Reviewed by Ilhem
TITLE: How to Greet Strangers: A Mystery
AUTHOR: Joyce Thompson
PUBLISHER: Lethe Press
LENGTH: 246 pages
BLURB: Archer Barron is rebuilding his life after hiding from it for years. Once he had grand expectations-graduating law school, donning drag to express his feminine aspects, and the love of a devoted boyfriend-but fate became cruel. HIV-positive cruel. And a growing involvement with an Oakland Santeria priestess who promised a cure in return for devotion and a lot of cash. His lover died. His faith and spirit almost followed. Now Archer works a crappy job as a university night watchmen and volunteers at a free clinic. The walls he’s built in the years since his loss are about to come crumbling down when a former member of the Santeria family he belonged to comes seeking legal help. And then the police discover the body of the priestess. Archer’s grudge makes him a prime suspect. In How To Greet Strangers, the Bay Area welcomes a new detective: he’s black, he’s spiritual, he’s stunning. And he’s in great danger.
“How To Greet Strangers : a Mystery” is not a romance but a fiction told in Archer Barron’s POV. Archer joined the Santeria community when he and Lance discovered they were HIV-positive; they hoped for guidance and miracles and fell into Madrina Michaela’s clutches instead. The price was high on so many levels! Now, Archer is mourning Lance, his career as a lawyer, the bliss of the ocean and his drag personas, and Michaela has been murdered.
Archer is writing a journal where he is pouring thoughts, feelings and words in an attempt to make sense of his life and the events surrounding him. He’s got what he calls a “Gemini brain”, which I interpreted as a quick, chatty mind, working by association of ideas with a tendency to daydreaming and mulling over everything. Consequently, he’s got several story lines going on, seemingly dropping one thread at one moment to take it back several pages later.
Saying that the story is not linear would be an understatement and you’ll be exceedingly frustrated if you hate being pulled out of a story to be plunged into another one for no apparent reason, or if you hate waiting for things to make sense. I was annoyed BUT intrigued. I like non linear stories and it was interesting to see the sense of it all being built progressively. That is, if I got it correctly!
At first, it seemed to me that apart from portraying Archer, all these plot lines were parts of a larger one, the mystery of Michaela’s murder. Many of her godchildren have very good mobiles, since Michaela was an unscrupulous guru who didn’t shrink from extorting money from distressed people. A story of credulity with dramatic consequences, on the whole.
However, as Archer keeps on musing about pretty much everything, it becomes the very common, very human story of someone needing to belong, of scared people needing to trust, to find simple answers to their fears and uncertainties and fill a void with overbearing but reassuring rituals. In the end, it’s very much about fear and succumbing to the temptation of making life simple and not so much about being a sucker. The other side of the spyglass, so to speak.
More than parts, all these story lines were satellites circling around one big stone: the indescribable, inexplicable, uncontrollable difficulty to live and to be that cripples people with as many reasons as there are persons. Sometimes it’s because life broke them, sometimes it’s just the way they are.
“The armpit of the night, sometime between three and four AM. Unless I’ve been dancing or working ocha till dawn, it’s a time I’d rather not see. I have no defense against Terror then and Terror is beyond naming-it’s not about death, though death partakes, it’s not about failure, though the fear of failure always lurks nearby, it’s not about how age erodes beauty or how being sick or always afraid of getting sick annihilates the future or even thinking you might never have sex again or not knowing what happens after you die. All of those starlets dance in Terror’s chorus line but Terror itself is monumental and irreductible. You can’t divide and conquer, you can’t diminish your ennemy by imagining he’s naked. Terror was born naked. Terror never sleeps. Terror shocks you awake in the middle of the night just to have some company”.
“How to greet Strangers” is about Terror and about Archer Barron handing his life over and conquering it back.
Archer is an interesting and endearing character. He is irreverent, funny and vulnerable, but he has two major flaws: he likes the sound of his own voice and he doesn’t bother to filter or categorize, which weighed on the composition. As a result, my interest flickered and I steadily detached myself from his fate.
A well-advised choice in telling doings and sobriety in descriptions and explanations would have been more to my taste and would have served the story development better, but you’ll love it if you like puzzles and talkative characters.
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