Desert Isle Keeper
Liv Rancourt has captured the 1950s’ post-war exuberance, conformity, music and homophobia in a gloriously evocative narrative entitled Aqua Follies. This beautifully told tale stands as a warning to those who yearn for the way things used to be. It seems in our more enlightened times some have forgotten just how bad things could be in the memorable past.
Russell tells himself he’ll marry Susie because it’s the right thing to do. He has a summer job coaching the water ballet team – the Aqua Dears – she belongs to, which is run with a rod of iron and the sensitivity of a pickled onion by his aunt. The time he is able to spend with Susie will give him plenty of opportunity to present her with a ring. He can win the approval of his parents, who are grief-stricken over the death of his older brother, and start thinking about a future of fifties normality, white picket fence and children included.
It is the beginning of the team’s trip to the annual Aqua Follies in Seattle, and during the rehearsals the joyful glide of the trumpet player’s solo hits Russell like a torpedo, emotionally blowing apart his carefully constructed plans.
From the orchestra pit Skip, the trumpet player in question, watches Russell stalk along the pool deck assessing the aqua ballet girls rehearsing their routine. It never hurts to smile at a man, because good things might happen. Once the last note has been played, Skip gives it a shot. The tenuous connection forged by a simple smile devastates Russell’s closeted life and gives Skip more than an anonymous hook up to think about.
The story starts with Russell excusing every feeling, every act and thought he has for Skip as a mistake, or temporary before he settles down with Susie. As the story progresses he begins to worry about his choices, but it takes Susie’s actions to shake him out of his fantasies. The story is written with such subtlety and honesty that the sadness of Russell’s position colours everything you read. The rampant homophobia is documented with the same subtlety but hits the reader hard.
Skip is bullied by the worst kind of homophobic policeman, those who hate the sinner but indulge in the sin. However, Skip also shows Russell the places gay men and women can be together and relax – places where the music is new and honest. These places tend to be in the ‘bad’ parts of town, where marginalised people console each other and try to get by, but real talent still thrives and is appreciated.
The attitudes, music, emotions and culture are all spot on and for the time it took to read this novel I was transported to America in 1955. Russell is a decent young man who tries to please everyone but himself, while Skip is too cynical for his age but his musical talents, honesty about who he is and finally Russell, save him. There are two happy endings really, but one is more of a- ‘as happy as the times will let us be’.
I loved this story and admire the author’s ability to maintain the authenticity and feel of the era throughout. Aqua Follies is highly recommended.