The Comfort of Men
By Dennis Altman
Minerva, 1995. 247 pp., $13.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
In 1971, Tasmania ceased to be part of Australia and became an independent nation. The Independist movement, "a movement which carried the Bible in one hand and the reports of the Tariff Board in the other", had mobilised, from the left, Tasmanians' discontent with traditional politics and their desire for small-scale "community", and, from the right, their fears of social change — sexual permissiveness, immigration, needle exchanges, abortion, republicanism and other devils.
This is the political backdrop of Dennis Altman's first novel, in which his main character, Steven, finds his way to accepting his homosexuality and full humanity. Steven confronts his "confusion and terror about his homosexuality", as he challenges his stance on the Independist movement, eventually taking the plunge into personal commitment with his lover, James, whom he is eventually to lose to AIDS.
Along the way, there are a number of relationships and casual affairs which Altman uses to show that homosexual desire is a human desire, a sexual orientation as "natural" as heterosexuality. Gay and lesbian relationships can be as loving, painful, caring, uncaring, committed, jealous as heterosexual relationships — this is the strength of Altman's novel, based on his active involvement in the gay community and deep reflection on the personal and social experience of homosexuality in a heterosexist society.
The other aspects of the novel, however, do not quite match the insight and credibility of his exploration of homosexuality. The success of the Independist movement seems incredible. Right-wing separatist movements can be powerful, but it all seems to happen too easily in Tasmania — the trade unions and the working class as a strategically crucial factor which would oppose such a movement are absent. The radicalisation around Vietnam and feminism is too easily brushed aside.
Steven, reflecting a strain of political ambivalence, still retains links with an Independist leader, Godfrey, the homophobic homosexual-in-retreat from Steven's university days.
The fictional Independists seem unanchored in any Tasmanian political reality, unless the idea was based on the United Tasmania Group (UTG), the world's first Green party and forerunner of the Wilderness Society, formed in 1972. Altman suggests that factors such as "fear of alienation, lack of community, dislike of bigness" may be common to right-wing separatists and to the "Green Left", yet the UTG, despite its conservative origins, and despite calling itself neither left nor right, was a radical environmental group far to the left of stodgy Liberals and Labor.
Steven wonders why he is attracted to those who are certain of their political convictions yet is himself beset with caution, doubts and ambivalence about political engagement. Altman provides no answer; he is stronger on sexuality than politics, although these two spheres of the human condition are well integrated with Steven's bitter observation on the Independists' "traditional values" — they "never mention the young [gay] men who committed suicide or were beaten up or spent their lives in cold and destructive marriages because of 'traditional values'".
The Comfort of Men is a worthy, if uneven, first novel. Altman will write more and better ones.