The Troubleseeker, Chelsea Station Editions, 2016
Shortlisted for Publishing Traingle’s 2017 Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction
This stunningly creative novel combines history and mythology from several cultures to tell the story of Antinio, a gay Cuban man, as he searches for freedom and love in the face of oppression and disease. It is narrated by Hadrian, the brilliant emperor of ancient Roman whose male lover Antinous died by drowning at age nineteen, whereupon Hadrian made him a god and had statues of Antinous erected all over the Empire. Hadrian,now a disembodied demi-god with limited supernatural powers, takes an interest in Antinio, actively saving h is life on several occasions. He also meets with several of the Greek gods and with the orishas of the Santería faith who migrated to Cuba from Africa during the slave trade-learning about their role in human affairs. It is an unusual blend, but holds together throughout to tell a compelling story. There is a helpful character guide at the beginning.
Antinio’s story begins in childhood, under the Castro regime. Skilled in languages, after an eventful stint in the military, he works as a translator in the Ministry of Culture, assist ing visiting artists and performers. This job also helps him to meet many like-minded men, and he has a few passionate affairs. Unfortunately, due to Cuba’s macho culture and the leadership’s repressive stance on homosexuality, he must keep his feelings and relationships a secret, even from his family. This leads to powerful feelings of guilt and shame, enough to create a chorus of Lamenters, Shriekers, and a Siren, which torment him throughout his life. He also has a brief relationship with a woman, which leads to children; his relationship with them will come to haunt him.
After a botched attempt to escape to East Germany, Antinio finds another opportunity when the Cuban government allows homosexuals and other undesirables to leave via the Mariel Boatlift. This makes for an unusual scene, when Antinio, w ho has always presented himself as a ‘”macho” type, must now adopt the stereotype of the effeminate gay man to the authorities to convince them that he’s gay. He arrives in the U.S., ending up in Minnesota, where he struggles to adjust to an unfamiliar climate and culture. He begins to find community, work, and lovers, but he’s hit hard by the AIDS crisis. Despite Hadrian’s power, he cannot save Antinio. But he can tell his story.
A love of language infuses the novel. The characters’ names are mostly derived from Greek mythology and language. Antinio’s wife is Circe and his sons are named Icario and Polideuces. His best friend is Erato, the muse of love and erotic poetry. A bully is named Apolion, from the word for destroyer. Even the novel’s title, according to Hadrian, comes from a translation of the hero Odysseus’ name, which literally means “to be grieved at.” (The actual etymology of Odysseus is uncertain.) As a young man Antinio falls in love with the constructed international language Esperanto, and his job in the U.S. involves creating a computer program that can translate any language. Spanish is also scattered throughout the novel.
The gods and orishas play an unusual , sometimes troubling role in the story, helping to influence human affairs while generally staying away from individual people. Babalu Ayé, responsible for disease and healing, is the creator of HIV, although he takes no responsibility for its effects. This reader could not help but remember certain religious figures who declared AIDS to be God’s punishment for homosexuality. Not that the novel is suggesting that, but it’s an uncomfortable association nonetheless. That said, with its accessible writing, a compelling central character, and a fascinating blend of languages and cultures, The Troubleseeker is a powerful first novel.
Charles Green is a writer based in Annapolis, Maryland.
Alan Lessik’s The Troubleseeker is an audacious debut novel. No less a figure than Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Buccellanus Augustus (better known to us as the Roman Emperor Hadrian) narrates this tale. Deified after death, and therefore a demigod, he is able to interact with the immortal gods of ancient Greece and the orishas of Cuban Santería. Unlike them, however, Hadrian can suffer the all-too-human feelings of love, an experience that extends into his post-mortal existence, and inspires acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of Antinio, the book’s mortal protagonist. Hadrian cannot make himself known to humans, but he can, in a limited fashion (and at great cost to himself) extend his protection to Antinio, and does so several times over the course of the novel.
Antinio, despite his name, does not resemble Hadrian’s beloved Antinous (who drowned at the age of nineteen), except insofar that he too is literate, educated, and a great physical beauty. Instead, he embodies the wily Odysseus (the eponymous “troubleseeker” of the book’s title), and his uncanny charm with women and men both continually lands him into and then out of trouble. The novel chronicles Antinio’s life-journey, which lasts far longer than ten years, and covers far more ground than the mythic islands of the Mediterranean. His facility with languages allows him to travel to Europe, and eventually he leaves his native Cuba for America, arriving in Florida before heading to Minneapolis and then eventually settling in California. Similar to Odysseus’ journey, Antinio’s continual travels represent his search for home. When Antinio immigrates to America, he is sundered from his wife and twin sons, but reuniting with them does not return him to himself as it did Odysseus; it is only by leaving Cuba that Antinio manages to establish an authentic identity as a Gay man.
