|Belated Gifts |
The Toronto You Are Leaving by Gordon Stewart Anderson
One of the biggest surprises in gay literature in 2006 came with the publication of Gordon Stewart Anderson’s The Toronto You Are Leaving, a 348-page homily on gay life and love in the ’70s and ’80s.
The book is a surprise in a number of ways, not the least of which is that Anderson died fifteen years before its publication. (The novel’s incredible journey—a manuscript resurrected from old computer disks by his sister and shopped around by his mother till she self-published it in conjunction with Coach House Press—is no doubt a story worth telling in itself.)
But The Toronto You Are Leaving is also a surprise because it’s a sure first book, handled with obvious skill and full of touching insight for both its characters and the times. The book’s lovers, David and Tim, are an archetypal pair—an intellectual and an aesthete—with a cadre of easily recognizable friends. They come out, fall in love, fight and separate, and then rejoin to face the AIDS decade together. To be sure, it’s almost as much a document of those times as it is a novel, one of the reasons it’s an important book. But Anderson was too careful a craftsman for it to feel like a diary, even a well-written and beautifully rendered diary.
Most of all The Toronto You Are Leaving is a belated surprise in that it fills a literary gap in queer history, which in the past is too often found buried under movie innuendo and oblique cultural references, instead of in our own literature. It’s a little like discovering Forster’s Maurice, or a gay Wuthering Heights, if there were one, all the more miraculous for having been written and survived in a time when such documents were rarer than they are today.
Yes, it could have used a more demanding editor, but what's a mother to do? Nevertheless, Anderson’s style is slow but sure, and highly enjoyable. It’s addictive, like catching up on the doings of old friends who’ve long been away. And there could hardly be a better choice of cover art than one of painter Steve Walker’s inimitable images.
For my taste, The Toronto You Are Leaving might easily have been published as two separate volumes, especially knowing there’ll be no more forthcoming from this author. Anderson’s death is probably the saddest literary leave-taking of any novelist to AIDS since the demise of Allen Barnett (The Body and its Dangers), also in 1991. Ironically, the character David, who is writing a novel in the book, tells us early on that, “The real problem…is that I don’t know how to end it.” Sadly, the ending wasn’t his to decide.