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Review: All The World Beside by Garrard Conley

Review of All the World Beside, by Garrard ConleyRiverhead Books, 352 pages, $28, Publication Date: March 26, 2024

Review by Brian Alessandro


Though Garrard Conley’s transcendent debut, All the World Beside, is ostensibly about an eighteenth century gay love affair between Arthur Lyman, a physician, and Nathaniel Whitfield, a reverend, the novel is chiefly concerned with the nature of desire and the salvation of the soul.


The story unfolds in Cana, Massachusetts amid the Puritan push for utopia. Arthur is married to the bold, scandalous Anne while Nathaniel’s wife is the accommodating, unwell Catherine. Both men have children. Arthur’s daughter, Martha, and Nathaniel’s daughter, Sarah, eventually become friends by way of Anne’s engineering, but it is Ezekiel, Nathaniel’s son, around whom the plot is framed. His letters to Sarah, years after the central events of the novel, anchor the story, providing an additional layer of tragedy.


We soon learn that Ezekiel, named after the prophet who saw the demise of Jerusalem, is answering for the sins of his father through exile. While Nathaniel is away with Arthur, Sarah becomes possessed by righteousness and castigates the citizens of Cana who are swayed by a swindler selling watches. She scolds them for their pagan proclivities, claiming they have become Satan’s puppets, especially her father who sins with Arthur, and her mother who hides his sin. Sarah feels responsible for the town’s great awakening. The Great Awakenings—a succession of religious revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers that gripped believers throughout the early eighteenth century and into the late twentieth century—play a central role in the novel.


When Ezekiel’s mother calls a group of French sex workers “nobodies,” Ezekiel internalizes the notion of a “nobody” as someone without a home, free to do as they like, including finding a home as they see fit, a “terrifying and exciting” prospect. We learn that Ezekiel was cast off to the hinterlands because he would not betray Nathaniel and Arthur, his “two fathers.” In his quiet despair, Ezekiel questions a “God who has created such impossible conditions.”


Conley does not hide his numerous parallels to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: pilgrim judgment, shunning, damning ostracization, banishment, and the weight of mortal transgression, along with the characters’ names themselves. The novel intrigues and mesmerizes with its density of complex histories, scandalous pasts, tormenting secrets, and haunting lies.


Conley’s revelatory 2016 memoir, Boy Erased, also dealt with the cruel and ignorant things people do in the name of religion, but with compassion and insight. Homosexuality and Christianity coexist in an uneasy arrangement in Conley’s personal world, as in his fiction. The characters treat each other with care, tenderness, and concern for their well-being. Even Nathaniel and Arthur are protected and loved by their families and communities.


All The World Beside is largely a meditation on the simplicity, beauty, and goodness of nature and faith, despite the pain both cause. The characters are at the nonnegotiable pull of a wild will and its demands, as well as the imagined expectations of God. The punishments doled out by religious law seem unreasonable, even draconian, but in Conley’s view, these are the products of fear and reverence. In a moment of the metaphysical melding with the scientific, Nathaniel says to Arthur, “You said wounds allow love to enter the body more freely.”


Conley’s voice is clear but ambiguous, gentle but never coddling, and firm but not merciless. His spare language is imbued with an assurance that disarms with its sincerity. The novel was born of Conley’s conversation with his Missionary Baptist father, and a subsequent objective to prove queer people existed and even thrived during the 1700s. The eighteenth century was the Age of Reason, after all, and enlightenment meant privileging science over blind faith. These dualities are at play in the relationship between Nathaniel, a man of faith, and Arthur, a practitioner of medicine. Nathaniel is responsible for the town’s spiritual health while Arthur bears responsibility for the inhabitants’ physical wellbeing. The soul and the body intermingle. The divine and the material parry.


By virtue of the milieu and period, Conley tells an elemental story about faith and nature, free from civilized constructions and cultural touchstones. The focus here is on engagement with God, with imagination, with the soil, and, finally, with each other. Still, there pervades a din of the superstitious, the anxiety of bearing a mark and being damned, the devil lurking in the shadows, ready to claim his due. “The devil never forces a hand. He is cleverer than that. He tempts.” Nature itself possesses evil, or at least, indifferent properties. But God is everywhere too. The divine is a constant presence and a perpetual promise, a goal to work toward, and a pleasure to be earned.


The love shared between Nathaniel and Arthur feels like an invention, even if the men discover that their shared feelings are all too familiar. Theirs is the possible start of a freer land, one of not just national possibilities but also a sexual renaissance. “We just invented it,” says Nathaniel to Arthur. “Never before has another man done what I have done or felt what I have felt. God did not create this. It is not natural. It is not divine. It is nothing but what it is, here in this bed.”


Though the families keep their secrets, Nathaniel and Arthur’s love harms them. Sarah, in her rapturous call to duty, believes that their sin prevents the salvation of the town. “A town must be safe before it may be saved,” claims a parishioner named Priscilla. Conley maintains nebulous motives for his characters, especially the men’s families. Do they keep the secret of the affair to protect their husbands and fathers, or to protect themselves? To ensure the awakening unfolds unsullied, or to preserve the fantasy of their faith? Catherine tells Sarah, “Men have the power to change. Women cannot change, not really; they have no such luxury, but men change all the time.”


All The World Beside’s bittersweet tone is perhaps best captured by Catherine who, overcome by her family’s lot in life, laments, “There is life yet to mourn the loss of beauty.”


Conley ends with an academic postscript that rigorously assays the hidden history of LGBTQ life. He so expertly evokes the eighteenth century that the modern thoughts and words of the closing essay stand as a jarring contrast and pointed reminder of where we’ve been and where we are. In the end, Conley tells a story that feels ancient but somehow new, and he does so with grace, restraint, and generosity. His characters are as alive and urgent today as they would have been over 250 years ago, and the world, though changed, remains in many heartbreaking and healing ways, the same.


Brian Alessandro

Brian Alessandro has written for Interview Magazine, Newsday, PANK, Huffington Post, and has recently adapted Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Production. Additionally, he co-edited Fever Spores: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs, an anthology of essays and interviews about Burroughs for Rebel Satori Press. He is also the co-founder and editor in chief of the literary journal, The New Engagement. His first novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 by Cairn Press and his first feature film, Afghan Hound (available to stream on Amazon, Tubi and Plex) was produced by Maryea Media in 2011. His latest novel, Performer Non Grata, was published by Rebel Satori Press in April 2023.