Antino is not obsessed with the classical Greek preoccupation of avoiding one’s pre-ordained fate—nor does he share the ancient Greek distrust of that force called eros, the powerful, all-consuming love that even the gods feared because of its extreme potential for disruption. Indeed, erotic love remains constant throughout his life, even during the repressive regimes of post-revolution Cuba and Reagan-era America, and even after he is stricken with HIV. (Lessik combines and subverts these two themes by naming the three great loves of Antinio’s life after each of the Greek Fates: Antinio’s fate is to love, and he in turn loves Fate.) For all that nearly every character takes his/her name from Greek myth, the Greek gods themselves play but a minor role in the narrative; the actions of the Cuban orishas result in greater consequences, as when Babalú Ayé (the orisha of disease and healing) creates the virus that eventually leads to AIDS.
Still, this book is not a recycling of Greek myth in Caribbean drag, any more than it is merely a retelling of love during the recent devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic with added fantastical elements to make the suffering mythic in scope. Lessik deftly weaves several narrative strands to create this story, which becomes greater than any of its single parts. Far more than the life story of one immigrant’s journey, or a Gay man’s search for love and/or identity, this odyssey is a potent mash-up of contemporary history, Greek mythology, Caribbean Santería, and queer eroticism, and in its own way is just as epic.
by Keith Glaeske
The Gods are a fickle lot. In Alan Lessik’s imaginative new novel, they reign over man both with an iron fist and a tender hand. The narrator of this piece is the Roman emperor Hadrian, deified upon his death and mourning the loss of his great love, his soldier Antinous, who sacrificed himself for the sake of Hadrian’s glory.He finds a surrogate in a young boy in Castro’s Cuba of the sixties, Antinio. He watches Antinio grow into a man of great beauty on the post-revolutionary island. Antinio lives in Havana, (“Havana, more so than any other Cuban city, had sex in the air all the time. It was languid, thick, hot, and moist.”) Antinio is filled with sexual longing; he is different, however. He longs for the beauty of other men above all. His homosexuality and the constrictions of living under Communist rule eventually drive him to flee Cuba at the age of twenty.
He begins his American life in Minneapolis, where he meets the second of the fated three great loves of his life. There he contracts HIV (“And in this first meeting, a group of tiny beings made their escape from Laquesio to Antinio. Neither were aware of this, and no humans knew anything about them.”). Antinio is not only watched over by Hadrian and other Greek and Roman deities. The Gods of Santaria, who rule over his native land, exert their heavy influence. In his mind always are the voices of a Greek chorus, Reason, the Lamenters, the Shriekers, and finally the Siren’s call.
The Troubleseeker is a novel imbued with sex, sensual and often erotic. Antinio is a prolific lover, with many pleasurable encounters. The author’s use of the Spanish language to describe acts of passion add another layer of eroticism. Of course, as with any narrative of the time, the AIDS crisis looms large. Its mystical gods provide a context for the pain and loss that Antinio encounters. Some are the cause of suffering; other gods provide relief and succor. It’s a mystical and effective device and makes for a rich story.
AIDS, in this narrative, is not only presented as an end to life. Also explored are the pain of survival, surviving the death of people you love and the damage it and living with HIV can do to oneself. How did we, as a community survive such a pandemic? How does it continue to affect our lives today? Since there are no easy answers to the hows and whys of HIV/AIDS, a colorful and fantastical explanation is something that can be quite cathartic.
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard. John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.
