Book Reviews

Alone with a Man in a Room by Shaun Levin at Kiss and Tell Press

Genre Gay / Contemporary / Poetry
Reviewed by Bob-O-Link on 23-July-2021

Book Blurb

Alone with a Man in a Room is a collection of fiction and creative-nonfiction pieces written and published in various anthologies and journals over the past 20 years. Pieces about love, obsession, promiscuity, paranoia, and desire. Set in bedrooms, hotels, bathhouses, and public parks, in London, Tel Aviv, New York, and Sitges.

From the Introduction
Many of these pieces have been with me for so long I can’t remember whether they’re fact or fiction. Most are probably a combination of the two. I remember the time and place of their conception: those sweltering afternoons in London writing in an overgrown Abney Park Cemetery, a trip to Lille for writing and sex, the holiday in Almería on my way to Fundación Valparaíso for a writing retreat. Some pieces have been incomplete for so long, they’ll remain in a state of becoming forever. This book is a love letter to London and Tel Aviv, a stock-taking of work that has accumulated over the past twenty years. It’s a farewell card and a thank-you note, a restrospective of stories and essays written in the first twenty years of this new century. (Shaun Levin, Madrid 2021)


Book Review

Short story collections are quite a reviewer’s challenge. First: Is there any common theme or some raison d’être for the particular amalgamation, perhaps based on place or situation (consider the example of Joyce’s cohesive short stories - ‘The Dubliners’)? Perhaps the individual entries essentially constitute fragmented but related stories, with common characters? In other words, is there an essence, a hook, upon which the reviewer at least may begin hanging critical thoughts? Idiosyncratically, Shaun Levin’s ‘Alone with a Man in a Room’ seems to be just a willful composite of the author’s gathering of miscellaneous moments. Second: Whatever your reading style, do you prefer plunging through such entries seriatim, as though they constitute a novel and you’re eager to arrive at the denouement and conclusion? Or do you read in broken installments, resting between and parsing out each discrete serving as a separate course, to be digested on its own? Either way, dear reader, as for ‘Alone with a Man in a Room,’ you may take it or leave it, but I suggest that you enthusiastically take it!


Though I usually find it difficult to count more items than I have fingers on my hands, this collection appears to have eighteen bits, but I will definitely avoid eighteen reviews. (You’re welcome!) The book posits no general philosophy; there is not even a linguistic consistency (after all, they represent over twenty years of Shaun Levin’s writing). At best, I find a wonderful sense of coloration, almost akin to semi-abstract painting or music. Shaun Levin’s narratives may occasionally seem to be wanting, but there is always a tone that made me delve into finding a personal reaction.


‘The Beautiful Boy’ sets an opening standard – a very realistic gay bathhouse experience (okay, shame on me!) – a perceptive observation of a pretty youth by three old men, each fraught with the hope that the object of their lusts might surprisingly, sensually respond. Oddly, there is as much lovely coloration of place as there is of person: “We follow the beautiful boy along the labyrinths of this place, its black walls, exposed brickwork, the lights opaque, some murky yellows…” Let’s analogize using musical concepts: Shaun Levin’s work is much like a tone poem, every sentence (sound) conveying a reality, and yet the sum can seem to be more resounding with feeling than mere explication.


‘One Two Three’ is constructed with abstract sounds and broken thoughts – more stream of consciousness (or, perhaps, an exercise in sophistry). It discusses a mix of homosexuality and Judaism (oh my!), the resulting verbal melange is an art form and an exercise in authorial self-examination. “I is the singular. I is itself. I is eye and one is won. Who put the past tense of win in one? Once upon a time I was one. I won!” While oddly challenging, the author’s end product is quite satisfying.


There is enough personal history and private opinions in this collection of shorts to keep the reader engaged, determined to conquer the next grouping of Shaun Levin’s words and ideas. In several entries, the author even manages to provide nice encomiums to several popular gay writers (and gay magazines) of the 1960s.


Shaun Levin’s personal history is a continual transition from Europe to the Middle East, back through several European locations, even an aside to New York – ending in London. A quote from a story may be indicative of a portion of Levin’s authorial philosophy: “Those of us who’ve transitioned into another tongue know that language is freedom, that moment when you’re no longer functioning in a single language…” Levin’s style is wonderful, and always proof that intellectuality is to be admired, not feared. “You thought of it as making love, there in the dunes on your towel, sucking c**k, swallowing c*m, jerking each other off, in the source language of the word onanism, a man who spilt (spilt, I said, not spit) his seed and by spilling gave his name to the activity we love so much…” Levin provides, once again, proof that poetry reduced to sound sans meaning, can still be beautifully expressive, sort of like abstract humming.


Shaun Levin appears not to be pandering to publicists and others wishing to widely distribute his work to everyone. His pieces are erudite, and surely not necessarily facile. You have to work at them. And I need conclude, not with a warning but at least fair notice: with the book’s last few entries, Levin provides almost free-form recollections of the advent of AIDS in the experiences of his times. ‘Kaleidoscopic’ may a fair adjective for them – especially applicable for us who lived our youth under AIDS’ acute ax blade. Often a literary momentum mori, one’s age notwithstanding, these short pieces, while not always easy reading – are not to be missed (or even avoided).


Finally, I’ll surrender my Cynical Critic’s membership card, and present a lovely, hopeful philosophy well buried in Shaun Levin’s text. Take it as our joint salutation. “Being one of two is not about happiness, it’s about creation, bringing things into the world, coming up with ways to forget you are one. Being two is about forgetting.”


Much as it is deemed to be barely acceptable in outre literature for one gay character to address other gays as “f—king fags” or an Afro-American, using street slang, to address another, as ‘nigga;’ we have author Levin, once a long-term resident of Israel, presenting his critical view of that country’s current politics and questioning whether believing in peace is still possible given the discrimination evidenced by the majority’s “occupation”. Does this apparent falling out of love with Tel Aviv, its people and its politics – a self-criticism – obviate any charge of antisemitism?


As a peripatetic writer, physically exploring the world, Shaun Levin identifies with and writes about homosexuals, while being a queer Jew in exile from a small town, and identifying with a community of dead writers. He writes fluidly about sex and desire. Example: “You like the way his body fits into yours, like a Russian doll. He is skin and bone. You are his shell and his flesh.” Wow!






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


Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Collection, 135 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 24-June-2021
Price $9.00 ebook, $18.00 paperback
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