Jarrod Campbell’s The Reason I’m Here
by Darrell Z. Grizzle
A man recovers from a medical blackout with no memory of his loving husband and their six years together. A guy picks up a stranger at a bar and offers him a place to stay, unsure if the stranger can be trusted. A man wakes up in bed with an ugly-but-buff guy he doesn’t remember, not knowing if he was drugged or went home with the man voluntarily. A teenage boy has a sexual affair with his pastor but later catches him in bed with what appears to be a demon.
As gay men, we grow up not knowing if we can trust our own perceptions. In his brilliant collection of stories, The Reason I’m Here (Stalking Horse Press), Jarrod Campbell explores that common phenomenon from a variety of uncommon perspectives.
The first story in the collection, “There’s a Reason I’m Here,” made such an impact on me that I found myself talking about it over brunch with my former partner (now best friend). He raised the question whether such a powerful story should be the first one in a collection, because how can the subsequent stories live up to it? Thankfully, most of the stories do.
I was not able to read the book in one sitting. I found myself pausing after each story to process the thoughts and feelings evoked. Some of the stories ended ambiguously (like life) and some of them ended with a jaw-dropping gut punch (like life). As an older gay man, there were some things I could not relate to, but in every one of the stories I did see a glimpse of myself. I found myself rereading paragraphs, thinking “wait, did I read what I thought I did?”—doubting my own perceptions about the characters who were doubting their own perceptions.
“Able Bodies,” the longest story in the book, brought to mind Flannery O’Connor, not just because of the small-town Southern Gothic vibe but also because of the tragic characters and their twisted interpretations of faith.
Biblical imagery is a recurring motif, as evidenced by some of the story titles: “I John 3:15,” one of the shortest and darkest stories in the book (it still gives me shudders, just thinking about it), and “Sins of Our Fathers, Who Aren’t in Heaven.” Dealing with distant fathers and other family members is definitely something gay men can relate to, but it’s also a universal theme.
The collection ends with a gut-punch story, “Useless, Useless,” about a gay man in “the autumn of his life” who finds himself attracted to a much younger man—a young man whose motives he comes to question. I found myself sharing a short passage with friends: “Then one day, Edward felt really old. Not falling apart in body or mind, just the understanding that most of what occupied his thinking happened in the past.” Those two sentences capture perfectly a sense I’ve been feeling over the past year.
The Reason I’m Here is an engaging collection of stories that draw the reader in and do not let go easily. Gay men like myself will find much to relate to here, but so will anyone who enjoys literary short fiction.