Sheri Joseph's debut novel, Stray, is a fearless examination of the myriad deeds and relationships love inhabits—from charitable acts of kindness, to marriage, to sexual liaisons so unlikely that they appear to make no sense.
A lover's triangle of two men and a woman would usually be thought to consist of a wife cheating on her husband, a woman with two lovers. In Stray, it's the husband who has two lovers—one his wife and the other his boyfriend. The husband is a thirty-year-old musician just beginning to settle into married life. His wife, Maggie, is a Mennonite lawyer of unshakable faith in her place in the world, and the lover is a college student surviving on the tired kindness of an ailing professor. It is more than the seductive storyline that drives this novel, though; it is the unrelenting mess created when good intentions overlap again and again with unavoidable physical entanglement.
Joseph's first book, Bear Me Safely Over, is a cycle of stories that features two of the characters from Stray, Kent and Paul, and describes the awkward genesis of their relationship. Love and how it blends and mutes the boundaries between straight and gay are themes of both books. In Stray, however, there are few traces of previous characters' homophobia; rather, what occurs is a manifestation of genuine compassion through the portrayal of modern-day Mennonites and the quiet tolerance evident in daily private acts of kindness and pacifism. [End Page 168]
Joseph is able to render authentic moments of spiritual reflection, rambling, self-loathing tirades, and the fear inherent in self-deception just as easily as intimate moments between lovers, whether they're gay, straight, young and virile or old and dying. Throughout the novel, characters are unable to commit to their choices or to believe that the world they've created through their decisions is the same as the one they currently inhabit. "This comes from wanting the wrong things," Kent tells himself after a murder has led Paul to seek refuge—at Maggie's urging—in the couple's home. "Too much of him had wanted Paul asleep in the house, and now it had come." Kent loves his wife, but he has been unable to stop imagining his lover being part of his married life. Later, after Maggie has become Paul's lawyer, she brings him to the graveside of the murder victim. "The sun's slanted beam may have caused the heat and flush in her face," but she kisses his hair, and his response is to kiss "her neck, a soft, searching brush of lips that lingered enough to suggest possibility, not much, only an unhardened question in her mind. . . ." She loves Kent, her husband, but is attracted to this third person, Paul, knowing the boy is gay but not that he is her husband's lover.
In Stray, Joseph exposes the layering of friendship, love and devotion through her subject matter and characters and makes an unflinching assertion that relationships aren't discrete but rather messy and often slightly beyond our control.