the guy in the alley coverRating: 3.75 stars
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Length: Novel

 

Trace Kalecki inherited the Dearborn Clover sports bar when his parents retired. It’s been in the family since the 1800s and Trace is determined to maintain the legacy. He has taken a chance with some improvements that he hopes will keep the Clover going strong, but they’ve made the financial situation a little more precarious. The money the bar brings in also helps Trace support the soup kitchen he runs out of the Clover twice a week. When Trace hears a homeless man cry for help in the alley outside the bar one night, he is quick to step in and give assistance. Trace has helped folks out before, and he offers the man some first aid, food, and a place to sleep for the night.

Ben O’Cleary hasn’t always been struggling, but when his business went under, it just started a string of set backs and he hasn’t been able to recover. Ben is helping to support his mother, as well as his adult son with autism, and so any money he scrapes together goes to their care. If that means Ben has to sleep on the streets and claim to be staying “with a friend” so his mother won’t worry, that is what he will do. But lately, Ben has just been feeling even more weary and, if it wasn’t for the fact that his mother and son need him, he isn’t sure how much strength he would have to go on.

Ben stays with Trace for a couple of days, but he knows that he has to move on. He is not willing to be a burden to anyone and he knows there is no way Trace would want him around long term. The fact that the men have a hint of attraction between them just solidifies Ben’s determination to leave before he gets emotionally attached. However, Trace can’t help but be crushed when Ben leaves, and is even more thrilled when the man reappears in his life. This time, Trace isn’t willing to let Ben go so easily and insists that Ben stay with him while he gets back on his feet. The men begin to grow even closer and real feelings develop between them. Ben is wary, however, still unsure how his complicated life can fit in with Trace’s. But Trace has fallen hard for Ben and he is determined to show him how much he truly wants Ben in his life.

The Guy in the Alley is a sweet, but emotionally intense, story from author Cara Dee. It is listed as a standalone spin-off from Dee’s The Guy in the Window, and it seems like the MCs have some crossover cameos. However, I started here and had no problems jumping in, so I think this stands alone just fine. I have read multiple stories featuring homeless characters, but Dee’s approach is different than most of those I’ve read that feature younger characters in their late teens or early 20s who are on the streets after being kicked out of their homes. Instead, Ben is an older character, almost 50, with an 18-year-old child, who had a job and a family and lost it all and is struggling to get back on his feet. I think this is a nice twist that shows us another side of homelessness, particularly among the working poor (or occasionally working in Ben’s case). Technically, Ben doesn’t have to be out on the streets; he could live with his mother and his son, Alvin, or with his cousin. But Ben is really struggling emotionally with feeling like he can’t contribute, with the despair of having watched his business fall apart and not being able to make ends meet. The situation is also complicated in that his mother is in a very small apartment and his son is living with her, so when Ben stays there, it disrupts Alvin’s routine, which is a challenge for him. I think Dee does a nice job developing both Ben and Trace’s characters, so we can understand the ways Ben struggles with getting help, as well as why Trace is so comfortable stepping in to provide assistance to a homeless stranger. That said, I did find myself having trouble really understanding why Ben would rather nearly die on frigid Chicago streets than sleep in his mother’s home, knowing how much she would want him there. But, fortunately, this isn’t a position I have ever had to be in myself, so I can go with the idea that it makes sense for this character.

The first portion of the story focuses on the men meeting and Trace helping Ben after he is attacked. We see them connecting well and there is an attraction there that they act on. Then Ben leaves and the guys are both trying to move forward, but it is clear they have not forgotten one another. I found this section really engaging, as we learn more about both Ben and Trace and see that early connection. Things slowed down a little for me as they get back together and it becomes more watching their daily lives. They keep the relationship just friends for a long time after their initial hookup, as Ben is wary about getting too emotionally invested in a situation he is sure won’t last. But, ultimately, Trace realizes how much he wants Ben and that he is willing to keep trying until Ben realizes how good they could be together. I did wish for at least a nod of acknowledgement to the power disparity here, as Ben is so reliant on Trace financially at first, particularly since Trace is the one who is pushing for the romantic/sexual connection more than Ben. I absolutely never got the feeling Ben was coerced in any way into something he didn’t want, but I wanted some recognition from Trace about the situation.

There is a nice family vibe here that I liked and we see how close both men are with their families. Trace’s parents have moved away, but he is still close with them. He also dotes on his young nephew and spends a lot of time with him. For Ben, his son Alvin is the center of his world and he sacrifices everything he can to help provide him with the stability and therapy that he needs.

The story is told mostly in Trace’s POV, but there are sections from Ben’s as well. Dee has large passages in italics that are used to show the other character’s POV during chapters where they are not the primary narrator. I found this to be occasionally awkward or disorienting, however. Sometimes, these passages are flashbacks to past events. Other times, they show the non-POV character’s thoughts in response to what the other character is saying or doing in present day. And some of them seem to be non-POV character’s thoughts when the men are not even together. So I had to orient myself each time to what was happening in the passage, when it was occurring, if the men were together, etc. I think just doing a full POV switch would have been less confusing and made these sections easier to follow.

The tone here is a combination of some deep, emotionally intense moments, combined with a sweetness between the men, as well as a little playfulness. Some of the sections regarding Ben’s struggles are not always easy to read, but I don’t think this is an overly dark story. I appreciated that Ben’s happiness doesn’t come just from his relationship with Trace, but from being getting an opportunity to get back on his feet in a way that makes him feel confident and proud. The two men have a nice happy ending and it the story comes together in a rewarding way.

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