Stories from the Wildfires: A Review of Boys, Beasts, & Men by Sam J. Miller
Boys, Beasts, & Men. Sam J. Miller. Tachyon Publications, June 14, 2022.
Sam J. Miller’s stories collected in Boys, Beasts, & Men are fire in about the same way a blast furnace is. They are full of evolving, disintegrating, and re-assembling identities, a funhouse hall of molten mirrors. These stories burn away façades to reveal true histories full of fierce magic. Histories queer as all hell’s furies unleashed. Histories often uncontrollable by those who bend the course of the story. An able craftsman, Miller harnesses the powers of the twin underground rivers of loneliness and desire to channel the rage and hope of his characters. And through that craft, Miller brings tales of justice regained and character reframed.
Here in Miller’s world, we are all monsters, but that’s okay because “monster” (like beast, like boy, like man) is an expansive ontology with plenty of room for lots of different types of beings. Even the Bible is full of them: “the Bible a big book of blood and monsters and sins not even sacrifice could cleanse” (“Angel, Monster, Man”).
In “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” a bullied queer boy becomes, despite himself, a vengeful monster. For anyone who’s ever been tormented by a bully, much less a gang of them, this story is a delight—or, potentially, horrifying and triggering. The piece unfolds with an inexorable, can’t-watch-but-can’t-look-away epigrammatic fever as certain as payback is a bitch. Like the boy in “57 Reasons,” we find ourselves full of “[i]rresistible agony, wondering just what the hell had happened” (“Angel, Monster, Man”).
“The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History” is literally a fire—the one James Baldwin warned about, the one the Black American spiritual warns about: no flood next time, you naughty damn humans. Next time, fire. “The Heat of Us” is a pry bar wedging open a new vista, an alternate history that looks out on an expanse of oppression and takes the temperature of the pent-up rage simmering out there. Ostensibly the metaphysical truth that lies beneath the Stonewall Riots of June, 1969, Miller manages to work from the specific to a broader, more intersectional view of the world where explosion-inciting queers and drag queens are sparks in a fireworks flag that is everywhere flashing and freaking. Next time, maybe, the fire’s for the billionaires, for those who base a “business model… around poor people making bad decisions out of ignorance and desperation…. Just ask McDonald’s, or the heroin dealer who used to sell to my mom” (“We Are the Cloud”).
“The Heat of Us” hints at historical trauma, the epigenetic turmoil handed down by oppressed people to their children (as well as to those who dare to empathize, a condition called compassion fatigue). If “We do not die, [as] someone had etched into the glass window” neither does our trauma, not until our stories are well and truly told—and heard (“Angel, Monster, Man”).
Are we ever heard? Do we ever win? Do things ever change, progress, get better for queers, for people of color, for the precariat? Things can be different, Miller seems to be saying, inasmuch as these stories are exercises in imagining something better. If by no other means, by sheer force of will, we will manifest justice for all: “The fire of our rage had burned down so much hate. Sometimes literally; Jesse Helms kidnapped and tied down and doused in gasoline and set on fire; Falwell acid-disfigured. Drug cocktails. Gay governors and Supreme Court Justices; Harvey Milk’s birthday a national holiday; commitment from Congress to provide free AIDS medications to all” (“The Heat of Us”).
I love Miller’s epistemological daring. We don’t write what we know, contra the silly workshop maxim (or we do, but those are called textbooks). We write to explore what we hope to know, or fear to know, or just to exult in the privilege of exploration: the “novel” is precisely that, the new, the imagined, the desired, not just a word count. Thus, in Miller’s world, King Kong did fall, and the film is just a coverup (“Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart”). That couch you’re sitting on is sentient, and it damn well has feelings and opinions on the matter (“Sun in an Empty Room”). That old Latin tag, genius loci, isn’t just an expression: the things of this world are alive and we’re all of us breathing together in a grand conspiracy (“Ghosts of Home”).
Miller is novel, then, and knows how to bring the ferocity. He can also bring tenderness, even into the strangest, most difficult places (as, indeed, he does in his several novels, including the wonderful Blackfish City). In “We are the Cloud,” Miller leads us into a world where the marginalized are used as a kind of cloud storage. Instead of dwelling on the horror of precarity, of literally losing your mind in order to eat, Miller lets a love story arise amid the exploitation, a rose blooming on the corpse of capitalism. Miller pushes some tender buttons, probing our emotional fault lines: “I felt lust,” he writes, “not inferiority, and the two are way too close. Like hate and love” (“We are the Cloud”). Even under the worst conditions, love is a force to be reckoned with: it levels playing fields and dredges us up from the lowest depths.
It’s a beautiful thing that Miller is “shocked… at our wild, lonely freedom in this world” (“Conspicuous Plumage”). This is John Keats glad ever-anew at being alive and embracing “negative capability,” being okay with dwelling in a cloud of uncertainty. What if this is all a simulation, a hologram full of lost souls stranded on an aimlessly wandering atom in the heel of a giant’s boot? What can we ever really know? Amidst the horror and the trauma, after all the bullying, the microaggressions, the blatant homophobia and racism, however contradictory it sounds, we need Miller’s brand of sentimental education to ground us in uncertainty—and possibility.
I find in Miller a poetic sensibility that reminds me a bit of Emily Dickinson and, given that thought, it’s possible to create an enigmatic but epigraphic description of this book by paraphrasing, out of context, two of Miller’s sweetest lines: “Love [means] walking beside someone you would never truly know” so “I kissed him again, and hoped it would be explanation enough.”
BC Clark has been a poet, science writer, and reluctant marketing demon, and was the founder of Permeable Press. Clark’s novel, Splitting, was published by Wordcraft of Oregon in 1999. Currently, Clark is a music producer and composer working under the name The Plural Muses. BC Clark, a non-pronomial plural entity, stalks the wild margins of the cultivated fields of eastern Washington with a one-eyed hound named Dirks. You can find Clark on Twitter and Instagram.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Zachary Gillan and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. The author and editors had no previous acquaintance. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Tachyon.