Sink or Swim
Sink or Swim – is the first novel I have read by L.A. Witt in a long time, and when I read that it is concerning a gay romance between a Muslim and a U.S. Navy chaplain, I had high expectations.
This is, apparently, the eighth novel in a series about a town with a US Navy base where ships are repaired. Although I am sure there are many crossover characters after eight in a series, I felt it made no difference to my reading experience that Sink or Swim is where I came in, as it were.
The writing is easy, the characters likeable, however, I feel the author is trying to cover too many sensitive issues at once. Alhazar Bukari is a Muslim, (mostly) openly gay man who has spent his career in the Navy, mainly during the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) period of the US military. Being Muslim, and though nearing his forties, he has never felt able to tell his parents the truth about his sexuality, however. He married his high school best friend, Megan – who is a lesbian – so they could both hide their true natures in the Navy and they ended up with two children. They divorced when Alhazar retired and went into civilian electronics, but bought apartments opposite each other, so the children can still live with and see both parents easily. Easy, simple, starry-eyed set-up.
Dylan Pedersen is a serving officer and Chaplain of the ship currently being repaired at the Navy base, which is being worked on by Alhazar’s civilian electricians as well as by naval engineers. Like Alhazar, Dylan been in the navy through the DADT era and was married – now divorced – and has three children. We aren’t told even the names of his wife and children. He escaped from an abusive relationship a few months earlier and has been having one night stands, but is mainly too scared to leave the base for fear of seeing his ex, and lives within its confines.
The title of this novel should apply to whether the author could to do justice to all of these social and personal issues in one story, and for me, it was more sink than swim. We know Alhazar is American, but it’s never made clear whether he was born in the US, or is a naturalised American; instead the author concentrates on his religion. We get to see a little of how this part Muslim family works and lives in the US, but the family is so atypical – regardless of ethnicity or faith – it doesn’t really enlighten us how it feels to be a Muslim of a, presumably, Arab ethnicity in the US in 2018. An additional twist is that Alhazar’s teenage son is gay and has a white boyfriend – and Alhazar’s parents are fine with that and love the boyfriend. I realise that the presentation of his young son and boyfriend being happy and accepted is supposed to be juxtaposed with the less tolerant experiences of his father and DADT. I understand the wish to show an improvement in attitudes and that things to get better. However, it does seem as though the author is presenting the events in this story through rosy coloured spectacles.
Dylan is an almost saintly chaplain who lets people of all faiths have time and space in his chapel on board ship and he counsels everyone in need. He meets Alhazar when he approaches Dylan about saying his daily prayers (salat) in a space in the chapel, and they fancy each other at first sight. Alhazar stores his mat and beads in Dylan’s storeroom, and so they see each other several times every day.
Dylan has just escaped from an abusive relationship and is still being manipulated by this man to return to him. The thought of a relationship is far from his mind and he has one night stands to ‘scratch the itch’. Both he and Alhazar admit to being perhaps not the best examples of their faiths, as when lonely they have indulged in gay one night stands. I wasn’t keen on the subtext here – that those who have one night stands when lonely are not good men of faith. That is as deep as it gets.
There are a few side stories, one about a female new recruit called Kimber, from previous books in the series, whom Alhazar protects from his colleagues’ sexual harassment, and the setting up of an LGBTQ+ group for Navy personnel and those on the base. Meanwhile, in the background are the wedding preparations of a couple from a previous book. Such an opportunity was missed here. Where is the conscience wrestling within a relationship between a Muslim and a Christian devout enough to be a chaplain? How can a huge issue like sexual harassment at work be dealt with in such a cavalier, easy manner? Much is made of the manipulative scary ex-boyfriend, who turns out to be such a wimp, my Jewish mother would have eaten him for breakfast. The ubiquitous break-up, can’t stand it, get back together is so contrived and again not well-developed.
This story failed for me, as the balance between sex scenes and dissecting or challenging preconceived notions about interfaith relationships leans heavily on the sex. The physical side did not further the main story. Additionally, there are several very sensitive and serious issues in this novel, and I felt it was unfair to the reader, and the people these characters represent, to treat them in such a banal and simplistic way.