Book Reviews

Onyx by Felice Picano at ReQueered Tales

Genre Gay / Contemporary / Fiction
Reviewed by ParisDude on 10-February-2020

Book Blurb

Ray Henriques has success, love, friendship ... but lately it’s not enough. Yet it’s not just Ray who is on a quest for deeper meaning. For Jesse, Ray’s lover of ten years, it is a quest accelerated by his imminent death from AIDS. And for young married father of two Mike Tedesco, it is a search for the heart of masculinity. The sexual exploration which begins when Ray and Mike meet awakens a restlessness in both men, which resoundingly alters their future paths. As Ray’s life begins to draw him increasingly into the future, a future without Jesse, he attempts to tether himself to the here and now with frequent visits to a past where life’s answers seemed simpler and more meaningful. But when Jesse’s fundamentalist Christian mother rolls into town to take charge of her son’s final weeks, he is yanked from his reverie to face an opponent unlike any he has ever known.

Marked by shifting points of view, humor, descriptive brilliance and unexpected revelation, Onyxis a multifaceted exploration of inner lives, motivation, love, and the sometimes hollow center beneath a polished surface.

Publisher's Note: First published to acclaim in 2001, this new edition features a 2019 foreword by the author.

Book Review

I wonder who wrote the blurb for this novel, which unfortunately makes it sound as if it told the story of the final showdown between a Cruella-like mother and the gay man she hates for living with her son and blames for anything that goes wrong on this planet. That is not what “Onyx” is about. To be honest, it is rather hard to describe what it is indeed about. To name but a few themes: love, for sure; death with its multifaceted faces; grief and the questions “Is there such a thing as anticipated grief?” and “If yes, does it make the actual dying of a loved person easier?”; memories and what one makes them into (or out of them); resilience; saying goodbye and letting go. Obviously enough, this is not the “gayest” of novels (in the primal sense of the word “gay”), and yet, it was a lot less heavy and sad than I expected, thanks to the author’s impressive writing style.


In a nutshell, this story is about Ray Henriques, successful editor and (re-)publisher of classical music records, and his long-time boyfriend Jesse. It is the early nineties; they are living in New York. Ray is working at home, which leaves him enough time to take care of Jesse, who is slowly dying of AIDS (triple-drug therapy wasn’t yet available), or rather, Jesse drifts away little by little. He has made peace with his fate and is more worried about his lover than himself. As their sex life has become inexistent, he is happy when Ray finally finds a new sex partner (I’m reluctant to call him a “lover”—that would imply too much intimacy) in young, hunky, heterosexual, married Mike, a repairman. As the plot slowly unravels and Jesse senses the end approaching, he finally calls his fundamentalist Christian mother, whom I perceived as an unwielding, uncaring, unloving, egotistical adverse force. When she comes to New York, she does everything in her might to make life impossible for her “son-in-law” Ray and to model Jesse’s last moments following her own conception of how she wants her son to die (talk about egotistical!).


Several secondary plots are woven around this tale: Ray’s work on the music score of an independent movie and its subsequent success, which provides a new horizon for the after-Jesse era; Ray’s friendship with J.K., who is also dying of AIDS, with less resilience than Jesse; Ray’s nephew and niece, whom they both dote on and who, in the beginning, act as reminders of life’s positive sides the same way carefree Mike does. But the niece is diagnosed with leukemia, and the boy is killed in a car accident shortly after Jesse’s death. With this, it seems as if all bridges are burned in some sort of overkill plot development so that Ray can leave New York behind unencumbered (make those quotation marks extra-huge) and start a new life on the West Coast. For those who think this is plot overkill, the author’s foreword is a useful reminder that sometimes real life deals people with unlikely chains of events that, in a novel, might come across as too much. But they exist.


First things first, I have read several other novels by Felice Picano and have always liked his way of exploring plots and characters; you could say I’m a fan of Mr. Picano’s – not the gushing sort, but I consider and appreciate him as someone who has accompanied my adult life with his writing and has partly shaped my tastes. In the line of books I have read, “Onyx” is no exception insofar as I have immensely enjoyed my reading experience. The author provides me with characters I can easily relate to, despite the somewhat dreary main theme, death. This novel is a necessary reminder not only of a special period in time when people died by the hundreds and thousands – friends, lovers, sons and daughters – but also a reminder of the fact that life is precious and fragile and that what one takes for the sense of their lives can be swept away very quickly. Some of the questions asked are: Is life an emptiness humans are asked to fill time and again? What is it they fill it with? A lover? A career? Kids? Friends? Family? How do they react when those central “items” are taken away?


The characters, as mentioned, are suffiently fleshed out to feel alive and real, even those I only got to know fleetingly, such as Mike, for instance. Where Ray is perhaps a bit harder to get, drifting through his life, going through the notions without thinking things over too much, Jesse is easy enough to grasp and easy enough to love (he was my favorite character throughout the book, by the way). The author even offers a hateable person with Jesse’s self-righteous bigot mother—very clever because she was a convenient outlet for all the fuzzy, unfocused anger I felt the more pages I turned (anger mostly directed at AIDS, so in a sense a personified emotional outlet was sorely needed).


I’m sorry to say that I need to bring up some niggles I had with this book, however. As Mr. Picano has chosen to write parts of the narrative in long and description-rich prose, several of the descriptors came across as “too much”, i.e. too winding, too dense, and as a result somewhat clumsy. There were also some serious grammar issues I was willing to attribute to the author’s emotional state when he wrote this book (I daresay Mr. Picano knows the difference between subject and object in a sentence and normally wouldn’t mix up “I” and “me” or “who” and “whom”; at any rate, I don’t recall having encountered any such errors in his other books). And another point were the short bits written in a foreign language. Unfortunately, those were languages I not only speak (Spanish, for instance), but speak even better than I speak English (French and German, that is), and I noticed the passages were riddled with mistakes, which took off some of the author’s credibility, I’m afraid. I will be absolutely blunt: if the book had been written by any less talented author, I would have been thoroughly pissed off (pardon my French). As it is, strangely enough, I noticed these shortcomings, but when I closed the book, I only felt… appalled. Appalled by a very strong, very good book.






DISCLAIMER: Books reviewed on this site were usually provided at no cost by the publisher or author. This book has been provided by ReQueered Tales for the purpose of a review.


Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Novel, 360 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 30-August-2019
Price $4.95 ebook, $19.95 paperback
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