Tales of homosexual love are becoming common, and with them, explorations of what being gay was like when it was considered both a mental illness and a crime. The character Sal on AMC’s Mad Men promised to look into this, but apparently the writers tired of him after a couple seasons. The recent romantic dramedy Beginners is based on the true story of the writer’s father, who comes prancing out of the closet in grand fashion at the age of seventy-five after his wife dies. In the film, the son gives snapshots of how it was when he was a kid and tries to figure his dad out, to imagine what being gay would have been like.

Like Mad Men and Beginners, Robert Clark’s latest novel, Heaven, is set in a time when homosexuals were told they had a mental illness—which is what homosexuality was classified by the American Psychological Association until 1973—and were considered criminal social deviants. Gay men had to hide out and meet in secret. If they were discovered, they could be arrested or carted off to jail. At one point in the novel, two of the characters take a drive and stop in for a drink at a gay bar. When they leave the bar, they are attacked and beaten by two rednecks. But as the movie Beginners’ references to Harvey Milk make clear, an ass kicking was not always as bad as it got.

In Heaven, Clark tells the story of Bud and Dean, two men whose lives look like the American dream. Bud has a stunningly beautiful wife, Gloria, a good job in sales, a nice car, and the first house on a brand new cul-de-sac. Dean and Liz move into the second house, which they build at the far edge of the circle. The two couples become friends.

Bud and Dean have a brief sexual moment while out hunting one day. A few days later, after drinking too much, they have a full-fledged homosexual encounter in Dean’s basement, one that happens so quickly Bud feels it merits no regret. He thinks of it as “a kind of mutual back scratching.” They continue these clandestine hookups, often with their wives upstairs having drinks over dinner preparation, until one day they meet in a hotel room and have sex—“I would have even called it making love,” Bud admits (89).

The novel would be interesting if this were as far as it goes. But Clark is walking us into a more complicated story; he is examining the narratives that informed the myth of the 1950s male—his ethos and his expectations. The story of Bud and Dean’s affair is Clark’s springboard into a meditation on masculinity and manhood and what happens when a man who does not fit “the quintessence of the American male genus” (21) tries to twist and reshape himself into it. Three famous American men are presented as examples—the trinity in Clark’s male Heaven.

The first is Ernest Hemingway, who turns up in the local hospital several times throughout the novel and eventually manages to kill himself. In his writing, Hemingway sets forth a hypermasculine ideal—hunting, fishing, hard and relentless drinking, bull fights, fist fights, war—that culminates in The Old Man and the Sea. But almost everyone knows about the speculation that swirls around Hemingway’s machismo: his mother dressed him as a girl, he had a funny relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote famously called him an old closet queen.

At one point Bud is having foreplay with his wife, and he starts thinking of Dean and loses his erection. This reassures Bud that he isn’t gay after all; it makes him so happy that he gets out of bed, gets himself a strong drink, picks up a copy of Old Man, and starts reading. Hemingway’s old man refuses to back down before the buffeting of nature. He might be crushed by it, but he will not give in. He will be hard and stoic and tough. He will be a man. What this attitude seems to have gotten Hemingway was a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head.

The second man Clark presents, as an alternative to Hemingway, is Walt Whitman. Here is a manliness that does not have to be so damn strong, so incommunicative, so boorish. Throughout Heaven, Bud thinks of Whitman’s poetry: soldiers coming together, one embracing the other, and crying without shame; soldiers coming together and kissing one another on the mouth.

Dean seems to know this kind of masculinity. He takes Bud on a camping trip with his stepson’s Boy Scout troop—yes, Dean is a scoutmaster; he is also a florist—and the two men are alone together in a tent, out in the quiet woods. Dean whispers, “Isn’t this heaven?” (41). Two men together, without fear of being discovered, shamed, ostracized, jailed. Attacked. Murdered. Later, while the two argue, Dean says to Bud, “You shouldn’t be catty. It’s not manly.” Bud says, “And what you do—with me—is?” Dean responds, “It’s as manly as it gets, Bud” (110).

Enter the third member of Clark’s trinity: Alfred Kinsey. At this time the Kinsey Scale and the Kinsey Report were revolutionizing sex studies. Kinsey had published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and followed it with Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953. Although the studies were controversial, they were hugely influential. Homosexual acts do not make one a homosexual, Bud reasons with himself after reading Kinsey. “These things happen all the time, as Kinsey proved. They don’t mean anything” (74). In a later reference to Kinsey, Bud decides he and Dean must be bisexual instead of full-blown queer (99). By the end of the novel Bud realizes that Dean is, and has always been, fully homosexual, and we see how Hemingway, Whitman, and Kinsey provide another ethos for the American male, one that Dean inhabits fully, with an unapologetic, unprecedented eroticism.

As with the television series Mad Men, Heaven is impressive in its portrayal of the times. Not only does Clark get the details right but his very writing style hails a bygone era, though it isn’t the era of Hemingway. Bud mentions Hemingway’s style—the simple declarative sentences, “unadorned and direct” (94)—but while Clark’s characters certainly drink as much as Hemingway’s, the writing is not like Papa’s. Instead, the language in Heaven sometimes has a mannered ring to it. Characters don’t have carefree attitudes, but they do bear a kind of insouciance. Bud doesn’t get a little peace and quiet; he gets a moment’s calm and sanguinity. Drunk husbands don’t get rowdy; they get obstreperous. A two-week stretch isn’t two weeks; it’s a fortnight. In a moment with his wife at a restaurant, Bud hopes the waiter will come quickly, “and, serendipitously, he does” (52).

This kind of language, at least in this story, has the effect of breaking the fictional dream, of making the reader aware of Clark the writer. For me, it was a point of distraction—I have sat in writing workshops with Clark before, and to know that Robert uses this kind of language in casual conversation makes me think this may be my own hang-up: when reading the fiction of someone you know, it is nearly impossible to get the that author out of your head. But the larger, more universal problem may be with Bud’s talking in this way. Bud tells us he enjoyed reading Hemingway in college, but he is not a literary man. He is a salesman for IBM. He spends his leisure time drinking not reading. The language, as I understand Bud’s background and person, is distracting.

That criticism aside, Heaven is an honest addition to the art being produced about sex and gender. Some Christians will no doubt find Clark’s depiction of the sexual situations off-putting. They might want to put the novel down, but that would be unfortunate because this is a novel for them, a novel full of religious values. Indeed, Clark returns to religious issues he’s dealt with in past novels—his frustration with the Catholic Church’s stand on abortion for instance, which makes its way over from In the Deep Midwinter.

As for homosexuality and the myth of the American man: Dean is gay. But what makes him gay in the first place, and what does that mean about the morality of it? Dean is also a florist, one of the trades Bud notes that gay men seek out. But Dean hasn’t chosen this line of work for himself. It is a family business; he was born with it. Hemingway’s stand against nature didn’t work out so well. Heaven asks us to consider how morality and the American myth of masculinity intersect and coincide. What if Dean could just let nature be what it is? What if he didn’t have to fight it, hide it, pretend it wasn’t there?

However a reader may understand both homosexuality and masculinity, they can only be deepened by having a real human face put to them. And this is what Clark does. He respects his characters enough not to use them as puppets. They make the choices they make, for better or for worse, even as their personalities are shaped—and distorted—by their times. Heaven is an honest attempt at understanding, and as such, it deserves an honest reading.