In his new novel The Monkey Cages, author and University of Montana professor Casey Charles takes on a taboo subject, love between an adult and teenager.
Published by Lethe Press in Massachusetts, the book tells the story of Tommy Cadigan, 16, and his desire for his high school football coach and teacher in 1955. The story is set in the West during a witch hunt for gay men in Boise and tackles the topic of love between an adult and underage teen.
"My idea was to take a true love story and put it up against the witch hunt associated with the scandal," said Charles, who teaches Renaissance literature, queer studies and critical legal studies at UM.
The story is also about friendship and growing up, and Cadigan's irreverent teen commentary cuts the book's more serious themes with some levity.
At one point, Cadigan is questioned as part of the witch hunt. After observing the man who questions him as handsome, 40 years old or so, in a V-neck sweater, and with perfectly parted light blond hair, Cadigan draws this conclusion: "He would make an excellent doubles partner, it seems to me. A tour leader through Bavaria, perhaps."
One of the most important relationships in the book is Cadigan's friendship with Freddie Udall. A mutual friend and mentor, Elvina, comments on the value of their connection: "It's a gift, she says, to find a friend. 'Hold on to it for all you're worth. No matter what comes, don't break up this duet.'"
In advance of coming readings in Missoula, Charles answered questions via email and in an interview about the themes and characters in his book, edited by Jerry Wheeler (see box for details about readings). The following is a Question & Answer adapted from those conversations:
Question. Your novel is based on an actual legal attack against gay men that took place in Boise in the 1950s. Will you talk about the connection between “The Lavender Scare” and “The Red Scare” of McCarthyism?
Answer. The Lavender Scare, which paralleled the Red Scare of the 1950s in conjunction with McCarthyism, led to the eventual dismissal of more than 5,000 employees from federal employment in the United States. The criminalization and pathologization of gays and lesbians during the Cold War resulted in Executive Order 10450, which banned homosexuals from government employment. In Florida, the infamous Johns Committee and its Purple Pamphlet brought about the firing of more than 200 teachers from Florida universities for alleged homosexuality in 1956. EO 10450 was not repealed until 1995 with Clinton's Don't Ask Don't Tell initiative.
But unlike other countries, such as Germany and Britain, the U.S. has issued no apology or made any reparations for this brutal treatment. The Boise scandal was part and parcel of the Lavender Scare, which ruined people's lives and equated same-sex desire with mental pathology and political subversion.
Q. The title of the book, The Monkey Cages, denotes a location in Boise’s central park, Julia Davis Park. What else does it refer to?
A. The title, which was an afterthought, much like the fate of one of the characters in the book, seemed to make sense in terms of the caging, supervision, and spectacle-ization of the queer, not just in 1950, when homosexuality was understood as politically, mentally, and socially subversive and threatening, but even today when coming out is still such a major source of social and media attention. The hydrax monkey, left behind by the circus, which began the zoo in the park, also symbolizes the alienation and isolation of same-sex desire.
Q. Through Tommy Cadigan, the protagonist, you portray the despair at the intersection of the shame society heaped on gay love and the joy of that love. Tommy’s wry humor and cynical observations provide comic relief. Did you have a model for Tommy? What does Marty Williams, the coach and veteran Tommy falls in love with, teach us?
A. When the book was moved from a third-person retrospection to a first-person young adult narration, I was compelled to revisit the classic bildungsroman, coming-of-age novels, starting with David Copperfield and Huck Finn and working into the Holden Caulfield and even the Giovanni's Room novels of the Fifties. I tried to tap into the sarcasm and boldness of high school kids. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth is a book I admire greatly, and her main character captures some of Tommy's insouciance.
We don't want teenagers to vote. We don't want them to drink. We don't want them to have sex. We want to put them in a little cage and treat them like innocent pets. And they aren't. They're smart and articulate and manipulative human beings in ways we don't allow teenagers to be. Society needs to wake up to that, I think. Think of the Parkland teens who have told it like it is on gun control and demonstrated a maturity that puts adults to shame.
Marty Williams, the teacher in the novel, has some PTSD from Vietnam, but there's also a form of PTSD associated with homosexuality that I want to explore in the book. There's something traumatic about having to live in the closet your whole life. And that trauma really is crucial to understanding the novel and what it was like in the 1950s to be waking up to desire a man or a woman of the same sex.
Q. The book takes on love between an adult man and underage one. Why did you take on that taboo subject? The book also contains some characters who aren’t people but play influential roles, such as the Mormon church, the city of San Francisco, and even waters in the West like the Lochsa. Are there questions you want readers to consider?
A. One of my readers was deeply troubled by the intergenerational aspect of the book, love between teacher and student, coach in his 20s and high school senior. That discomfort, voiced in "suggestions" for revision, gave me the impetus to make that taboo central to the story, first of all because society infantilizes and discounts the feelings of teenagers and secondly because the law — historically and statutorily — fails to take into account the nuance of age and development and the particularities of love and desire, which often find their totems in taboos. In the trial scenes that have been edited out, Ruth embarks on a long lecture on the history of the age of consent from ancient times through our neo-Victorian era. I do want us to consider who is entitled to tap into the joys of love — what parameters the heteronormative adult world has put around that privilege.
Freddie, the young Mormon, taps into some of the foundational ethics of the church around equality that the Mormon church's evolution has overlooked.
The split between urban and rural attitudes and mores around sexuality are also crucial to the book and reflect some of the continuing disjunctions in the social world today. Growing up gay in Frenchtown can be an entirely different experience that being queer in Berkeley, California — though the same-sex desires remain similar regardless of religion, geography or even field of endeavor — sports, theater, business, politics.
Literature and art reference swimming and water in same-sex stories, like Thomas Eakins' painting Swimming of the naked men on the rocks. There's an association between water and desire and something very sensual about swimming and water, so it becomes important for the novel. The Lochsa River scenes are emblematic of the way lakes and rivers are places of flow, freedom and release.
Q. The courtroom scene is emotionally intense with many twists and turns. Did you use court transcripts in your research of dialogue and characters? Is “Ruthless” Ruth, Tommy’s defender and emotional nemesis, based on a real courtroom lawyer?
A. The Boys of Boise, published in the 1960s by Gerassi, is a nonfiction account of the Boise scandal, and it serves as the historical basis for the novel. The courtroom scenes are fictionalized, but some of the characters mentioned are taken from Gerassi's account. I was a trial lawyer before returning to literature and have tapped into my experience to relate these scenes, with the help of other lawyers, including professor Andrew King-Ries at UM's law school. I used the extant statutes in Idaho at the time and took some liberty of putting a few women in the jury, even though women jurors and lawyers were few and far between in 1955 Idaho, as the film RBG reminds us. The Ruth of the novel reminds me of Holly Franz, the great Helena lawyer that has led the battle for lesbian and gay rights in Montana. We have some male leaders here, but the women's community working on gay rights in Montana is so amazingly strong.
Q. How does The Monkey Cages fit into your teaching at the University of Montana?
A. I came here to teach Shakespeare and Milton, but the University of Montana, including the Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies program, opened the door for us to do more queer work in the curriculum. My essays, nonfiction, and novels (even my poetry) grow out of my development of a queer curriculum and work on GLBTQ civil rights at UM since joining the faculty in the mid-1990s. The Sharon Kowalski Case (2003), Critical Queer Studies (2012), and The Trials of Christopher Mann (2013) are all books that concentrate on lesbian and gay rights, often with an emphasis on the law, since I also teach law and literature.