Hi there! Today I’m excited to share a review and giveaway for a near-historical M/M thriller with romantic elements from mega-writer Rick R. Reed. THE MAN FROM MILWAUKEE explores the darker side of human nature, and features connections between lonely souls and a serial killer. If you liked THE PERILS OF INTIMACY or THE SECRETS WE KEEP you’ll like this one, too.
Scroll down for an excerpt and to enter the $10 GC giveaway.
About the book:
It’s the summer of 1991 and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer has been arrested. His monstrous crimes inspire dread around the globe. But not so much for Emory Hughes, a closeted young man in Chicago who sees in the cannibal killer a kindred spirit, someone who fights against the dark side of his own nature, as Emory does. He reaches out to Dahmer in prison via letters.
The letters become an escape—from Emory’s mother dying from AIDS, from his uncaring sister, from his dead-end job in downtown Chicago, but most of all, from his own self-hatred.
Dahmer isn’t Emory’s only lifeline as he begins a tentative relationship with Tyler Kay. He falls for him and, just like Dahmer, wonders how he can get Tyler to stay. Emory’s desire for love leads him to confront his own grip on reality. For Tyler, the threat of the mild-mannered Emory seems inconsequential, but not taking the threat seriously is at his own peril.
Can Emory discover the roots of his own madness before it’s too late and he finds himself following in the footsteps of the man from Milwaukee?
How about a little taste?
Dahmer appeared before you in a five o’clock edition, stubbled dumb countenance surrounded by the crispness of a white shirt with pale-blue stripes. His handsome face, multiplied by the presses, swept down upon Chicago and all of America, to the depths of the most out-of-the-way villages, in castles and cabins, revealing to the mirthless bourgeois that their daily lives are grazed by enchanting murderers, cunningly elevated to their sleep, which they will cross by some back stairway that has abetted them by not creaking. Beneath his picture burst the dawn of his crimes: details too horrific to be credible in a novel of horror: tales of cannibalism, sexual perversity, and agonizing death, all bespeaking his secret history and preparing his future glory.
Emory Hughes stared at the picture of Jeffrey Dahmer on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, the man in Milwaukee who had confessed to “drugging and strangling his victims, then dismembering them.” The picture was grainy, showing a young man who looked timid and tired. Not someone you’d expect to be a serial killer.
Emory took in the details as the L swung around a bend: lank pale hair, looking dirty and as if someone had taken a comb to it just before the photograph was snapped, heavy eyelids, the smirk, as if Dahmer had no understanding of what was happening to him, blinded suddenly by notoriety, the stubble, at least three days old, growing on his face. Emory even noticed the way a small curl topped his shirt’s white collar. The L twisted, suddenly a ride from Six Flags, and Emory almost dropped the newspaper, clutching for the metal pole to keep from falling. The train’s dizzying pace, taking the curves too fast, made Emory’s stomach churn.
Or was it the details of the story that were making the nausea in him grow and blossom? Details like how Dahmer had boiled some of his victim’s skulls to preserve them…
Milwaukee Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen said authorities had recovered five full skeletons from Dahmer’s apartment and partial remains of six others. They’d discovered four severed heads in his kitchen. Emory read that the killer had also admitted to cannibalism.
“Sick, huh?” Emory jumped at a voice behind him. A pudgy man, face florid with sweat and heat, pressed close. The bulge of the man’s stomach nudged against the small of Emory’s back.
Emory hugged the newspaper to his chest, wishing there was somewhere else he could go. But the L at rush hour was crowded with commuters, moist from the heat, wearing identical expressions of boredom.
“Hard to believe some of the things that guy did.” The man continued, undaunted by Emory’s refusal to meet his eyes. “He’s a queer. They all want to give the queers special privileges and act like there’s nothing wrong with them. And then look what happens.” The guy snorted. “Nothing wrong with them…right.”
Emory wished the man would move away. The sour odor of the man’s sweat mingled with cheap cologne, something like Old Spice.
Hadn’t his father worn Old Spice?
