Max Schaefer’s Children of the Sun is not a book about gay British neo-Nazis. True, it is a book populated by an awful lot of gay, British neo-Nazis, but their gay-British-Neo-Nazi-ishness is presented so bluntly and directly that it eventually loses the titillating luster it has when Shaefer’s book is first opened. Much like if you watch endless documentaries on sharks one after the other, the sharks lose their menace and then stop being fascinating at all. Eventually they are nothing but large fish.
In two parallel plot lines, the book follows James and Tony, the first a modern era Londoner who is researching gay Neo-Nazis for a film project, the latter a member of the ultra-right-wing party in the very era that James is researching. In a less ambitious work, Tony would have been merely the eyes for us to see into the world that James is investigating, but Schaefer, instead, presents two very vital characters, narratives and arcs.
From his early teen years in the 1970s through the ’80s and into the start of the ’90s we follow Tony as he works his way through different factions of the Neo-Nazi movement. Constantly in danger of being discovered as queer but always keenly aware that there are others in the party who share his same attractions, Tony grows from an innocent teen lured into the world of fascism by boyhood love into a fully formed ideologue and zealot. It is a rich and uncanny world where, oftentimes, moments of chilling, off-putting violence are immediately followed by tender and awkward scenes of passion.
What is so refreshing about Tony’s narrative is that, ensconced as he is in an extremely bigoted landscape, far away from the civil rights movements that would start to swell in the following decades, he never once questions himself, never feels shame at his desires. This is true of his homosexuality as well as his Nazism. He simply is what he is, believes what he believes and screws what he screws. Schaefer could have gone a much more traditional, expected route with Tony, but in not doing so, he has constructed an apparent protagonist whose stone face hides an impressive depth and complexity.
James, the focus of the parallel storyline, is a writer who is researching the neo-Nazi sub-culture of the ‘80s for a film script. The obvious similarity between Schaefer and his character produces at least one effect that is quite interesting. As the book progresses and James becomes more involved, and then obsessed, with a world and ideology that is truly terrifying, the reader can’t help but wonder how deeply Schaefer himself may have become involved, how obsessed and devoured and overtaken he became. And, given the compelling gravity of his writing style, the reader, himself, will also be pulled in. Not to say that in reading Children of the Sun, one will start aligning with the ideologies under investigation, but rather that the fascination that Tony has, that James has, that Schaefer has as well is so compellingly written it moves up the ladder to the reader as well. This is the most chilling aspect of the book by far.
For a book that is (not) about gay British Nazis, the boys that lust after them and the skinheads that dress like them, there are startlingly few actual romantic encounters. This is a deliberate omission. There are hints of sex, there are moments before and after sex, there are failed attempts, there is lots of talk about it, but the taboo of homosexuality in Tony’s narrative prevents it from being anything other than a hidden act. And in the modern setting, James finds himself in a world of dark clubs and fetishes and online interactions leading to flat hook-ups, a world that is so overflowing with sex that the act itself seems to have lost its allure.
There is definitely the sense that this avoidance is a conscious decision on Schaefer’s part. If he had included any more than the two or three moments of intercourse (all very well written, as it happens), the novel would lose its focus. It would end up on the wrong shelf, as it were, or in an entirely different bookstore altogether. Because Children of the Sun is not, as mentioned above, a novel about gay British Nazis.
Schafer has to walk an interesting line with Tony. If he delved too far into his right-wing fascist beliefs, we would suddenly be faced with a book far more sensational than the one in hand. As a result, Children of the Sun is a little too reserved. Tony is a skin-head, a fascist, a Nazi. At the start of the book he enters this world simply because the boy he’s fallen for is in it, but eventually it is his world, his conviction, his entire belief structure. We know this, but we never see it. We are never allowed to understand why this is the case. We never see Tony’s transformation. We never hear his justification, how he reconciles his political beliefs with his opposing sexual predilections. Tony, as said above, simply is. Which is a shame because Schaefer seems more than capable of clarifying the contradictions of such a delicately balanced person.