Author ~ Nealy Wagner
Published ~ 18th February 2015
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
Most people called it a cult. But for twenty years, Josh and Caleb called it home.
On the Compound, there is no television. No fast food. Just long hours of farm work and prayer on a dusty Wyoming ranch, and nights in a crowded bunkhouse. The boys of the Compound are kept far from the sinners’ world.
But Joshua doesn’t need any help from TV or porn to sin. His whole life, he’s wanted his best friend, Caleb. By day they work side by side. Only when Josh closes his eyes at night can they be together in the way he’s always craved.
Yet it can never be. And his survival depends on keeping his terrible desires secret.
Caleb has always protected Josh against the worst of the bullying at the Compound. But he has secrets of his own, and a plan to get away — until it all backfires, and Josh finds himself homeless in a world that doesn’t want him.
Luckily, there is someone who does. But can Caleb find him in time? And will they find a place of safety, where he can admit to Josh how he really feels?
Warning: Contains a hot male/male romance, copious instances of taking the Lord's name in vain, love against the kitchen counter, and evidence that canvas work trousers can truly be sexy.
If you’re looking for something unique and beautiful, something you’ve not read before, something that will grab you by the heart from the first page and hold you tight until the last, then look no further.
Ms. Wagner, according to her bio, writes her stories of lost young men from her studio in Brooklyn, New York, yet her unique voice seems to echo from everywhere, from the population-sparse Northwest to the rural areas of Western Massachusetts. Her imagination seems to know no bounds, is certainly not limited by her urban New York location, or the sophisticated denizens of cool New York City.
In fact, characters don’t come more innocent and “uncool” than Caleb and Joshua. They spent most of their lives, together, in a polygamous religious cult on a near-deserted, 2000-acre compound in Wyoming. Their compound was called “Paradise”, which leaves me to wonder what their definition of Hell might be. Separated from the real world as young children, they’re forbidden books, magazines, television and music so they don’t get “corrupted” by the outside world. The only education they get is the Bible and a book by Divine Pastor, the monster who runs the cult. Sound familiar? This story is as current as the most recent headlines, if its uncanny resemblance to the ultra-devout Christian family on American reality TV, the Duggars (19 Kids and Counting), is any indication.
That show was recently tossed off the air when it came out that the eldest son of the family was molesting his sisters, as a teenager, with the tacit support of his parents, who neither reported him to the authorities, nor removed him from the family. Those kids were also sheltered from the real world, and like the fictional “Paradise” of In Front of God and Everyone, the Duggars’ Christian cult reveres the males to whom all power is bestowed and treats the women as brood mares and domestic slaves.
It’s all about brainwashing. And it’s all about giving unlimited power and sexual control to the adult males in the compound, who are “given” young girls as wives, while the young men toil in the fields to feed and support the “community”.
“Paradise”, in a similar strategy to that used by the infamous Jeffers polygamy cult, also gets rid of young men after they pass through puberty. They keep those who are contributing the most and are the most docile and controllable, but any other young men, as they come of age, end up dropped off on a desert road, exiled from friends and family, and cut off from everything they ever knew, without any skills or experience at survival in the real world. The reason? Simple, that leaves more young girls to go around to the privileged adult males.
That’s what happens to Joshua, the dreamer and intellectual. Caleb, on the other hand is safe. Brilliant with his hands, whether harvesting beans or repairing engines, he’s invaluable to “Paradise” and the Divine Pastor. One day, out of the blue, Joshua is taken, tied up, thrown in the back of a pickup truck and dropped off on a dusty highway. Caleb had warned him, at the last moment, that if he got taken, to make his way to the bus station in Casper and he would find him there and help him.
Joshua manages to get to the bus station, where he waits all day, in vain, for Caleb, which gets him kicked out by security for loitering. He ends up, face down, in some bushes near the station, barely conscious. Not only hadn’t he eaten, he had somehow, through the process of being kidnapped and expelled, caught a virus and was deathly ill.