Emory gripped the pole until his knuckles whitened, staring down at the newspaper he had found abandoned on a seat at the Belmont stop. Maybe if he sees I’m reading, he’ll shut up. Every time the man spoke, his accent broad and twangy, his voice nasal, Emory felt like someone was raking a metal-toothed comb across the soft pink surface of his brain.
Neighbors had complained off and on for more than a year about a putrid stench from Dahmer’s apartment. He told them his refrigerator was broken and meat in it had spoiled. Others reported hearing hand and power saws buzzing in the apartment at odd hours.
“Yeah, this guy Dahmer… You hear what he did to some of these guys?”
Emory turned at last. He was trembling, and the muscles in his jaw clenched and unclenched. He knew his voice was coming out high, and that because of this, the man might think he was queer, but he had to make him stop.
“Listen, sir, I really have no use for your opinions. I ask you now, very sincerely, to let me be so that I might finish reading my newspaper.”
The guy sucked in some air. “Yeah, sure,” he mumbled.
Emory looked down once more at the picture of Dahmer, trying to delve into the dots that made up the serial killer’s eyes. Perhaps somewhere in the dark orbs, he could find evidence of madness. Perhaps the pixels would coalesce to explain the atrocities this bland-looking young man had perpetrated, the pain and suffering he’d caused.
To what end?
“Granville next. Granville will be the next stop.” The voice, garbled and cloaked in static, alerted Emory that his stop was coming up.
As the train slowed, Emory let the newspaper, never really his own, slip from his fingers. The train stopped with a lurch, and Emory looked out at the familiar green sign reading Granville. With the back of his hand, he wiped the sweat from his brow and prepared to step off the train.
Then an image assailed him: Dahmer’s face, lying on the brown, grimy floor of the L, being trampled.
Emory turned back, bumping into commuters who were trying to get off the train, and stooped to snatch the newspaper up from the gritty floor.
Tenderly, he brushed dirt from Dahmer’s picture and stuck the newspaper under his arm.
Kenmore Avenue sagged under the weight of the humidity as Emory trudged home, white cotton shirt sticking to his back, face moist. At the end of the block, a Loyola University building stood sentinel—gray and solid against a wilted sky devoid of color, sucking in July’s heat and moisture like a sponge.
Emory fitted his key into the lock of the redbrick high-rise he shared with his mother and sister, Mary Helen. Behind him, a car grumbled by, muffler dragging, transmission moaning. A group of four children, Hispanic complexions darkened even more by the sun, quarreled as one of them held a huge red ball under his arm protectively.
As always, the vestibule smelled of garlic and cooking cabbage, and as always, Emory wondered from which apartment these smells, grown stale over the years he and his family had lived in the building, had originally emanated.
In the mailbox was a booklet of coupons from Jewel, a Commonwealth Edison bill, and a newsletter from Test Positive Aware. Emory shoved the mail under his arm and headed up the creaking stairs to the third floor.
The book opens in 1991, Chicago and is mainly centered on the life and times of Emory Hughes, a closeted gay man living in the north side with his mother and deadbeat sister, Mary Helen. Emory’s mother is dying of AIDS contracted from a tainted blood transfusion. She’s near death at the beginning of the book, lost in dementia and tearing her tiny family apart. Mary Helen has emotionally sealed herself off from her mother, barely caring for her at all while Emory works full-time to support all of them. He comes home at night and begins the arduous task of cleaning his emaciated mother and trying to feed her. It’s heartbreaking and lonely work, but he can’t let his dear mother down.
Emory sees his homosexual attraction as a deviance, and his sexual encounters have all been anonymous, and often a bit brutal. They are something he wants to hide from the world, and would wish to be without, if he could. It’s a personal failure to Emory when need brings him back to the adult bookstore peep shows for strangers to manhandle. It is around this time that the horrors of serial killer Jefferey Dahmer are revealed, his sensational case of murdering, dismembering and cannibalizing many gay men being headline news for days on end. Emory senses that Dahmer did not relish killing men, but was compelled by forces he couldn’t contain, much like Emory’s own internal conflict with his physical attractions and needs.
