Avery, the first narrator we meet in Celia Laskey’s debut novel-in-stories, “Under the Rainbow,” would appreciate it if you didn’t stereotype her, thank you. The teen daughter of two moms, one a Netflix exec and the other an LGBTQ activist, is done with people who make assumptions about her based on those facts. Among those people? Her mom, Karen. She “raised me like a dog-show poodle to be the most perfect lesbian ever,” Avery complains, “with just the right amount of feminist theory and fall flannels and whale watching.”
Avery is just one of a whole platoon of people who are feeling misrepresented and misunderstood in Big Burr, Kan. Karen leads a task force for an LGBTQ-rights organization called Acceptance Across America that has not only identified Big Burr as the “Most Homophobic Town in America” but has sent a cadre of staffers there for two years on a hearts-and-minds campaign. Naturally, most of the locals find AAA’s presence suspicious, if not repellent. “A gay nonprofit all about shaming the rest of us, like we’re somehow to blame for being straight,” thinks one woman, who later attempts to burn down an AAA billboard. If Karen’s own daughter can’t abide having her attitudes stage-managed, what hope is there for a town full of strangers already branded as bigots?
Some, it turns out. To make her semi-optimistic case, Laskey takes a prismatic approach, featuring 11 distinctive narrators and following AAA staffers and locals as they share stories about their lives. It’s “Queer Eye” by way of “Winesburg, Ohio.”
The fish-out-of-water conceit isn’t wholly unrealistic: More LGBTQ people have been moving to red states in recent years, thanks to a lower cost of living and increased legal protections. Still, Laskey, a Los Angeles-based writer with an MFA from the University of New Mexico, makes great demands on our capacity to suspend disbelief. Having staffers move for two years to the kind of place where people “took a sledgehammer and a can of spray paint to the all-gender restroom at the high school” seems like blithely putting vulnerable people in harm’s way, and Laskey sometimes labors to finesse this. Avery, who has kept her reasons for moving to town secret (somehow) from her high school classmates, is roped into taking part in a group egging of her own house. “Some kind of outside force is keeping me pinned to the passenger seat,” she notes, as Laskey reveals how insidious and immoral peer pressure can be. Luckily, everyone left their sledgehammers at home.
If it feels far-fetched, it’s also refreshing. Consider the setup for arguably the most popular and influential work of American LGBTQ fiction of the past half-century: an Edenic San Francisco apartment house filled with tick-the-lifestyle-boxes tenants and a stoner landlord who’s easygoing about collecting the rent. Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series was frothy and at times willfully screwball, but to a purpose: Its ensemble structure and realistic milieu were canny vehicles for exploring LGBTQ lives in a host of different contexts. Laskey doesn’t aspire to Maupin’s humor, but “Under the Rainbow” shares “Tales’” ranginess, updating its sensibility to more fully embrace trans and nonbinary characters and the generation of Grindr, gay marriage and Mayor Pete.
It also operates at a more intimate and psychologically keen register. Harley, a nonbinary social media guru for AAA, catalogs the aggressions they’ve faced, macro and micro: “I have been called ‘sir,’ ‘ma’am,’ ‘you’ and ‘ummm.’ ... I have seen a foamy glob of spit floating on top of my corn chowder. I have stared down into the silver orb of an empty grain silo and heard my sigh echo back at me. I have been stared down by countless people in restrooms.” Henry, a local man whose wife has just left him for another woman, has misread what’s happening (“There weren’t any gay people in this town before Acceptance Across America showed up”), and his initial visions of what his ex is up to with her girlfriend are scarcely distinct from porn. But humiliation and rage eventually lead him to a more lyrical, nuanced understanding of what he’s lost, even if it doesn’t exactly unravel his homophobia.
But what would? AAA’s staffers struggle with the slow pace of change in Big Burr, where town halls and listening sessions and poorly attended parties do little to dispel the confusion and contempt. In time, though, a few people come to see the group as a haven: A teen is moved to come out, a mother who’s lost her son finds a salve for her grief. They’re victories, if Pyrrhic ones: Laskey strongly implies that an act of violence is a deliberate act of retribution against AAA. The organization is not uniformly heroic, nor are the locals uniformly buffoonish. Though there’s something like a happily ever after, it’s modest and hard fought for.
And it doesn’t come at the end of a neat, tidy arc. Even though we are overrun with debut linked-story collections that mainly feel like failed novels — blame the collision of story-focused MFA programs and publishers who know novels sell better — in the case of “Under the Rainbow,” a fragmentary structure works, underscoring how emotional change happens in individual and complicated ways. In one chapter, a cattle ranch exec finds that an AAA staffer is her best confidante in thinking over pregnancy; in another, a woman in a nursing home develops a better grasp of LGBTQ issues than anyone else in town. Laskey’s vision of inclusion is all-encompassing. It’s also alert to how halting and surprising the path can be.
Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
Riverhead Books: 288 pages, $27