Amos Lassen’s review of the Troubleseeker
Antonio is a native-born Cuban who faces his homosexuality in Cuba after the revolution and then in America. Alan Lessik tells his story using the ancient tradition of odyssey with Hadrian, the ancient emperor of Rome and demigod as his narrator and in the tradition of the “Santeria”, a syncretic religion that grew out of the slave trade of Cuba. Lessik brings the traditions of Santeria to classical Greek traditions of mythology and then uses them to present Antonio’s quest for love and freedom. For me, this is a special treat in that as I seldom, if ever, have the pleasure of reading a contemporary story told in classical style and it works perfectly. Therefore we can classify this as a modern/gay Cuban Santeria (which has really taken hold in Cuba recently. It emerged from the shadows of Cuban society when the country once again regained the right to practice religion. It is now practiced openly and all societal levels. It is uniquely Cuban and quite a dynamic way of worship) as well as a modern retelling of the Odyssey.I learned here that the title “troubleseeker” is actually the translation of the name Odysseus and the plot of Lessik’s story is based upon and inspired by his partner, Rene Valdes Lopez. He brings together Hadrian’s search for redemption with Antonio’s story as he left Havana via the Mariel Boatlift, was detained in Wisconsin and then lived through the AIDS epidemic in this country as well as the technological revolution we have experienced here.Lessik writes from the heart and it is easy to understand this since he is writing indirectly about the man he loves. He also takes risks in using the style that he does and in his first novel. “The Troubleseeker” is a beautiful look at love and at a male Cuban as he experiences great change in both his life and the life of his country. We actually go inside Antonio’s heart and see the love and emotions that rest there. I do not know how many writers would be able to write in this manner. Lessik lets us share not only the life but also the love of Antonio and it is a beautiful experience.We have not really had much access to gay life in Cuba and to have this book is very special. I love that we have this novel that is not only entertaining but is one that will stay with us for a long time after closing its covers.There is also historical value here. In addition to reading about post-revolutionary Cuba, we get a look, once again, at the devastation of the AIDS epidemic in this country. I, of course, was reminded on another gay Cuban— Reinaldo Arenas whose life was one of sexual pleasure and a way to gain power for himself and deal with his sexual identity.Lessik gives wonderful descriptions and tells a story that pulls us in and keeps us turning pages. We are entertained, we are educated and we are given a great deal to think about. The question once again arises as to how a god could create something so terrible as AIDS—the same question that we ask about the Holocaust.
“Alan Lessik’s The Troubleseeker is an extraordinary novel and a deeply moving expression of love. Gathering its beautifully numinous mythic and cultural materials, the book deftly tells the story of our hero’s journey, a gay Cuban man in the midst of life and historical tumult. With a soul-full daring to take risks, Lessik pulls us to witness the full heat of life and love inside the human heart.”
Tim Miller, Performer and author of Body Blows and 1001 Beds.
I am honored to share this review from Tim Miller. His performances and storytelling have been powerful commentaries on gay lives since 1981. He was one of the NEA four in 1990, a group of performance artists who grants were vetoed by the conservative and controversial NEA chair. An activist, keen observer of human behavior and a funny, poignant and honest man, Miller is willing to show his/our vulnerabilities while celebrating the lives of all members of the LGBT community.
Felice Picano’s Review
“The Troubleseeker is an engrossing read about one gay man’s life-voyage that manages to be fantastic and yet quite real, with a wonderful overlay flavoring of the Caribbean that you can almost taste.”
“Alan Lessik combines several unlikely fictional elements and an unexpected point of view in this auspicious debut novel. But it pays off: The Troubleseeker is an engrossing read about one gay man’s life-voyage that manages to be fantastic and yet quite real, with a wonderful overlay flavoring of the Caribbean that you can almost taste.”
Felice Picano, Author
I am honored to share this review by Felice Picano. As a founding member of the Violet Quill in 1980, he and others began the gay literary movement. Due to their efforts, gay and lesbian literature became its own genre, and LGBT presses and imprints supported these voices that were missing from the literary canon. His novel, Like People in History, showed me how important it was to see our lives in print.
Elías Miguel Muñoz’s Review
“A moving human chronicle that both entertains and lingers in our hearts.”
“Alan Lessik’s The Troubleseeker succeeds on several fronts: as a passionate gay story that documents the devastation caused by AIDS in the epidemic’s early days; as a vivid depiction of post-revolutionary Cuba leading to the disastrous Special Period; and as a clever retelling of myth where the gods of the Greek pantheon and those of Santería mingle, compare notes, and join forces. The compelling tale of Antinio, the protagonist, in some ways evokes the life and times of the great Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas: a life where sex is a site of pleasure but also a means for empowering self-expression and identity. Lessik’s writing is rich in descriptions, by turns poetic, and delivered by a narrator whose own captivating story lures us in like the Siren’s call. A book you won’t want to stop reading, The Troubleseeker offers the best that literature can give: a moving human chronicle that both entertains and lingers in our hearts.”
Elías Miguel Muñoz, author of the novels The Greatest Performance, Brand New Memory, and Diary of Fire