There’s the book’s title and two-thirds below that and one-third above the author’s name, a line in imbalanced type: “What is following you?” If this question is raised in Jeffrey Sotto’s CLOUD COVER, it’s buried somewhere. You certainly don’t get an answer. Then there’s the cover image behind this query; that of a featureless, faceless man in nondescript white shirt and black trousers. And the unseen person shown is much like the main character, a sketch of a soul, defined by lines and color rather than any real internal revelations.
Tony is 35, Filipino, and gay. Is he fat? One minute he’s called a “chunky monkey” yet while during a decidedly un-sexy sex scene, he’s revealed to be so skinny his ribcage is evident. Which is it? He’s a cubicle drone in some vague “marketing and consulting” job, a nebulous position in which he excels to such a point that the boss isn’t just giving him nicknames like “Tony-Tones,” he’s falling all over the date Tony brings to a work happy hour. And if you’re thinking his drunk boss’s question as to whether who is the “pitcher” and who’s the “catcher”—Tony’s the catcher, if you’re keeping score—is going to spur some real insight into any gay/straight social conundrum, it is ground that is left untilled.
And that’s what’s frustrating about CLOUD COVER. Tony is too young and at 5’1”, too slight to be a Daddy. At 35, he’s too old to be a twink. He’s Filipino in the blond-haired, blue-eyed world of snow-white Toronto, something that makes him either invisible or, worse, unattractive to the A-list gay crowd he’s simultaneously deriding and obsessed by. These are areas ripe for exploration; the concept of not being beautiful in a culture obsessed with beauty, the discomfort of being an ethnicity in a white bread world, what it feels like to be excluded in a class famous for the way they themselves have been excluded. Even the power dynamic and societal take on tops and bottoms. All these rich subjects go ignored.
Instead, we’re given bulimia and depression as the sole reasons to care about Tony. And while laudable subjects, themselves rich for exposition, CLOUD COVER veers more into disease-of-the-week territory than the psychological study of a tortured 21st century gay man. The events don’t end there. There’s the requisite high school assault scarring his past. (Seriously, was EVERY gay kid attacked by his classmates?) There’s also the seamy sexual debased hookup via Grindr we get to experience. But these are just devices, not character traits. Are they these reasons for his self-loathing or byproducts of it? Tony disses the emphasis on labels such as “femme” and “masc,” yet when he meets Antonio, a mincing, flamboyant, 21-year old drag queen, he seems as hung up on this categories as those he criticizes. Tony’s not the only character with character problems. His friends are one-note and Antonio is too good to be true. He’s awfully self-aware for 21, he’s a brilliant painter, amateur gardener, and inspiring teacher. Who wouldn’t fall for him? The question is why is Antonio drawn to Tony and the answer seems to be…entirely physical? Tony first turns his head, not for any charming personality trait, but presumably because he’s a self-described Bruno Mars lookalike. Within a week of dating, Antonio is already calling him “hon” and “babe” and dragging him on stage at the local Latin nightclub so Tony can compete in the best ass contest. In a rare showing of narrative restraint, Tony only wins second place.
Occasionally harrowing, CLOUD COVER provides a detailed look into bulimia and depression featuring a character you wish you could care just a little more about.
~Steven Foster for IndieReader