Review: William Bryant’s Ross: T.E. Lawrence Discovers America


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 110 in 2005.

Review of William Bryant,
Ross: T.E. Lawrence Discovers America
(Lincoln, NB: iUniverse, 2004)

The wise man “hates that the crowd should come.” But to be known (like Colonel Lawrence) for your love of being unknown is to court a double notoriety.
--Arthur Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China

Colonel Lawrence, also known as T.E. Lawrence, nicknamed Lawrence of Arabia or, more soberly, Ross, is the subject of the new novel, Ross, by William Bryant. Just as he had many faces, this book has many facets.

It is a playful re-imagination of some episodes of Lawrence’s life after he became famous organizing Arab tribes during World War I. What he did and where he was afterwards, as he alternately courted and shunned fame, is murky. Byrant supposes he visited the U.S. But beyond being an historical recreation, the book revises the Horatio Alger myth along the lines of queer theory. The second major character in the book, Billy, a nubile, and colossally endowed street Arab picked up by Lawrence, is later adopted by a yachting millionaire, the lustful Commodore Vandergilt.

Yet, those two parts of the book may be a disguise for something else: a slightly defensive, deeply saddened meditation on death and pain (worthy of Marcus Aurielius), encapsulated by Lawrence’s fascination by both, with the latter uppermost when he hires robust young men to work him over with a whiplash.

Bryant’s endeavor, to mold together these three components, is an ambitious one, and I’m not sure he always succeeds in rendering a coherent work. There are wonderful historical recreations, as when a nude Billy strolls through an avant-garde garden party, his body given a Cubist paint job by Picasso, with extra color on the boy’s man root. One also finds great sex scenes, as when the actress Millicent Molloy gives forth a Molly Bloom-like monologue while being reamed by a healthy young stud. And there are many thought-provoking observations about life and its suffering. “The human animal is yet an animal,” Bryant writes, “admirable, a scintillation in the deadness of the universe.”

Thus, each seam of the novel is well done, though these seams don’t always make one garment. When they do, as in many of the descriptive passages, they are powerfully charged with multiple energies of loss, sexuality and history. Take, to close, this moment when the aging, near passionless Vandergilt approaches a hidden harbor city of homosexual pleasure. “The tropical airs had a reek of verdure, soon to develop a definite ambrosia of decay as they neared the Port of Fools. The smell aroused the Commodore, if you can call it that, aroused at least his memories from where they had lain, morbid in satin, for decades.”

Passages like these strongly recommend the novel as a work of complex and melodious force.