Unicorn Mountain by Michael Bishop
When I lived in Prague, I couldn’t help but admire the Czechs and their respect for the written word. Riding the subway I saw many people who had taken the time to make a brown paper cover for their literary investment. While reading Michael Bishop’s Unicorn Mountain (1988), I considered doing the same. Unfortunately, it was for a different reason: protection of Bishop’s, and my, self-respect.
Pause, just for a moment, and take a look at the cover. What you are looking at is a disconnect between not only the literal, but also the proverbial book and cover. Grafton Press went in one direction, and Michael Bishop in an entirely different one. The book’s actual content is a heart-touching story of loss, homosexuality, small-town ranching, Native American culture, and perception of AIDS in the 1980s — not a My Little Pony film novelization. Unicorn Mountain is intelligent, emotional, and 100% relevant, and this cover in no way portrays the truly human stories just behind it.
Bo Gavin, a man in late middle age who has been recently diagnosed with AIDS, is the locus of Unicorn Mountain. His cousin’s ex-wife, Libby Bray, makes the flight to Atlanta to bring him to her southern Colorado ranch where he can spend his last days in peace. When meeting Libby’s ranchhand, the phlegmatic Sam Coldpony, Bo is also introduced to the ephemeral horned horses, the unicorns that appear and disappear amongst the hills deep in the ranch. But other strange things are happening. The old rabbit-ears television set is suddenly picking up stations from other dimensions, spirits of the dead are visiting dreams, and the unicorns are turning up sick and dying. With turmoil in the family surrounding the circumstances of his illness, Bo’s last days may not have the peace he desires.
Addressing the social aspects of AIDS as much as the personal, Unicorn Mountain forgoes soliloquies of pain and frustration and looks at the effect of the disease on the people surrounding the victim as much as on the victim himself. Empathy toward their situations arises not from the use of pity to leverage emotion, but rather from their all-too-human reaction to the disease. Bishop creates living, breathing people in his narrative. We all know people as well-intentioned yet unlucky as Libby, egotistic assholes who know when to bow and scrape like Randy Bray, cold bigots like Josie Gavin, and troubled but driven teens like Alma. This is a socially conscientious novel whose people are lifelike.
Bishop is apparently a practical guy; there is a subplot of the novel involving, of all things, condoms. It’s treated with fun yet with a clear underlying message. Bishop takes the author’s bully pulpit to expound the existence of the thin rubber membranes and the value they have for helping prevent people like Bo from being in the situation they are. Condoms in the 80s were not as widespread as they are today, and Unicorn Mountain does its public service in ways that add to Bo’s story in humorous fashion while being applicable to reality.
In the end, Unicorn Mountain is moving, heartfelt fiction with strong social consciousness and conscientiousness. Ultimately a story of loss and recovery, it targets Native American culture and the burgeoning HIV/AIDS situation in the 80s, a situation medical science has since partially mitigated, but which remains a serious matter. But perhaps more significantly, the social issues surrounding the condition and the sexual choices that can accompany the disease remain near the forefront of discussion in the gay community. Simply put, the fairy-tale flaccidity of the novel’s cover is unmatched by the integrity of the novel’s actual content.
A side note: one of the people Bishop thanks in his introduction is Orson Scott Card. Card’s well-known views on homosexuality make this an interesting show of appreciation. Is Card misjudged, or has he since had a change of heart?