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Grief’s Tentacles

Victor Heringer’s singular portrait of love cut short
Two men stand in a doorway; the one of the right is blurred.

The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer. New Directions, 144 pages. 2023.

It’s not uncommon to describe a work of fiction as “charming.” But few critics bother to say what they mean by it. “Charming” instead has become a vague term of approbation for loveliness of style or effect, or for a certain sort of endearing humor. Sometimes it damns with faint praise.

Victor Heringer was an afflicted writer, not a charmed one: he suffered greatly from depression and died by apparent suicide just shy of his thirtieth birthday, leaving behind a small but noteworthy body of work. His debut novel, Glória, took second place for the 2013 Jabuti Prize for the novel—Brazil’s top literary honor—when he was just twenty-five years old. His second novel, The Love of Singular Men, tells the story of Camilo and Cosme: two adolescent boys whose brief relationship transforms from rivalry to romance before suddenly ending in tragedy.The novel created a sensation in Brazil, a country where flamboyantly queer sexualities and staunch homophobic repression have long coexisted. If I had to choose a single adjective to describe this novel, the word would be charming. And yes: it’s difficult to be precise about what exactly this means.

An example: David Copperfield was born with a caul around his head. Folk wisdom held that a caul could ward off death by drowning, and midwives and mothers sometimes sold them for handsome sums. Though a caul typically signified good fortune, “some sage women in the neighborhood” foresaw a gloomy destiny in the timing of David’s birth: midnight on a Friday. They predicted the boy would be cursed with bad luck but “privileged to see ghosts and spirits.” David’s caul appeared to offer the first proof of their claims. Advertised for sale at a price of fifteen guineas, it inspired just one offer. The buyer paid two pounds in cash and the balance in sherry.

It’s details like this one—the balance in sherry—that charm Dickens’s readers. Among the thousands of clever fashionings that Dickens used to adorn his texts, the most memorable are those meant to illustrate a personality trait. Consider Mr. Micawber’s persistent references to “pecuniary difficulties,” or Old Mr. Turveydrop’s charismatic obsession with “deportment” and excessive veneration of the Prince Regent: Dickens constructs entire characters from just one or two tics, and the various environments these characters inhabit become legible through his droll manner of drawing out their neuroses. It’s charming.

The Love of Singular Men memorializes a great love cut short by a hateful, violent world.

Known only to the reader by his first name, Camilo narrates The Love of Singular Men from the lonely vantage of middle age. He wasn’t born with a caul, but with the umbilical cord wrapped round his neck: “I was born posthumously. I was stillborn in my mother’s arms, hanged by the umbilical cord, purple, almost plum; the doctor brought me around with mouth-to-mouth. My first kiss.” Maria Aína, an old descendant of slaves who doubles as the family’s maid and the neighborhood’s macumba priestess, tells Camilo that his hanged birth was a sign he’d always be “on the edge of trouble.” She should know: she was born the same way.

Aside from the allusion to David Copperfield, Heringer refers in this passage to another great nineteenth-century novelist: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. The “posthumous” birth recalls one of Machado’s best-known novels, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, whose protagonist narrates from beyond the grave. And indeed, Heringer’s sardonic sense of humor and plainspoken irony recall the trademarks of his forebear. These resonances are deliberate, but it’s another of Machado’s novels that Heringer intends as his counterpoint: Machado’s masterpiece Dom Casmurro. Both novels are narrated by lonely old men in Rio’s northern sprawl. Both narrators loved deeply and lost. And both narrations are tinged with nostalgia for a halcyon period to which both men yearn to return. But here the thematic comparisons end: while Dom Casmurro offers a parable of the corrosive and enduring power of jealousy, The Love of Singular Men memorializes a great love cut short by a hateful, violent world.

It’s a bold move for a Brazilian, this self-comparison to the man widely regarded as the best novelist the country ever produced—but Heringer had the chops to back it up. All the more tragic, then, that he died just a few years after his novels brought him fame.

It is too tempting, of course, to read works by cursed writers through the lens of their suicides—they have a special place in the canon of Western literary culture. In Latin America, Heringer takes a pedestal alongside José Asunción Silva (dead at thirty), Andrés Caicedo (twenty-five), and Alejandra Pizarnik (thirty-six): dark gems whose genius talents appear all the more remarkable for being compressed into such short timeframes. The facts of their lives and deaths inevitably attract a specific type of reader: the young and romantic, particularly those given to depression. Yet unlike some of the writers who populate this category, Heringer’s writing isn’t tortured or foreboding, but subtle, wry, and wise.

As with Dickens and Machado de Assis, one of the delights of reading The Love of Singular Men is the host of characters Heringer creates to populate the fictional neighborhood of Queím, an otherwise unremarkable suburb of Rio de Janeiro that by the time of Camilo’s 1970s boyhood was already being engulfed by the megalopolis. Queím is located in the city’s Zona Norte—in other words, nowhere close to the glamorous beachfront neighborhoods of Leblon and Ipanema, far from the world-famous nightlife of Copacabana, and distant even from the bustling business district in the city’s historic center. These farther precincts of the Zona Norte are the Rio that almost no tourist ever visits, and that very few writers commemorate in print.

