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Stray

Stray - Ash Penn I nearly didn't finish "Stray" because the narrator seemed such a prick. Then I did something I blush to admit. I read the end of the book and saw who he ended up with.Then it was a case of WTF. So I kept reading. I soon learned that here we had a classic case of the first person unreliable narrator. Yes, our hero, Terry did some pretty despicable things and was out and out shitty to Daniel, but he was his own worst critic.In these sorts of stories, nobody can be taken at face value, or in this case the narrator's value. Most of all themself!People have commented on how impossibly sweet Dan is. Yes, because that's how Terry sees him. Right from the start you get phrases like this: The boy studied me from beneath dark lashes, his fair hair contrasting with the black shirt hanging loosely from his shoulders. That phrasing and word choice immediately shows someone he's attracted to or he wouldn't notice those things. Again:His eyes, I noted, were a stormy shade of blue-grey. His face verged on the cherubic and then a bit further on: He raised his face, all flushed cheeks and glowing smile. So, he says he's not interested, but he continually betrays the fact that he is, right from the start.The kid is keen on him and isn't backward in coming forward. Like one of those puppies who doesn't know the meaning of rejection. So Terry feels he shouldn't be attracted to someone like him, so he pushes him away as hard as he can, by being as horrible as he can. Still the kid persists. Why? One: maybe he's not as white as the driven snow that Terry makes him out to be. He was after all the king of cock sucking back at school and did survive on the street for quite a while.But maybe it's more that he sees in Terry a similar spirit. But one in denial. In fact Terry is more like the neglected mongrel in the pound who has been abused and hurt and snarls at any attempt to be kind. In a way they end up protecting each other.Terry also sees his friend, Marc, as the love of his life. If Terry was as much a prick as he makes himself out to be, why then has Marc hung around all these years?True, Marc, isn't exactly your strong, sensitive character, even if he may be so physically. Perhaps it is this aura of strength that attracts Terry. He admits he likes his men to have:thick, solid muscle, ropy veins, and enough stamina to pound me into a weeklong orgasm. He, himself, though was small:he and I were more or less the same size. In a more charitable frame of mind I might have offered to lend him some of my clothing. So Terry had toughened himself up over the years in order to survive. He thought Daniel needed to do the same, but when it came to the crunch, he stepped in to protect him, not once but twice.Time and again, circumstances left him smelling less than rosy, but instead of defending himself he encouraged Dan to believe the worst to help keep him at arm's length.There are faults in the story eg at one point, as quoted above, Terry says that he likes men who pound him into an orgasm and yet later we get this statement:It had been a good few months since I'd last got fucked, and I'd always preferred to pitch, but what the hey? It was his birthday. “Go for it.” The other bits that made me pause were his sudden change from protesting that he didn't want to help Dan and be nice to him and immediately doing so when he felt Dan was being encouraged to feeling ashamed about being gay. Perhaps a little more insight as to why he felt so protective of Dan at those times might have helped.Anyway these are minor quibbles and are easily outweighed by the courage of Ash in creating guys who aren't perfect and yet makes them sympathetic. She has also created a pretty believable world for them to live in. They go to work, they lose their jobs, they have to clean up. The mundane is as much a part of the story as the angst is.One of the biggest lessons writers need to learn when they write these "nasty" anti heroes (think Hans Solo) is that they must have a "Save the Cat" moment (google it under Blake Snyder). In this instance, we don't get this until this bit:I never brought anyone back here. Never had, never would. This was our home. And Marc had no right to do this to us. From that inner thought we learn that Terry is not as insensistive as he likes to pretend he is. He has standards. He's also very aware of when he's crossing Marc's line and in a way fears the consequences of doing so.This story also exemplifies the power of the first person narrative. This story would not have worked if we had seen things from either Marc's or Dan's point of view. The story I find most similar is Clare London's "Freeman", another excellent example of unreliable first person narrative.If you read "Stray" and had some problems with one or other of the characters, re-read it (as I did in the end) and see all the clues that are scattered about regarding their real characters and judge them then through your eyes and not those of the viewpoint character.