Caleb does find him, in the night, takes him to a cheap hotel room and nurses him back to health. Joshua had always loved Caleb, but that was sin, so he never breathed a word of it, or gave a sign. As it turns out, Caleb had loved Joshua just as long, and would never let him be taken or harmed by anyone, so he escaped from the compound on his own, and hitch-hiked into Casper, eventually, to meet up with him.
One reason that Caleb was delayed was Miriam. Long-expected to marry her, a meek but sweet young girl, he begs her to come with him to freedom. But she can’t - too much family and too many responsibilities at the compound. However, she does have a sister, Maggie, who escaped some years ago, who is willing to give other escapees a home, a start and a helping hand at her farm in Western Massachusetts.
And that’s how the remarkable journey of Caleb and Joshua starts, traveling from innocence and naiveté, to the eye-popping beauty and opportunity of the world at large, and the potential for the two boys to make a life together. They travel across this vast nation, from the Northwest to the Northeast, hitching a ride with a kindly black trucker who gets them almost the entire way to their destination, becoming their first real friend in the outside world.
It’s not just about miles, it’s also a journey from sin to acceptance, to admitting the two boys love each other, always have, and want a life together. Maggie and Dylan accept them as family, and as lovers, which is the first time they begin to believe that they might one day have a life, both loving and open. And the sex, the first experiences either one had ever had, was a revelation. Instead of the sin they were taught, it turns out to be a celebration of their love. Watching their love grow and blossom is an exquisite experience, written with tenderness, subtlety and deep-down authenticity.
It’s also a journey into discovering skills and talents. Miriam’s sister, Maggie, is very pregnant with her first child, and Joshua, who believed he was a useless burden, becomes invaluable to the family. He seems to have an uncanny knack for soothing Maggie’s new, colicky baby, Chloe. Maggie, on the other hand, is suffering from a bad case of postpartum depression, which Joshua recognizes, calls her doctor and gets her the help she needs. What wonderful payback, this naïve and inexperienced young man, with such a generous heart, pretty much saves the family that took him in.
Everything seems to be going along, near perfectly, until Miriam escapes the compound and finds her way to her sister’s house. Caleb loses it. So wracked with guilt that he left her behind to be physically and sexually abused, and Miriam pregnant from rape, his old “Paradise” religious training and deeply-ingrained guilt kick in as he decides that he owes it to Miriam to provide a father and husband to make her child legitimate. Of course, that means walking out on Joshua, to a whole new life based on responsibility and guilt, rather than love and hope. For the first time ever, Joshua becomes furious, telling Caleb to go, if he’s so willing to throw away everything they have because of guilt for something he didn’t even do - to hell with him. Heartbroken, they break up.
Fortunately, it doesn’t last too long, as cooler heads prevail, including Miriam, whom he neglected to ask whether that’s what she wanted. It’s just more of the misplaced religious paternalism that was pounded into him, making decisions for women, taking away their own choices because “men always know better”.
And that’s where Ms. Nealy truly excels. She writes the tension between the past, the sheltered upbringing, the endless immersion in sin and guilt, the ingrained attitudes and the hope in these boys’ hearts, their essential and sincere kindness, their wonder at a world they could only imagine, and a love they dared not.
That makes In Front of God and Everyone, an extraordinarily beautiful and moving book. It’s a gentle, deep, profound look into the hearts of those who were damaged by Fundamentalist religion, but not destroyed. It’s the everyday adventures, conflicts, touches and hugs that make this book a revelation, not to mention a Happily-Ever-After that will move you to tears.
If, like me, your idea of really good gay fiction is beautifully rendered unique and empathetic characters struggling against their families, society and religion to find their way in the world and into each other’s hearts, then you just may love this book as much as I did.
Ms. Wagner is a truly talented author, and this appears to be her first published Amazon book. If she’s this good, this deep, this gentle and perceptive, if she writes with such a sense of authority and a love for language this early in her career, I just can’t wait to see what comes next.