By Brian Francis
(McClelland & Stewart, 2021)
Sometimes I get stuck on an issue. It turns to all-out perseverating. This is never a good thing.
Get over it!
But I don’t. If I could, I would.
I tell you this because my take of Brian Francis’s new book, Missed Connections, is tainted. I never got past the premise. Actually, the premise was wonderful. It’s the execution that failed. What was advertised wasn’t what I got. Like those sea-monkeys you could send away for in comic books from my childhood. I’d look at the sea-monkey drawings, pause and ponder spending a week’s allowance on what I knew would turn out to be mini shrimp. Cool. But not swimming, smiling monkeys. Not what the ad showed. Not what I wanted. Sorry, shrimp.
Francis explains the premise for his memoir in the book’s introduction. Back in 1992 when he was twenty-one, he shelled out sixty-five dollars for a personal ad to run three times in the local paper which I presume was a weekly publication. (Side note: Sixty-five bucks in 1992?! Yes, it was a lot for someone who was a university student at the time. Heck, it’s more than most single guys invest now. Many of us, me included, balk at paying monthly subscriptions to dating sites, opting instead to accept the annoying inconveniences that come with a free account. Yes, single gays, I’m cheap but, really, I’m a catch. Message me!)
Francis got twenty-five replies which sounds like hitting pay dirt. (I just might steal the words in his ad for my new and improved profile, a few tweaks to get around messy plagiarism allegations. If you knew me, Brian Francis, you might let it go, considering it an act of charity…assuming you don’t read the rest of this review.)
As he sorted the letters, thirteen went immediately into the No pile. Nonetheless, he saved them, interesting mementos from his early coming out years.
A few years ago, Francis found these unanswered letters and reread them. As he explains:
Where were these thirteen men now? …And had they
ever found love? …I found myself asking, How might
I reply to them now, writing not from the perspective
of a wide-eyed youth but from the decidedly more
wrinkled perspective of a man firmly at the midpoint of
No, the author doesn’t don a reporter’s cap and track down these men. How could he when most signed their letters with only a first name, perhaps an alias, one going so far as to create a code for Francis to cryptically respond in yet another newspaper ad? Sigh. We were so much more closeted in 1992. The risks felt greater. Mannerisms, topics of conversation and confidants had to be painstakingly considered.
The book is the author’s very much belated reply to each letter, each chapter opening with one letter, followed by Francis’s reply.
Again, great premise. If only he’d done that.
Admittedly, I wondered how he could turn this idea into a whole book. Each reply averages about fourteen pages. My god, isn’t that a bit creepy as a response to someone whose initial letter basically said some version of, “I’m gay, too. Wanna go for coffee?” It’s true, we were wordier in 1992. Texting and all its abbreviated lingo didn’t exist. It’s astonishing to see that all thirteen communicated in full sentences. Paragraphs even. For a quick comparison, my last three messages on dating apps, in their entirety, are: (1) “Hey dude”; (2) “Good afternoon”; and (3) “Hi there great profile and pictures”. Yoo hoo, Pat Sajak, I’d like to buy a punctuation mark….not picky…period, exclamation (Cool!), or, throw in a beloved ellipsis, and I’m smitten.
Time machine, take me back!
Really though…a fourteen-page reply? Imagine what coffee would be like with this author. He’d spend ten minutes talking about tying his shoelaces that morning. He wouldn’t roll his eyes if you asked, “Do you come here often?” Hell, no. First, he’d spend five minutes explaining his contextual understanding of here, another three defining often and then—
Good god, can’t you fake getting an urgent text telling you Dear Old Aunt Clementine just had another stroke? Flee! Aunt Clementine needs you!
Each letter is an excuse for Francis to talk about himself and his life experiences. Yes, I’m aware that “memoir” is mentioned in the book’s subtitle, but the whole setup of replying to people who responded to his personal ad is contrived. There’s a paragraph, sometimes two, addressing Randy M. or Craig or Snuggles—admittedly, I would never respond to that last guy…not even three decades later—but then it’s all The Life of Francis. Sometimes there’d be some relationship between something mentioned in the letter and the author’s memoir topic. In one of the better linked chapters, he tells Liam, who was thirty-four when replying to the personal ad: “Your age was a definite deal-breaker.” Francis then writes about the divide between generations of gay men and his own feelings about growing old.
It only takes a few seconds of me looking at a younger
man to think about how I might appear to him. I forget
how much older I am. I forget about the canyon. But
then the subway passes through a tunnel and my
reflection suddenly appears in the window and I see
myself as he must see me.
Off the radar.
Brian Francis is a talented writer. His 2004 young adult coming-of-age novel, Fruit (published in the U.S. as The Secret Fruit of Peter Paddington), was very funny with a distinct voice. In this memoir, I found his thoughts about self-esteem, coming out, the AIDS crisis and aging eminently relatable. If he’d written the book as a straightforward memoir, I’d have absorbed his words without distraction. I’d have been spared my perseverating. I’d have settled in with a platter of shrimp, no visions of sea-monkeys swimming around in my head. I have no doubt the premise provided a novelty that appealed to the publisher. It was a way to make this memoir stand out from all the others. Ultimately, the premise feels like a gimmick. I’d read along and the author would every so often arbitrarily mention the letter writer’s name—for example, “I know, Brett, I’m rolling my own eyes”—and I’d wonder, Who the hell is Brett?
When it comes to replying to his potential personal ad suitors from yesteryear, the “missed connections” in Missed Connections are the replies themselves.
 If you sent Mr. Francis a gift for his high school graduation, I suspect your thank you note will arrive sometime in the fall of 2022.
 I know. Clementine is a lame name to come up with on the spot, but it’s so out there, it’s almost believable, right?
 I almost abandoned the book at the beginning of chapter four as the author replies to a letter from eighteen-year-old Sam who’d mentioned he was a part-time model and included photos. Francis writes: “Based on the photos you included with your letter, I think it’s safe to assume your modelling career never took flight…[T]here’s a fine line between dreams and delusions.” Wow. Savage. This is the response from a guy who had serious issues with his own body image. Really, reading this again, I’m kicking myself for the fact that I did continue reading.