Carry Iverson has left Ohio for Texas. He’s ready to make something of himself and finds working in social justice to be challenging and rewarding. And with work settling down, Carry also finds himself ready to mingle. Soon, his well-heeled cousin, Donovan, invites Carry to his home across a small lake. That’s just what Carry needs to introduce him into social life in Austin. While visiting his cousin, he gets re-acquainted with Donovan’s charismatic and opinionated wife, Fallon. He also meets an intriguing man named Levi. Levi is stunning to look at, and Carry could see some potential for a relationship with the acerbic man. But before anything takes root, Levi brings up the topic of Oskar Jacobi.
Jacobi is, by all accounts, as wealthy as he is mysterious. No one quite knows where he came from or how he accumulated his massive wealth. Rumor has it he’s a Harvard man with business contacts around the world. Others contend he’s involved in illicit drugs or even human trafficking. Carry, for his part, doesn’t care. He just wants to bask in the glow of the suavest man he’s ever met. Too bad Jacobi only has eyes for a single man: Donovan. Soon, Carry finds himself roundly shut out from a train wreck of a love triangle. But he’s fallen too hard for Jacobi not to offer the man help in trying to win over Donovan. When the going gets tough, Carry will find himself carrying a lot more than he ever bargained for.
The Magus and the Fool by Akiva Hersh is a queer retelling of The Great Gatsby. If you’re a fan of Fitzgerald’s work, you might have fun perusing the reading group questions before beginning the story. I wish I had thought to look ahead, myself. The official blurb doesn’t mention any specific ties to this classic piece of literature but, yes, it is very much a retelling. I think this is part of why I grew rather annoyed as I began seeing all these unexpected but unmistakable parallels between Hersh’s novel and Gatsby. For example, Carry, the narrator, often feels mostly, if not entirely, outside the main threads. He is an observer and commentator to the love triangle. Next, the love triangle is preserved. Hersh does add a layer of interest by having Carry fall for Jacobi, but this clearly ends up being a nonstarter. Then there are the grand parties, and the pathos of it all when Jacobi realizes he’s chasing a dream (and still can’t stop). I think having some guidance on what to look for as I read would have helped me process this book better. As it was, my confusion was exacerbated by how much the one seemed to mirror the other. And all for the purpose of…passively having a gay couple and giving Carry a few rounds with Levi?
The prose is very lyrical. Yet I felt like it was one or two registers more affected than perhaps strictly necessary. These are young adults in modern day Texas. They have Instagram and Twitter and work at social justice jobs. The flowery language and fifty-cent vocabulary strongly recalled my own personal head canon of the 1920s, but felt ill-matched to a 2020s setting. With Carry as our first-person narrator, I also found myself wondering how in the world he came by some details for events (like details about the car accident, when he wasn’t on scene for any of the accident itself). On the one hand, I suppose this continues Hersh exploring the retelling of Gatsby. On the other hand…I didn’t know why. In the case of the car accident, I didn’t feel the extra details really added anything to the queerness of this retelling. And by this point, Carry really does see the writing on the wall and knows he’ll have to wash his hands of the whole thing. Why would he bother retconning that specific series of events? That might have worked if this were an epistolary format, but it seems superfluous here.
For me, the shining elements of this story were the problematic characters. Donovan was delightfully wishy-washy, unable to commit to a former love if it meant giving up his current creature comforts with his wife, Fallon. Fallon herself was deliciously dreadful; she reflected every kind of silver-spoon “-ist” you could hope for and was vindictive as hell. Levi was a delightful queen. He is also transgender and, despite a physical attraction to Carry, doesn’t hesitate to call out Carry about his wrong-headedness when it comes to Levi being trans. I admit, I did get annoyed when Carry actually tells Levi that he doesn’t know how to have sex with a “woman,” but Levi immediately calls him out on that bullshit. I thought that was an interesting time for the question of genitals to come up. For one thing, Carry already knew Levi was trans. For another, they’d already had sex together. And from the first time Carry laid eyes on Levi, Carry sees Levi as the man he is and only ever used male pronouns. It was an interesting way to show how even someone who seemed to “get it” can still screw it up.
Overall, I think this is a great option for people who are super Great Gatsby fans. Casual readers may also enjoy how the tone of the book really echoes the mood of the previous century and it may appeal to those who like more character-driven dramas. Readers looking for a literary read–but make it gay–will probably find a lot to enjoy in this title.