Benediction is about Ben Schmidt, a forty-something gay man, living in San Francisco. Ben is successful at work, promoting his first independent movie on the side, seeing his handsome younger upstairs neighbor, over decade sober when his doctor tells him that he has a fatal form of prostrate cancer rare in men his age. Because the fatal form of prostrate cancer typically strikes older men who are not expected to live long enough to die from it, it tends to go untreated, or treated only slightly. But Ben is so young he has to face surgery, followed by incontinence, impotence and infertility all of which send him racing into the nearest bar. Once Jake, the handsome younger upstairs neighbor, finds out he’s drinking again, Ben is on his own.
This could all be very heavy stuff, but Mr. Arnold never lets his main character sink into self-pity for too long. Even when he’s drunk Ben has too much going on to spend page after page wallowing in regret. He has too much to do. His movie is doing well on the film festival circuit, office politics at work drag him into a knock-down fight to keep his job, he has to hide his drinking and he insists on maintaining an active sex life even after surgery forces him to start taking Viagra and to wear adult diapers. So much is going on in his life, so much of it is going wrong, that he finds it difficult to make time to deal with his cancer.
It’s no wonder he starts seeing ghosts.
Mr. Arnold understands that a novel like Benediction lives or dies on how much sympathy the reader has for the narrator. The book takes the reader to some fairly dark places and then makes a few jokes about the trip. If we don’t like the narrator, we’re not going to see the trip through to its end. I liked Ben Schmidt. His life is messy. The way he treats his cancer is messy. His illness doesn’t lead to an epiphany; it just makes everything worse. But Ben’s sense of humor, which was there all along, sees the reader through to the end of the book.
Benediction deals frankly with some uncomfortable stuff. So uncomfortable that I’ll admit I was a little nervous about it. Can a gay man maintain an active sex life after prostrate surgery? That question alone probably sends many readers heading for the hills. For the longest time it appeared that falling off the wagon was not going to have a negative impact on Ben’s life. He was so wrapped up in dealing with his cancer, promoting his movie, negotiating office politics, cruising–lots of cruising, that I began to wonder where Mr. Arnold was going with his narrator’s alcoholism. Ben does eventually end up literally in the gutter due to his drinking, but it’s not a drastic, dramatic dive to the bottom the moment he takes a sip of liquor. It takes a while. For a long time, Ben is able to maintain. I imagine that’s a common experience.
In the end, Benediction is anything but a common novel. It’s probably not one you’ll find at your local chain bookstore, unless your local chain bookstore is in the right neighborhood, but it’s one that is well worth looking out for. Benediction grew on me. Ben Schmidt grew on me. His story would make a terrific movie.
I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2010. Afterwards, I kept my copy of Benediction, an ARC by the way, on the bookcase full of books I intend to re-read in retirement. I really liked it.