same-sex attraction. Like Elio and Oliver, there was a not insignificant, but not unreasonable age difference between us (I was 24 when we met, the same age as Oliver; he was 18, a year older than Elio). Like Elio and Oliver, I suspect that age difference was insurmountable, though; six years might not matter at 34, but it matters a lot at 24.

We were the inverse of Elio and Oliver, though. I was the one who fell head over heels in love and he was the one who saw us for what we really were—two lonely people who found one another at precisely the right time, but who would never work outside the bubble in which we then lived. He had his demons, to be sure. He wouldn’t come out publicly until seven years after we broke up, and he’d have a child along that journey to self-acceptance. But, looking back now, I suspect that he was always more levelheaded about us than I was. I think he always knew that the life I said I wanted with him would never be enough—little things he said, like “don’t you want to move to London?” or “what about your writing? Why don’t you write more?”—and that he was in no position to give me what I craved, at least not for more than a few months.

Indeed, it was only a few months—the most confusing and logical, the most agonizing and joyous, the most tender and most callous, the most I’ve ever been loved and been loved and the most I’ve ever loathed and been loathed few months—but it still haunts me to this day. I can’t see an orange crewneck or a zip-up hoodie without thinking of him, and the one I used to steal from him and wear around because it was warm and comfortable, but mostly because it smelled like him, his musk and his cologne. To this day the scent of Old Spice reminds me of those nights spent lying in his arms.

Whenever I fall and scrape myself, I think of that first night we met, sitting outside his dorm room while I bled (having fallen, drunk, as we walked) and he insisted on getting a first aid kit. The symbolism of this is not lost on me now. I had no idea how much I would hurt myself for this boy.

We sat up all night talking about life, about books, about music, about art. As the sun rose, we walked to Waffle House—another thing he took from me. I walked home, across the entire desolate length of campus and down College Street to my apartment at about 8:00 AM; by noon he was at my place. We were inseparable from then until we weren’t anymore.

Reading Aciman’s novel made me long to be in Europe, to walk down Roman alleys and sun myself on Monet’s berm. More than that, though, it made me want to go back to my own past, back to Bowling Green, Kentucky. It made me want to walk the length of campus again, as I had that sunny, late summer morning, like a pilgrim walks where Jesus walked. It made me want to go back to the yard where we first met, back to steps where we first kissed, back to the picnic table where he, a student, and I, an alumnus finally said our goodbyes. It made me wonder where he is, what he’s doing, who he’s dating, and if he’s happy.

It also made me consider the passing of time and the wisdom of age. I recently found my high school diary. One entry was about the boy I had a crush on at the time. “He smiled at me. Twice!” I exclaimed. The innocence of youth. The boy who wrote that is a stranger to the man I am today, yet we are inexplicably one and the same. I don’t think I’d get so excited over a smile today, and I certainly wouldn’t take it as irrefutable proof that the object of my affections reciprocated. I wish I could be that naive again.

I remember that boy fondly too. He was a nice boy. It’s been even longer since I’ve seen him, to the point I don’t even remember what his voice sounds like. There were others before my Oliver, who was also my Elio as I was both to him as well. There have been a few since. None have compared to him. None hold a candle.

I don’t suspect he feels the same about me. I imagine plenty followed me, more than one more beloved than I ever was. I hope he thinks about me, though. Undoubtedly, he does; I was his first. You always remember your first. I hope it’s with kind thoughts, though, or at least not all regrets.

How is it that one person can change your life so completely, and that even after a decade leave your heart in tatters by simply coming to memory? A question for the philosophers. He was that to me. Is that to me. No one as ever compared, and as I approach my 34th birthday, I suspect no one ever will.

Why him? I ask myself that whenever he comes to mind. He was cute, but he wasn’t hot. He was nice, but he wasn’t always kind. He wasn’t dumb, but he was no great intellect. His opinions were pedestrian and shallow—a product of his age, perhaps, and an intellectual immaturity which doubtless four years of college could have solved. I only knew him for one.

So why him? He made me feel safe. Whenever he was around, I felt like I could conquer the world. He made me feel valued. There was no shame in working in a coffeeshop, all writers do, he’d say. Your value isn’t measured by your bank account, Skylar, shut up this ramen is fine. He made me feel attractive at a time I was painfully insecure. He made me feel needed a time I felt useless. He made me feel hopeful at a time I felt despairing.

He made me feel loved. He loved me. He told me, but more than that, he showed me. In the little ways—bringing me a slice of pizza when he came over, because he correctly guessed I hadn’t eaten; showing up at the coffeeshop and sitting for my entire shift so I’d have someone to talk to; playing a song twice in a row because he knew I liked it. In the big ways, too, supporting me as I had to institutionalize one of my best friends and never leaving my side when another old friend passed away.

He’s the only man I can say that about. For as little as we knew one another, it’s remarkable what all happened. Six months. I met him in August 2010. We broke up in February 2011. Six months I knew him. A lifetime I’ve loved him.

Unlike the film, Call Me By Your Name ends with a reunion 15 years after the main events of the novel. Then it flashes to five years after that, back in Italy, our two protagonists still longing for one another but unable or unwilling to bridge the time that has now come between them.

I haven’t seen him in nine years. I suppose that means I only have to wait another six.

