It’s not often a book’s title is the spoiler for the story, but that’s the case here. The Billy of the title not only isn’t mentioned in the first half of the book, but he doesn’t appear at all in the flesh. Instead, he’s the nightmare that keeps one of the characters screaming in the middle of the night and the enigma that the other character tries desperately to unearth.
When therapist Tom Langois first meets patient Kevin Derocher, newlywed Kevin has just hanged himself, but doesn’t know why. Tom suggests a course of action, but doesn’t see Kevin again until three years later when Kevin comes to Tom’s new house to fix Tom’s hot tub.
By that time, Kevin’s divorced and still having psychotic episodes that point to sexual abuse when he was a child. Almost as if he were courting a wild animal, Tom soothes Kevin enough that they become friends. But when they kiss for the first time, they realize that Kevin can’t handle intimacy, another pointer to past abuse.
But Kevin wants to be able to kiss and hold Tom, things he can’t do because of the blacked out mess in his head that brings about panic attacks. So Kevin agrees to get counseling if Tom will go with him. Tom recommends his work partner Sue, and the three of them embark on a perilous journey to unlock Kevin’s memories.
Have I mentioned Billy yet? No? And that’s what confused me about halfway through the book when the heavy-duty therapy began. Oddly, Billy isn’t mentioned until the last fourth of the book, and his bones play an even smaller part. Considering that Fessenden tips his hand in the title, this shouldn’t have been a gripping read at all.
But it is – only because Fessenden is such a skilled writer. Sexual abuse stories in gay fiction are a dime a dozen, but this one is so well written that it feels fresh and new. In fact, there are only a few glitches that exclude the title from my A list books.
For one thing, I was never quite sure what Tom ever saw in Kevin to make him want to take the man on as a potential partner. Sure, he thinks Kevin is cute and fun. Don’t they all? But Kevin is seriously messed up and has such huge disconnects that at times I wondered if Tom just enjoys mothering someone, not a good basis for a happily every after.
Kevin too was an enigma at times, especially after he had one of his headache-inducing psychotic episodes. I could understand that he didn’t want to delve into them if they were going to get worse and worse, and if they revealed something so awful that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. But placing himself in Tom’s hands when Tom’s motivation was a little shaky puzzled me. Why was Kevin so trusting?
Other than those murky points in the book, however, the way Fessenden subtly moves their friendship from one level to the next makes them seem like a not-so-odd couple as they seem at first glance.
I had never read anything by Fessenden before, but after reading this book, I’m putting him on my watch list. Any author that proves he can make two flawed characters into people I like and care about and does it in such a compelling way is definitely on my must read list.