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Skiing the Cirque

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Summer 2012. I'm writing a novel that seems to be going nowhere. I'm staying at a friend's place off the grid in Vermont with a bunch of Labrador Retrievers who mill around all day waiting for me to knock off work and lead the late afternoon hike. I'm a die-hard skier, a winter person who has been dreaming all summer about fresh powder and new challenges like Wolverine Cirque, an off-piste run out in Utah, and to ski it with my best skiing buddy, a magnificent athlete who will go down anything. Then a young man flares up in my life briefly and fiercely, and I'm driven to write a short story that describes a treacherous run taken by two top-notch skiers, one of them suffering from a failed love affair in the midst of reconciling himself to middle age. And these skiers just happen to be gay.

I don't necessarily feel equipped to comment on how gay culture has entwined itself in the mainstream; I merely write about what I've witnessed, what I've lived through. Unlike some of my contemporaries who can research an era hundreds of years ago and miraculously and imaginatively inject themselves into lost time, I feel creatively confined to the perimeters of my own life. I write somewhat autobiographical fiction, not memoir, and this is hardly fashionable.

My first novel, Clara's Heart, portrayed a larger than life Jamaican woman who came to live with my family. I wrote it out of my gut without ever imagining it might become a film, much less a vehicle for Whoopi Goldberg, or Neil Patrick Harris, an openly gay actor whose career arguably began in the role of a character based in large part upon myself. Eight years later I took the remnants of a short, intense affair and spun it into Nightswimmer, a novel many people felt left sexual identity behind and stuck a universal chord about the perils of contemporary love. I've always approached sexuality as incidental to human nature. Only now, in 2013, defining people by whom they love is finally becoming obsolete and even irrelevant. Or at least that seems to be the perception of a large percentage of the younger population.

When I wrote Wolverine Cirque I wanted to portray men like myself who are fiercely competitive, men who challenge themselves on the field and on the mountain, but who also manage to appreciate the aesthetics of art and architecture. During the writing of it I realized that I was composing an epitaph to the last of a long series of misguided love affairs with mismatched people, clearing the path for a future stability which turned out to be just a few months ahead.

The main character in the story suffers from over-idealization -- the perfection of body, of youth -- and because of this the natural progression of aging is difficult for him. He makes a futile effort to turn the clock back. His affair with a younger lover is impossible to maintain, and knowing this he recklessly embarks upon a ski run whose degree of difficulty is just beyond his capability. It was only after the story was completed that I realized the danger of skiing is perhaps symbolic of the danger of this sort of love.

Although the setting is contemporary, written in an era when as many gay men go hang-gliding, play hockey and rugby as flock to the opera -- and many do both -- in its exaltation of gay men in sport, the story bears some resemblance to a more antique narrative like The Front Runner. But the difference is that earlier work portrays a world where homosexuality in athletics needed to be hidden. Wolverine Cirque takes place in a world where a professional athlete like Robbie Rogers can be both "out" and embraced by his teammates. In my story, a Division I soccer player comes to realize that his desire for an older man is wedded to the inevitability of leaving the closet and stepping out into the light.

Joseph Olshan's short story single Wolverine Cirque is published by Open Road Media. His first novel, Clara's Heart, was just reissued by Delphinium Books/Harpercollins.
http://www.openroadmedia.com/wolverine-cirque
http://www.delphiniumbooks.com/clarasheart.html