Tyler Kay is a fresh college grad from the north suburbs taking a job at the insurance analysis company where Emory has worked for the past 8 years. Emory is tasked with showing Tyler the ropes, and Tyler, who is out and proud, senses a kinship with Emory, a fellow who likes fellows, but mostly he senses Emory’s deep loneliness, and desire to connect with another human. He invites Emory out and makes no secret of his sexuality or attraction, and doesn’t let himself get bothered when Emory staunchly denies his own sexuality. He’s known many closet cases. Still, when Emory’s mom finally dies, Tyler’s attention lights something up inside Emory–and a tenuous friendship builds. This feels momentous, and caught in both grief and the novel sensation of being seen as a man, Emory begins a magnanimous effort to write letters to Jeffrey Dahmer in prison. Through these letters, Emory is able to reveal his true feelings and desires. He’s elated to receive letters in return that show a softer side of the ‘Milwaukee Monster’ one who encourages Emory to live his best life, and keep Tyler by his side.
Okay, to be clear, Emory is mentally ill. His lifelong loneliness has facilitated a delusional mindscape that shields and scares him by turns. Tyler is a wonderful friend, and he really wants to be a lover to Emory, but he gets scared off by Emory’s fascination with Dahmer, especially after witnessing a psychotic break following what had been some tender intimacy between them. Tyler’s retreat gives way to a whole new level of psychoses that trigger violence and self-flagellation. All the while the letters go out and new ones come back–with Emory missing time from his days and nights.
A random outing reconnects Tyler and Emory some months later, and Emory is in a prime state to ensure Tyler–whom he believes to be his soul mate–will stay with him forever. Emory has learned from studying Dahmer, who was obsessed with having a man stay–even if it was only in pieces.
I’m not going to go into more detail, but this story was really poignant and thrilling. The downward spiral of Emory’s mental state was revealed progressively, and his desire to love and be loved was gut-wrenching. He’s a man who has felt unloved and unlovable for many years, and his grief, his torment over his sexuality, and his loss of the only friend and lover he ever had when Tyler runs out on him, all become more than he can cope with. His sister, who has been selfish and self-serving to shield herself from the pain of their mother’s disease and death, is barely able to maintain any relationship with Emory, but it is her intervention that ensures Emory doesn’t make a complete psychotic break. We have hints of the brutal turns Emory has taken, and Tyler definitely suffers before the end. I was glad that the story continued into the future a few years to give closure to all the affected parties.
This story has some romantic elements, but it’s not a romance. Tyler and Emory have a spark, but Emory’s mental state is an impediment to true intimacy. I always love stories set in Chicago, and Reed’s attention to detail–taking the Metra versus the L, describing the city neighborhoods, the vicious weather, and popular haunts of gay men in the 90s–is as superb as ever. Growing up in suburban Chicagoland, I remember the heated fascination over Dahmer’s case during those brief years. I was a junior in HS when he was arrested, and a senior when he was sentenced. The gruesome spectacle in Milwaukee was routinely compared to the crimes of John Wayne Gacy, a near-Chicago suburban man who’d murdered dozens of Chicago-area men just two decades before–and our news media certainly pushed those connection stories. So I could really sense and relate to the history, as well as the emotions of this fictional thriller.
When one has such dark themes, it’s easy to envision a canned resolution. The extended scenes were inspired and inspiring, demonstrating the power of forgiveness at relieving the guilt and grief of bad decisions. At it’s core, this story is one of connection to humanity, and how people who are disconnected from humanity will make choices that temporarily assuage the pain their isolation engenders. These choices are usually not in their best interest, be they drugs, alcohol or violence, and Reed never left Emory to the winds of fate, or silenced his pain artificially. The ending, for that reason, was tender and loving even if there was no romance.
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About the Author:
Real Men. True Love.
Rick R. Reed is an award-winning and bestselling author of more than fifty works of published fiction. He is a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Entertainment Weekly has described his work as “heartrending and sensitive.” Lambda Literary has called him: “A writer that doesn’t disappoint…” Find him at http://www.rickrreedreality.blogspot.com. Rick lives in Palm Springs, CA, with his husband, Bruce, and their fierce Chihuahua/Shiba Inu mix, Kodi.