Aside from an unusual first chapter that narrates a mythic history of the neighborhood in a single page, Heringer doesn’t spend many words on the place, allowing it to come into being through his characters. First comes our narrator, the frail, pale boy with a crippled leg who harbors moderate fear and disgust for each of his parents. Next is Cosme, the shy and dark-skinned teenager Camilo’s father brings home without a word of explanation. Camilo’s depressive mother, outraged by this development, shuts herself up in a windowless room with a bottle of wine and a collection of fake gold eggs. She eventually divorces her husband, an alcoholic doctor who, Camilo learns later in life, helped keep prisoners alive as they underwent torture by the Brazilian military regime—at least, that’s according to Camilo’s mother, who says so in a letter she left behind at her death. Rounding out the immediate family is Camilo’s sister, Joana, who only smiles when she has a secret or sad news to share. “Last time I saw her,” Camilo says, “it looked like she’d slept in a bath of bleach. She’s old in the damp, flaccid way of someone who loved being young a bit too much.” We all know her.

The family lives in a large house separated from the rest of working-class Queím by perimeter wall and the social status it signifies. Camilo’s neighborhood friends, a band of mostly poor boys who play together in the street, say the neighbors joke about never seeing his mother. “Only a rich woman spent her life hidden like that,” Camilo learns. Sooner or later, a poor woman has to leave home to work or do the shopping. Camilo’s father, meanwhile, comes and goes in a “mucus-yellow Corcel,” the nicest car in the neighborhood and a mark of both the family’s privilege and his father’s revolting presence.

Beyond the walls that divide the family compound from the rest of the neighborhood, Heringer’s Queím bustles with an array of characters as diverse as only Brazil can offer. None gets extensive treatment, but the author endows them each with peculiar, if unremarkable traits that both humanize and make them memorable. There’s Knots, a brooding type who always crosses his legs twice when he sits down, hooking one leg round the other as he smokes. There’s Grumá, the older Camilo’s only friend—a neighbor who plays the same samba record over and over, and who visits Camilo only when he needs money or wants to share fresh pork from an “accidental” livestock death at his sister’s pig farm. And of course there’s the assassin Adriano, who somehow finds the time to go to the movies during his lunch break from a construction crew; coated in dust, he stalks the neighborhood while sucking on cinnamon sticks.

My favorite among them might be the giant Russian baker whose doughy face and thick legs bear scars from skirmishes with neighborhood boys who attack him and vandalize his bakery just for fun. But “not your boy,” he tells the older Camilo: “He actually defends me.” He’s referring to Renato, an orphaned boy who hangs around the bakery—and who happens to be the grandson of Cosme’s murderer. The Russian understands that some kind of relation pertains between Renato and Camilo, who has taken the boy under his wing. The Russian’s worldliness instructs him that the relation is probably unseemly but ultimately none of his business, a sign that times may have changed since Camilo and Cosme raised the hackles of pious gossips and their prim daughters. The present-day Queím that Renato and the Russian inhabit is a more violent and chaotic place than it was in the ’70s, liberalized and more privatized, immersed in “a perpetual state of moral hangover”—in other words, the sort of place where such transactions have become commonplace.

He avoids the strained melodrama and mawkish sentimentality that have become hallmarks of contemporary American gay fiction.

After first establishing Cosme’s arrival as the source of his family’s disharmony as well as his own sexual awakening, Camilo’s narration toggles back and forth between the months he spent with Cosme in the Queím of his youth and the ones he spends with Renato following his retirement there. Having noticed Renato hanging around the Russian’s bakery, Camilo invites him back to his condo, gives him snacks, and lets him watch television. Thus begins a period of comings and goings, each lasting weeks at a time. He reasons that the woman who was taking care of Renato hasn’t even tried to find him during his absences—otherwise he’d have seen posters of his face or heard about a search for a missing boy.

It isn’t clear from his narration exactly what Camilo is after with Renato. At one point he considers murdering Renato while the boy watches reruns of old documentaries, going so far as to imagine, in exacting and gruesome detail, how he might dispose of the body. He doesn’t do it, feebly reasoning his handicap would make it too difficult. You don’t believe him, but it has the strange effect of endearing him to you.

The tone of the novel is wistful, elegiac, and at times sorrowful—but Heringer retains a sense of humor throughout. The lamentations that periodically interrupt Camilo’s alternating narration punctuate the novel with melancholy, and offer an example of Heringer’s charm: 

My Cosme disappeared and I stayed, like an amputated octopus tentacle, which stays alive even after it’s cut off, and roams around looking for food. When it finds some, it takes the food and makes the gesture of bringing it to its mouth, as if it were still connected to the body. I learned that in the documentary on marine life I watched with Renatinho.

Even now I’m living out the grief of the octopus, or in fact the grief of a piece of the octopus, a ridiculous piece, because octopus tentacles regenerate, just like a lizard’s tail.

James Young, the novel’s spry translator, has described Singular Men as “almost unbearably sad.” I disagree—unless you’re reading it in light of Heringer’s suicide. He avoids the strained melodrama and mawkish sentimentality that have become hallmarks of contemporary American gay fiction. That’s why it feels “singular” and “genuinely new” to Zadie Smith, who blurbed it.

Smith only incidentally repeats a word from the title, but it bears parsing the two meanings by way of conclusion: singular can be a synonym for unusual or one of a kind. But the word it means to translate from Heringer’s original Portuguese title is avulso. It’s a word that carries none of same positive artistic connotations that singular offers in English. Rather, avulso is the word you’d use to describe a shoe or a sock that’s missing its pair. It can also mean pulled away, wrenched out, torn asunder. The novel’s genius emerges from this condition of abject solitude: attempting to write his way out of a world in “perpetual moral hangover,” Heringer finds beauty and humor even in tragedy. Was there ever a more charming description of hopeless heartache than the octopus tentacle’s grief?