Geary, Karl. Juno Loves Legs. Catapult, New York, 2023. F; 4/23.
It seems to me there are a lot of fiction authors in Ireland these days but I guess that’s nothing new. Somehow this one in this bildungs/endurance story really captivated me. This in spite of a lot of content that in other hands has felt to me inauthentic: illness, addiction, deprivation, vicious religiosity, bullying… Here we have gripping graceful writing, an honestly credible protagonist, and, surprise: redemption by kindness. I have a sneaking feeling it also evoked for me my own mother, English lit major and daughter of a Belfast Irishman, successfully encouraging me to read as a kid.
(plot alerts in this paragraph. Suggest you skip it if you want to read this which I think you should.) Juno is the younger of two sisters in a working-class alcoholic-fathered Dublin home, the sister raped and departed to raise her own family, the father a helpless alcoholic and cringing hypocritical Catholic, the mum a skilled but habitually duped kind seamstress. Legs (Juno’s nickname for a boy in her class) is picked on at school (effectively defended by Juno) and unfairly punished by the Catholic teacher and headmaster. He sets the headmaster on fire and is imprisoned. Juno is driven out of her home by the sister and lives on the street, drinking when she can and trading sex for shelter, until Legs rescues her having apparently become a successful visual artist. He gets sick with HIV and is abandoned by his former mentor (end plot alert).
Geary can really write. I never detected self-pity or relying on shock value in any of the terrible troubles his young platonic couple suffers. Two examples of his turns of phrase:
My own boy, I thought suddenly, without a lick of that human instinct that cuts fresh flowers in bloom and takes them home to wilt and die.
The train slowly tumbled into the station with a sharp hissing of hydraulics and its enormous diesel engine halted violently against our silent aubade.
Legs, but particularly Juno, are dramatically real. They are both practical but he’s self-effacing, she’s relentlessly self-critical but also relentless in her kindness to him. Opposing antagonists are just as credible in their dreadfulness: “Father” the headmaster:
‘The school he was going to send me to, with the special program? It was conversion therapy up at Queen’s University. He said it could help sick boys like me. “It’ll shock the girl out of him,” that’s what he said to Mam, and she was so quick to go along with it. She was disgusted by me. He did that, he took her away.’
…he almost deserves immolation. “Saint Francis”, rich dilettante in gay society after he gets a whiff of Legs’s illness, publicly reneging on his promise of a big art show:
‘Darling, there was never a show. Who are you kidding? That would be like bringing a pony to a horse race. You don’t have the schooling, the breeding, the intellect. Know who you are, you’ll be so much happier…You know, my dear, you’re a rent boy. A quay queen. But only rough trade from now on, I think.’
(Plot alert, again) Juno has a chance to go to a clothing design graduate program but steals from her benefactor to help Legs leave for Paris to die (end plot alert).
Pathetically lost, Juno returns to the library where at closing time she sees an elderly librarian who used to encourage her to read and who now senses Juno’s state and the story ends with:
‘I am just so, I don’t know, I just . . . I don’t know anything anymore.’
‘Tell you what, why don’t you come and have a cup of tea at my house before you set off, if it suits?’
That needed kindness softens all the harshness of events. No “modern” decadent nihilism here. Lovely story, I hope you find it so.
Okay…you got me hooked ! 😀👍