★ ★ ★ ★☆

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

Skylar reads… “Shortest Way Home” by Pete Buttigieg

“Skylar reads…” is a new series of book reviews by writer Skylar Baker-Jordan. Each book will be scored on a scale of “one book” to “five books”, with five being the best.

I picked up Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttigieg for the reason most people will have bought the book—to get to know him better. Before last year, most Americans had never heard of the young midwestern mayor who was skyrocketing to the top tier of candidates in the Democratic primary. It seems Buttigieg anticipated this problem, and Shortest Way Home serves as an introduction to Buttigieg, his life, his experiences as mayor, and a general sense of his governing style.

For those looking for detailed policy positions or a deep philosophical treatise that might help nail down Buttigieg’s politics, this isn’t the book. Buttigieg doesn’t really touch on national policy, though you do get some idea of his positions on such things as the economy (government intervention is good, as with the auto bailout), social issues (no surprise, he supports gay marriage) and American involvement in the Middle East (it’s complicated, but the endless wars have got to stop). If you’re looking for the nuts and bolts of “Medicare for all who want it” or Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan (his policies on race and issues affecting Black America), you’re not going to find it here.

That was, of course, never the point of Shortest Way Home. Clearly written to provide background and context for Buttigieg’s presidential bid (the book was published in February 2019, a month after Buttigieg announced his exploratory committee), it is your typical autobiography. Buttigieg traces his life from a brick house in South Bend to Harvard Yard and Oxford to a high-rise office in Chicago and back to South Bend, where he was elected mayor in 2011. It’s an impressive if not always interesting journey on its own—anyone who works in politics or media knows the Ivy League cum Oxbridge (or vice versa) type—and Buttigieg writes about his hometown and childhood with a warmth and ease he doesn’t always display on the campaign trail.

It isn’t until we get to 2010, when Buttigieg ran a failed campaign to unseat an incumbent state treasurer, that Buttigieg’s life story really differs that much from your average high achieving white boy, and it’s here where Buttigieg’s writing is the most animated and dynamic. He writes with gusto about trekking across the Hoosier state, going from fish fries to parades while cold calling in between. The characters he meets along the way—a Republican who writes him a cheque because his buddy “says you’re a good guy” or the party official who meets with him while plowing a cornfield—seem like they could have come out of Primary Colors. Where a more cynical writer would have turned them into ridiculous caricatures, Buttigieg writes about them with admiration and respect.

Indeed, the book often feels less like an autobiography and more like a love letter to Indiana. Whether Buttigieg is recounting how state political and business leaders—including Republicans—came together to defeat a homophobic law passed by then-Governor Mike Pence or how his hometown revitalized itself (under Buttigieg’s leadership, of course) after appearing on a list of failing American cities, “Mayor Pete” writes eloquently and glowingly about his home state. It’s a reminder to those not from the industrial Midwest that the region isn’t the dying wasteland many seem to presume, and it’s in these passages Buttigieg shines.

Buttigieg doesn’t shy away from the more controversial aspects of his mayoralty, which is good. He goes into detail about the demotion of former police chief Darryl Boykins and reckons with his own shortcomings when it comes to policing—one of the chief controversies he’s faced on the campaign trail. He acknowledges mistakes, owns up to failures, and explains his decision in a frank and honest way which would likely surprise his harshest critics.

The book isn’t without its faults, though. Buttigieg’s writing is largely constrained and guarded, and it’s clear he’s holding back and choosing his words carefully. This might be good when you’re a politician, but it isn’t great when you’re an author. Because Buttigieg remains so cautious in what he will and won’t discuss, it’s difficult to get a real grasp on who he is. We find out a few personal details (he’s an early riser, but not by choice; he loves Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue) and get a few funny anecdotes (one that sticks out is a practical joke Chasten’s family played on him), but largely we’re meeting Pete the politician, not Pete the man.

That’s a shame, really, because Pete the man has an interesting and relevant story to tell as well. Buttigieg discusses his decision to come out and his relationship with Chasten, but he skips a crucial part of the journey every gay man takes – figuring out you’re gay and what happens next. Memoirs by politicians still in the arena are typically cautious and light on the type of rich and honest details that make the genre so compelling, and Shortest Way Home is no exception. It would have been nice to read about Buttigieg’s internal conflict in accepting his sexuality, when he realized he was gay, and how that realization came to pass. We don’t get that, though, and as a result we’re left with the notion that a big part of Buttigieg’s story is missing. For the man who is the first serious openly gay candidate for president, not grappling more with the process of coming out to oneself is a serious omission.

Perhaps that will be discussed in the post-presidency book. I hope so, because Shortest Way Home is poorer for not including it. If you want to get to know Pete Buttigieg, it’s worth reading—but only if you want the sanitized political version. Honestly, there’s not much here for the average reader that they couldn’t get by reading Buttigieg’s Wikipedia page or any of the dozens of profiles mainstream media has done on him. Shortest Way Home is essential reading to Buttigieg supporters and those interested in the changing economic landscape and the changing cityscapes of the Midwest but not many people beyond those groups. It’s a fun read, though, and I enjoyed the time I spent in Buttigieg’s South Bend with its working-class charm and Hoosier hospitality.

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Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.