Another one from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.
This is a short tale in what might seem an unsalubrious setting, but it’s a small gem of a book that’s well worth reading. It was first published in 1997, but went out of print, before being republished in 2007 by The Friday Project. The republication is well deserved.
Gents is the tale of Ezekiel Murphy, a West Indian immigrant, and the job he takes as an attendant in a public lavatory in London. The supervisor, Josiah Reynolds, and the other cleaner, Jason, teach him the job, which includes more than he had expected. As Ez soon discovers, the facility is popular with cottagers — men using the cubicles for fast, anonymous sex with other men. The attendants discourage it as best they can, but tolerate a certain amount of activity, because as Reynolds points out, the ‘reptiles’ are no threat to anyone.
There are still complaints to the council about the goings-on, and the crew are told that they must clamp down on the cottaging or the facility will be shut. Alas, they’re too successful for their own good, and takings from the small cover charge that covers the facility’s running costs drop precipitously, leading to renewed threats of job cuts, and a dilemma for the attendants…
Gents is a gentle, funny and subtle parable about tolerance, on more levels and subjects than the obvious one. The characters and situations are sketched lightly but deftly, in a lovely display of showing rather than telling, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Collins originally conceived the story as a screenplay. The three West Indian attendants have much in common through their common background, but are still very different people with different attitudes and prejudices. They have an outsider’s view of the society they live in, and see it from underneath. Through Ez the book touches on issues of race, class, homophobia, religion and culture, without ever being heavy-handed or one-sided.
There are stunningly good descriptive passages about the men and their world, and the characters are likeable and sympathetic, without being unbelievable saints. The main characters are the three men, but they also all have wives (two in Jason’s case), and Ez’s wife Martha and his relationship with her is a particular strength of the book.
One minor problem for some readers will be the Jamaican patois in the dialogue, which does take a few pages to get used to if you’re not familiar with it. But it’s appropriate for the characters and not pushed to the point where it’s hard to follow.
This is a much shorter read than its 172 pages might suggest, as a large font and plenty of white space mean that there aren’t many words per page. At 25,000 words or so, this is a novella rather than a full-length novel, and you get around an hour’s reading for your eight pounds. But it’s beautifully written and a joy to read. It may be short but there’s plenty of depth, and it will stand up well to re-reading. Even if you feel that the book is too pricy for the word count, it’s well worth checking it out from your library.