Charles Rowan Beye lets readers know up front that he’s going to talk about sex in his memoir, “My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey” (FSG, 257 pages, $26). The Iowa City native wants to assure his audience it isn’t just for shock or titillation value.
“Sexual activity per se usually doesn’t amount to a hill of beans … but when it happens in a repressive, hostile, and dangerous environment,” he writes, “then it becomes worth mentioning … I often record encounters between myself and some other man … to remind myself of the many wonderful males, straight and gay, I met this way, and to keep alive the fact that even in the darkest hours of my youth and later in other repressed times, there were extraordinary moments of self-expression, joy, and happiness.”
The reader soon discovers that Beye, now in his 80s, experienced a heaping portion of those “extraordinary moments”not just with men, but also with his two sexually rambunctious wives. Despite his introductory comments, it’s difficult not to read a certain braggadocio into his account. This is the case whether he is writing about his wide array of high school and college-aged partners in Iowa City as he was growing up, casually mentioning a chance encounter with “a major American professional athlete,” or penning this extraordinary sentence: “We spent that final Sunday afternoon in bed making love four hours before she died.”
That apparent underlying pride, however, is part of what makes “My Husband and My Wives” an engaging book. Beye is nothing if not frank, and he tells his story with uncompromising directness. He might invite his reader into his bed more often than is strictly necessary, but he also invites the reader into his head as he recounts a life often defined by his sexual choices.