What of Winter?
Review of Raymond Luczak’s Flannelwood
“So love, when it has gone, taking time with it, leaves a memory of its weight,” Djuna Barnes writes in her 1936 classic, Nightwood. The burden of love lost weighs similarly on Bill, the narrator of Raymond Luczak’s new novel, Flannelwood. A forty-five year-old barista with an MFA in writing, Bill quickly falls for James—“a veritable god” and disabled factory worker—when they meet at an OctoBear Dance.
While Barnes’ characters dwell in the liminality of night, Bill and James’ love is of the winter. During their six months together—from October to March—they share passionate sex in James’ remote house, yet learn little about one another’s lives. Like Barnes’ Robin Vote, James is an enigma. Night and winter become their respective domains, in which identity loosens and they can shroud themselves in mystery.
Bill spends much of the novel—which he directs at James—attempting to unravel his memories of their relationship. Luczak writes, “There’s something potent about a man of mystery, he demands to be solved.” James’ elusiveness endows him with power over Bill. This power only intensifies when he breaks up with Bill—without explanation—over the phone.
This weight of memory carries Bill into the past, not only to his months with James, but to his childhood in the rural Midwest and a previous relationship in which he lost his partner, Craig, to AIDS. The people within these memories haunt Bill, like “ghosts” that “appear and reappear, revealing the state of our minds at the time like a mirror back to us.” The novel thus becomes this reflection, the archive of an inner world in the wake of loss.
Flannelwood flows among dreams and trains of thought—from Bill’s mother’s death to his first date with Craig to buying cigars. At times, prose becomes too dense for these recollections, and Luczak breaks into lines of verse: “I am just babble. / Your eyes sang poetry.”
The expanse between reality and the versions of ourselves we cultivate online makes it more difficult for Bill to find the connection and relationship he craves.
Like Nightwood, set in 1920s Paris, Flannelwood is at once timeless and rooted in a specific time. Set primarily from 2013–2014 in an unnamed Midwestern city, Bill is haunted by the AIDS crisis. After Craig’s death, Bill begins to fear the disease in every man he’s attracted to. Joining the bear community becomes a means of temporarily mitigating that fear: “I showed up at bear events because at least the men weren’t skinny. They didn’t have AIDS, or at least looked like they didn’t.”
The hookup culture Bill experiences also grounds Flannelwood in the twenty-first century. The novel both begins and ends with updated posts on Bill’s online profile. The first, which he posts prior to meeting James, describes a desire for meaningful conversation and connection that extends beyond sex. On the following page, James abruptly breaks things off with Bill over the phone, citing the classic, “It’s not you. It’s me,” before hanging up, ending their final conversation.
While Luczak never uses the word “ghosting,” a term coined in 2011 for the phenomenon of abruptly breaking off a relationship and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out, it permeates Bill’s experience of the breakup. His sparse knowledge of James, paired with the circumstances of their breakup, make it harder for Bill to gain closure and move on from the relationship. Without even a picture of James, Bill laments: “Never will I be able to correct my own memory of you against the reality of you on my iPhone’s screen.” Lacking a technological record of the past, Bill must rely on his malleable memory to process the relationship, further vesting James with the power of mystery.
While ghosting is not purely a contemporary issue (Robin Vote and the women on whom her character is based offer a prime example), social media and online dating have made it far more common. Luczak describes technology as a threat to genuine connection: “With each technological advance online and with our mobile phones, we find ourselves dissociating more and more from each other. […] Our lives have turned into bits and bytes that we have become ghosts even to ourselves. How did we get so haunted?” The expanse between reality and the versions of ourselves we cultivate online makes it more difficult for Bill to find the connection and relationship he craves. Bill meets James in person, but the information James shares is so sparse, so curated, that he more closely resembles an online persona than a fully formed individual.
Beyond its moment in the twenty-first century, Flannelwood is also timeless. Luczak explores masculinity (including Bill’s fear that he’s not “macho enough”), the experiences of characters with disabilities, and the human search for connection with wisdom and nuance. In this way, Luczak’s vision of literature as a vehicle for empathy is fully realized: “Literature is reading about people’s lives and caring for them as if they were your own flesh and blood. […] It’s about seeing yourself in the characters and discovering things you hadn’t realized before.”
The people within these memories haunt Bill, like “ghosts” that “appear and reappear, revealing the state of our minds at the time like a mirror back to us.”
Toward the end of Flannelwood, Luczak begins to reference Nightwood explicitly. Bill shares how his longtime housemates—a lesbian couple who are huge fans of the novel—long ago convinced him to read Nightwood and dress up as the characters for Halloween. When he eventually tells them about his relationship with James and their breakup, they use passages from Nightwood to illuminate James’ toxicity.
Luczak also incorporates Djuna Barnes’ biography into Flannelwood, including her decision to loosely disguise herself and her relationships in Nightwood’s characters. Luczak writes: “Djuna of the sun, did you forget to forgive? You dipped your pen in the most acid ink of all. You wrote to avenge the very people who’d hurt you.” By explicitly addressing this and by hoping that James will learn about and read Flannelwood (“You’d roll your eyes at how I’d changed details of our relationship and your disability…”), Luczak suggests that he too has disguised his own experiences in the form of a novel.
Reflecting on Nightwood and writing Flannelwood enable Bill to dispel James’ ghost, yet he is not free from the vengeance of which he accuses Barnes. Bill tells James, “When you’re at last done with Flannelwood, you will take off your reading glasses and weep with only the rickety arms of darkness comforting you in that windchill of lonesomeness.” In his journey to heal from the past, Bill exacts the same revenge as Barnes, yet states exactly what he is doing.
By the end of the novel, the storylines of minor characters and once loose threads of memory tie together a little too neatly into a bow. Despite this, Flannelwood offers an intimate glimpse into an inner world, shaped by a search for belonging and our universal desire for connection. Fans of Nightwood will enjoy it all the more.
REVIEWED BY TESSA MENATIAN
Tessa Menatian is a ghostwriter and writer of ghosts. She studied poetry and nonfiction writing at Bard College and lives in Northampton, MA.