Monday, August 17, 2015

Review of 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 1988 Unicorn Mountain, I couldn’t help but think of doing the same.  Unfortunately, it was for a different reason: protection of Michael Bishop’s and my self-respect. 

Pause, just for a moment, and take a look at the cover to the left.  What you are looking at is a disconnect between not only the literal, but also the proverbial book and cover.  Grafton Press going in one direction and Michael Bishop headed in the opposite, 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.  Intelligent, emotional, and 100% relevant, the cover in no way portrays the truly human stories just behind it. (Bantam Spectra’s is the only respectable cover to date, but even it does not fully capture the book’s sentiment.)

Bo Gavin is the locus of Unicorn Mountain.  A late middle-aged man recently diagnosed with AIDS, his cousin’s ex-wife, Libby Bray, makes the flight to Atlanta to bring him to her southern Colorada ranch so there 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 forgos soliloquies of pain and frustration and looks at the effect of the disease on the people surrounding the victim as much as the victim himself.  Empathy toward their situations arising not from the perpetual use of pity to leverage emotion, rather their all too human reaction to the disease, Bishop creates living, breathing people in his narrative.  We all know someone as well-intentioned yet possessing bad luck like 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.  A socially conscientious novel, it’s fitting the people who comprise the sub-set of humanity being examined are life-like.

Bishop apparently a practical guy, there is a sub-plot of the novel involving, of all things, condoms.  Treated with fun yet the underlying message clear, Bishop takes the author’s advantage 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 not as wide-spread as they are today, 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 the 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 remains a matter of life and death.  But perhaps more significantly, the social issues surrounding the condition and the sexual choices that can accompany the disease remain near the forefront of homosexual discussion.  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.  That the root the cause of the main character’s disease disagrees with Card’s worldview makes it an interesting show of appreciation.  Is Card misjudged, or has he since had a change of heart?


  1. I enjoyed that book when I read it years ago, and the cover didn't bother me.

  2. I'm with you on the cover. Bishop deserves better.

  3. Bishop seems so solid despite the range of SF he writes -- he does not cease to impress... And why he is not better known is beyond me. You need A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire and Stolen Faces!