Where the Spirits Dwell: An Odyssey in the New Guinea Jungle
by Tobias Schneebaum
Grove Press, 209 pp., $17.95
Toward the end of this memoir of homoerotic experience in the jungle of New Guinea, a Dutch missionary’s wife makes a brief appearance. When the author and two European male companions arrive by canoe at the minister’s house, the wife, standing on the banks of the river, tells them that her husband is “working on his sermon for Sunday and cannot be wasting time with visitors.” Schneebaum notices the woman’s “faded print dress, stockings, and shoes” and the “deep crevices of bitterness on her face.” One of his companions strides up to her and says unpleasantly, “We don’t ask anything of you. We don’t need you.” The missionary suddenly appears and takes the men into the house, over the wife’s protests, and the woman vanishes from the book, dispatched by a single pettish sentence: “In spite of her antagonism, she made tea and offered delicious-looking cookies that we left untouched.”
The incident jars one into a recognition of the author’s antipathy to women that one had hitherto only obscurely felt. Earlier in the book, Schneebaum has spoken of his sense of alienation from heterosexual men and women, who, he feels, cannot know
what it is like to be homosexual…. They do not know that particular form of deception and pain, what it is always to be on guard, always to be afraid of being laughed at, sneered at, hated, repelling people, angering people. It doesn’t matter that attitudes sometimes appear to be in change; what matters is that I raised myself to relate to that intolerance and have lived my life as an undesirable.
In fact, however, Schneebaum has vividly communicated “what it is like” to be obsessed by male sex; in each of his three books—Keep the River on Your Right (1969), Wild Man (1979), and the present book—he draws the reader into his universe of homosexual desire the way every strong writer draws the reader away from his own fantasies and into those of another for the duration of his act of reading. As Nabokov, in Lolita, draws the nonpedophilic reader into an imaginative sharing of Humbert Humbert’s lust for a twelve-year-old girl, so Schneebaum, with his rhapsodic accounts of sex with cannibals and headhunters, expands the heterosexual reader’s consciousness of erotic possibilities. Only occasionally, as in the incident of the missionary’s wife, is one recalled, with a sort of start, to who one is: in this case, another middle-aged woman who wears stockings and shoes, if not faded print dresses, and has a little trouble entering into the spirit of the gynophobia that Schneebaum has briefly allowed to surface.
He was born in 1922 in a tenement on the Lower East Side, the son of Polish–Jewish immigrants, His father was a pushcart peddler, eventually the owner of a small grocery store in Brooklyn, and his mother a janitor who, the day after giving birth to each of the two older of her three …