News came this morning of the death of writer Randall Kenan, who came into my life twice and made a lasting impression. Once, as a graduate student, I had to take him to the State Office Building to get a replacement Social Security Card, so that my school could officially pay him for the guest lecturing he was there to do. It was a ludicrous, silly task, and he took it in an only lightly bewildered spirit—I’ve had similar chores with visiting writers and usually they’re quick to get vocal about their being inconvenienced. Randall had this buoyant, sparkling laugh that he wasn’t ever stingy with.
Eight years later I was honored to be his fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I was there with my story collection, but I wasn’t writing fiction then, and so I didn’t take up his time with a one-on-one conference about my work. I immediately regretted it. I regret it still, but I remain fortunate to have watched him talk about fiction in class. His co-lecturer was a notorious blowhard, well-meaning but exhausting, and it was such a delight every time to watch Randall gently and insightfully step forward, so to speak, and center our focus and concern.
If you don’t know his work, I can recommend his debut novel, A Visitation of Spirits (or his forthcoming one, If I Had Two Wings). To help remember Randall, I dug up this old post/review of Visitation, from 2016:
Just before the fall semester hit me like a wave I’d underestimated, I finished Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits, and I’ve been wanting to write some things about it. Much of the book follows Horace Cross, a teenager from rural North Carolina, throughout a night where a demon leads him through the sites of his past as Horace struggles with his gayness and what it might mean for his future. The demon is real, tangible, manifest. There’s also an angel. What kept me reading was the way Randall took this night of self-reckoning and rendered it as a battle between the forces of good and evil in a way that never felt overwrought.
It didn’t feel overwrought because it felt so familiar.
I want to tell you the story of the night I woke up gay.
I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, having moved there just months prior to start learning how to be a fiction writer. I’d recently left Pittsburgh, where I’d lived for 7 years, dated one woman for 6 months, and went on single dates with a number of other women before finding excuses not to follow up with date 2. In Lincoln, the plan was to find the right girlfriend to help me redefine myself, which had been the plan when I’d moved to Pittsburgh to college.
In other words, I kept running away from being forced to look critically at the porn I liked and the things I thought about alone in bed.
Early in the spring semester I asked Heather out on a date. She was a fellow MA student, a regular at the bars I liked, and we’d both been told by mutual friends that we were interested in each other. I suggested we go to a dive bar I liked, the sort of place it would never occur anyone to ever suggest going on a first date. But then again, I wasn’t thinking about setting any sort of mood other than drinky-social. We talked the whole night and had a great time. She dropped me off at my place, and I went inside.
Then the anxiety hit. The same fear that hit me every time I’d come home from a date. If things continue to go well, she’s going to want to sleep with me. What would she think, I wondered, when my body didn’t respond the way my brain wanted it to? What would she tell other people?
I turned out the lights and I lay down in my bed but I couldn’t fall asleep. I was 24 years old and every day of my life had been a lie I kept telling. That night, I’d turn from side to side, and then back on my back. I’d close my eyes or I’d leave them open. Either way, I felt the same. I felt like I was falling. It was the constant sensation of sinking deeper and deeper into the bed, as though I was falling away from the normal world.
A Visitation of Spirits takes Horace through a haunting of his past, much like the first third of A Christmas Carol. He’s there watching the scene but unable to affect it. It’s not exactly a falling (he moves forward through it), but throughout his long, dark night he’s not exactly in control. I recognized it immediately. I can’t say this experience is universal, that all queer people have this kind of sinking, but I did.
Neal did, too. Though his long, dark night happened years before mine did, far earlier in his life than mine, he remembers it as a sleepless night of sinking slowly and endlessly into his bed. We shared this with each other very early in our relationship, maybe the second month. It made me fall in love with him, knowing exactly what he’d been through.
That night was so terrible, so full of regret and hatred for the person I’d been and yet wouldn’t let myself be, but all the same I was happy to relive it while reading Randall’s book, if only to see that I maybe wasn’t alone. And also to be reminded that I eventually came through it (things go worse for Horace). At some point that night I saw that all I had to do was make a decision. I could be like everyone else, be the person I felt others expected me to be, or I could try to be happy. Put that way, it wasn’t much of a decision at all.
That morning, I got out of bed a gay man.
- I had the privilege of being Randall’s fellow at Sewanee this summer, and much of that privilege involved getting to watch him read and get right at the heart of a story’s chief concerns and how the writer at hand might revise toward them. It was like surgery, but with a kind of elegance and a continual list of books to look into.↵