Fly on the Wall Press, publisher of the collection No Home in This World by Kevin Crowe, presents itself as a “publisher with a conscience.” This description also suits its author, introduced as a “lifelong socialist, [who] has over the years been involved in campaigning on a wide range of issues, including homelessness, anti-war initiatives, trade union rights, freedom of speech, HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ rights.” Such a history of advocacy is reflected in the six short stories that comprise Crowe’s book. Each one reveals the deep commiseration of the author for those who are disadvantaged and oppressed, such as siblings who were put in different foster families and met only accidentally (when they were adults) or a Nigerian gay refugee, deported back to Nigeria from Scotland, where he is imprisoned and raped by his former oppressor. Stories of these marginalized and unlucky individuals are both harrowing and touching. Told through Crowe’s lens of righteous anger over the injustice permeating every corner of Earth, his compassion shines through on every page. However, readers expect literature to convey such sentiments more subtly, so that empathy, mixed with other responses, comes naturally. On this occasion, it feels as if noble intentions stood in the way of producing compelling narratives or, put another way, Crowe the political and social activist won over Crowe the writer.
This dominance of activism over exploring a more literary bent is a consequence of two aspects of Crowe’s writing. The first is his choice of protagonists, presented always in an entirely positive manner. They are simply good people, and the readers’ sympathy is increased by Crowe portraying them as victims. An example is the eponymous “No Home In This World,” whose gay protagonist suffers from oppression in Nigeria, due to his sexual orientation, and in Scotland, where his claim is regarded as invalid, and where he was refused the right to stay. Crowe describes,
It could all be so different, he thought, if only the authorities had believed he was an asylum seeker. They had treated him as an economic migrant. He wasn’t allowed to work, even though there was a shortage of teachers. Instead, he had helped other migrants to understand English, taught them the rudiments of the language so they would know what was being said to them, so they could understand questions on forms.”
His lawyer had tried everything she could, but the authorities wouldn’t believe him. “Prove you’re gay,” they had said to him. They had even found some Glasgow prostitute who told them he had sex with her. He’d never met her, didn’t know who she was. Perhaps she’s been bribed.
Even if his characters have any unpleasant traits, they are always a consequence of some wound suffered in the past, such as being abandoned by one’s mother, as is the case of “The Roots of Their Rising,” which opens the collection. A snapshot of the character is written as follows:
‘It’s all this talk of parents. It pisses me off.’ She was looking into the distance as she spoke. Tom wanted to put his arms around her, but he knew better. When she was angry or upset, any touch, no matter how sympathetic or well meant, would just make things worse. He had the impression she hated feeling vulnerable; she felt she had to be strong all the time.”
By contrast, the villains are of little interest to the author, despite the well-known fact that antagonists make more interesting characters than heroes. This aversion was particularly regrettable in the case of “No Smoke Without Fire?,” which describes the anguish of a gay teacher, wrongly accused of sexually abusing his pupil. Poignantly, on this occasion the question is asked, “And what about the pupil? What further damage would be done to the boy if he continued to maintain his innocence?” These are, indeed, interesting queries and it is unfortunate that Crowe decided not to delve more fully into the mind of a boy who decided to ruin the life of his caring teacher. Another trait of Crowe’s writing which diminishes its literary value is its affinity for telling, as opposed to showing–exemplified by the following fragment in “Moonlight Sonata,” the only short story with a happy ending: “My anger lasted many years. When I was demobbed after the war I refused to go back to Coventry, instead choosing to stay in the north of Scotland, getting a job with the post office in Inverness. When I wasn’t sorting or delivering mail, I was drinking. I wasn’t the most pleasant of drunks, but I wasn’t much nicer sober and I didn’t care for company.”
Against the backdrop of stories that are too didactic for their own good, the final piece in the collection, “Texan Condoms,” stands out most. For on this occasion, the main character, presumably based on Crowe himself, is not a victim and does not come across as particularly noble. He is just an ordinary gay man looking for adventure while traveling in the America of the late 1970s along Highway 87. It is during these travels that he meets his lover. The lover insists on using a condom during sex, which might save the protagonist from developing AIDS in his later life. The story is compelling, because it is full of detail, which makes it believable, and there is also no villain here, or rather, the villain is the AIDS epidemic, which hit gay communities hardest, dividing them into lucky ones, such as the narrator, who preserved his health, and those like Benjamin, dying a long and excruciating death at the end of the 1980s. The story is also more enjoyable than the other ones, because it points to the fact that even a painful death cannot erase the pleasure of living, as expressed in Benjamin’s confession: “At least I had fun, I suppose.”
Reading Crowe’s narratives, it feels as if he has inside of himself plenty of such stories of men (and women) who had some fun in their lives and found a home in this world, at least temporarily. It will be better, however, if next time he shows us the lighter side of life, not least because then the darkness, which interests Crowe more, will look more compelling.