In his debut novel The Intimates, Ralph Sassone has deftly sidestepped the multiple pitfalls inherent in his story. Recounting the friendship between Maize and Robbie at three pivotal points in their lives (high school, college and post-college in New York City), Sassone writes about the absurdities of liberal arts colleges, the bond between straight women and gay men and, most impressively, the scary/thrilling pull of sex without falling into potholes of clumsy writing, or writing a gay character that relies on the clichés and “Hey, this is a gay character!” excesses that mar so many books.
Robbie and Maize don’t have the usual, Will-and-Grace relationship that novels and films continue to insist is the only kind that exists. They aren’t a wisecracking duo, writing off relationships with a quip. Both of them are damaged by their childhoods, and both of them are terrified into immobility by the thought of genuine intimacy with someone other than each other.
Sassone has a melancholic voice that keeps Maize and Robbie just off-kilter enough to feel fresh, even as they grapple with the usual problems of sex, dating and growing up and away from their parents. Robbie hides in books and behind a wall of intellectual chatter; Maize takes her cues from her sociopathic, klepto boss. Where Sassone shines is in recreating the image of two people trying on different personalities, looking for one that fits. He never aims for the obvious choice, nor does he veer to the outlandish. Instead, Maize adopts the clipped, angry demeanor of her boss, extending it even to her personal life. Robbie tries to abandon himself to sensual pleasures, but keeps pulling up short as he finds himself incapable of relaxing into the pleasures of sex.
In one of Sassone’s best passages regarding sex, Robbie finally abandons his inhibitions with his new boyfriend, whereas “with previous men sex had been part recreation and part physical therapy, the sensual pleasure of the exercise tainted by a sense of hygienic usefulness.” Damaged characters can often seem like extensions of the author, a free form of fictionalized therapy. With The Intimates, though, Sassone has created a friendship so deep, so utterly believable, that you feel jealous of Maize and Robbie’s closeness—and of Sassone’s easy talent.
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