Author ~ Brynn Stein
Publisher ~ Dreamspinner Press
Published ~ 29th May 2015
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
Branson Farrell lost his parents when he was thirteen, and for the last ten years his brother, Mac, eight years his senior, has taken care of him. But Mac’s love came at a price. Both brothers were raised to believe being gay was completely unacceptable, and Branson has almost convinced himself he can be what Mac expects. When he looks at a man in a bar and Mac notices, Mac drags him off in horror.
Mac’s distress and disgust leads to a car accident that leaves Branson injured and Mac in a coma. Branson heals and stays at Mac’s bedside, but when Mac doesn’t recover, he is moved to a long-term care facility. There, Branson meets openly gay, confident, and attractive Liam Sullivan. Liam stirs feelings Branson thought he’d rid himself of, and to honor his brother, Branson fights tooth and nail against his attraction. When the cost of denying who he is becomes too high, Branson must battle a lifetime of hatred that’s been beaten into his body and mind to try for something of his own.
For Mac is not an easy read, but it’s an important one, and at times, even a beautiful one. It deals with some of the most difficult topics in contemporary gay life: the persistence of bigotry and homophobia across generations, internalized homophobia, abandonment, relentless guilt, death and lingering long beyond one’s time.
There are two main characters, Branson and MacKenzie Farrell, brothers who survived the destruction of their family. Mac, the older brother, became a surrogate father to Branson while he, himself, was not much more than a boy, after the loss of both parents in a car crash, when Branson was only thirteen. It wasn’t as much of an adjustment as you might think, since both parents were so involved in work and each other, that neither had much time for their two boys. So Mac had raised Branson, from the time they were both young children, reading him to sleep at night, making meals, bandaging his cuts and scrapes, and defending him from bullies.
In return, Branson idolized Mac. He would do anything for him, become anyone Mac wanted him to be, whatever Mac asked of him. Branson went on to graduate college (for which Mac sacrificed his own education), got a good job in Marketing, and become the man Mac always wanted him to be.
With one exception: Branson is gay. In their family, being gay was not OK. Though their father was basically easy-going and not terribly judgmental, he was a homophobe of the worst order. There would never be “one of those” in his family, he’d kill him first. Mac inherited the attitude from his father. Early in puberty, Branson brought home a Playgirl magazine. Mac found it, and it was the only time he ever physically assaulted Branson. He went so insane, Branson had to hide under his bed to stay out of reach of the out-of-control Mac. This was a lesson that Branson never forgot, and he never again brought home anything that could even remotely be considered to be “gay”. He denied his own sexuality, but no matter how many times he tried to get aroused with a girl, was unable to perform, leaving him left with no possibility of any kind of personal relationship, no possibility of love.
This terrible status quo continued as Branson became an adult, still idolizing Mac and unwilling to provoke his disappointment or fury. He owed Mac so much. Branson lived a lonely life.
Then, one day, when the boys were eating together in a pub, Branson happened to catch the eye of a beautiful young man, without intending to, and Mac noticed. He goes ballistic, drags Branson out of the pub and races off into the night, both brothers hurtling down the highway while Mac rages and screams, drifting from lane to lane, out of control.
He’s so blinded with anger, that Mac almost hits another car, head on, loses control and barrels off the road and down into a gully, smack into a tree.
The next thing Branson knows, he’s waking up in the hospital, seriously injured, but still alive. Mac, on the other hand, is not so lucky. No, he’s not dead, but he’s seriously brain-damaged, in a coma that no one knows when or if he will ever awaken from.
Thus begins a bedside vigil that lasts almost a year and a half – a vigil that forces Branson to rethink his own life, his brother and the endless guilt he feels for what happened to Mac. Were it not for his homosexuality, he broods, Mac would never have been injured. His closet door is sealing shut even faster than the guilt can consume him.
Considering how Mac was there for him, his entire life, and what he sacrificed for Branson, Branson feels compelled to be a constant presence at Mac’s bedside, refusing to return to work even after he recovers from his injuries, losing his job and his friends. Even though their mutual friends beg Branson to take some time away from Mac’s bedside, he’s too terrified that Mac may wake up and he won’t be there when he does.
The only ray of sunshine in this incredibly bleak landscape is the hot, young, also-Irish, male nurse who tends to Mac. He forces Branson to leave the room for meals, setting up little picnics in the room, at first, and then outdoors on the hospital grounds. He treats Branson with the no-nonsense tenderness and care he would his most badly-injured patient, and Branson can’t help but respond to his kindness and concern. But he also keeps his distance, because he suspects that Liam is gay, and if he responds to him, he’ll be betraying his brother, lying in the bed with a ventilator, occasionally uttering unconscious moans and enduring uncontrolled spasms in his atrophying muscles. Somehow, he’ll know.
Despite his desperate attempts not to, Branson can’t help getting close to this remarkable, caring man, and his wonderful family – the kind of family he’d never known - an accepting, unconditionally loving family.
This sets up conflicts in Branson that he wrestles with for most of the rest of the book. Running hot and cold, depending on how guilty he feels at any given moment, and how much he needs the basic human touch and concern that Liam offers, Branson is a man torn, a victim of two generations of homophobia, unable to wrap his brain around the possibly that he might just be OK, as he is, and that the other figures in his life he loved and respected so much, were just plain wrong.
Not much of what I’ve revealed here is a spoiler, for the power of the book is in the process Branson goes through until he can, eventually, declare his independence and become the man he needs to be, the confident man he always should have been, had he not been raised to hate himself. That process is beautifully, expressively and movingly written.
But I did have at least one personal reservation. I am just a bit tired of reading so many stories of gay men who blindly accept the worthlessness and self-hatred they’ve been taught, who have to fight with themselves to live their own lives, to find their own humanity. Not that it’s unrealistic. Between religion and parents with their own personal demons, millions of gay kids have struggled with the fear of losing their family’s love, if they dare to live their truth. But at some point, the rational mind and self-preservation require that a thinking human being asks him or herself if it’s even remotely possible that their authority figures, their teachers, parents and religious leaders might actually be wrong about it all, might be pushing their own agenda, regardless of the damage they cause their own kids and charges.
Sometimes, I just want to jump into the pages and shake the hell out of the self-hating person, to force some reality past their guilt and fear. I want to tell them: you are exactly how God made you, and that is perfect. Tell the rest of them to go get stuffed!
But unfortunately, my solution would probably rarely work (although it has worked, on at least a few occasions in my past), and as Ms. Brinn demonstrates, in For Mac, sometimes people just have to discover their worth themselves, in their own good time. What a tragedy for those who never get there.
As I said, this is a difficult book to read. It is not green fields and roses. It’s full of guilt, fear and impending death, until the profoundly moving ending.
If you’re ready for a tear or two, and enjoy watching someone grow into his or her own skin, and won’t be daunted by the daily grind of someone in a coma for more than a year, you might really enjoy For Mac. It is well-written, moving, the characters are as realistic as they come, and the situation and emotional conflict both authentic and deeply probed.
For Mac is difficult, but well worth reading.