"A Single Man" by Christopher Isherwood & Baja Fish Tacos
Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man had been on my reading list for a long time and I’m sorrier I didn’t get to it sooner. It’s like a one night stand with a magnificent stranger or a single bite of an exquisite meal. Part of me wishes this novella was a thousand pages, that Isherwood’s magnetic prose took me from the beginning of George and Jim’s relationship, along their ups and downs, and through Jim’s tragic death.
But I know that one of the reasons this story so potent is because of (and not in spite of) its length. It is a glimpse of a man’s life — a single day — and not the glimpse he would have chosen you to see.
Published in 1964, A Single Man catapulted into fame as one of the first sympathetic yet honest accounts of a gay man. This portrait is not a romantic one. George isn’t young or exotic or consumed with passion; he’s a middle-aged Englishman who teaches literature in a Californian university. He is unapologetically human, a refreshing depiction of an archetype that was usually painted as lascivious or girlish, as a creature of French trysts and flamboyant tastes. George endures the loss of his longtime partner Jim and also endures the more banal trials of his life, sometimes with dignity and sometimes not. And yet, at the heart of the book is a relentless love of being alive in spite of it all.
A Single Man continues to resonate 50 years later because Isherwood has portrayed with exquisite precision all the distress, absurdity, poetry, and comfort of being alone, forever an alien no matter how well you blend in. As a lifelong expat (“Third Culture Kid”), I have been frequently preoccupied by the repercussions and benefits of individualism. When the environment is friendly and familiar but it’s not yours, you seek friendly and familiar people to fill the gap, usually expats with a similar origin.
George not only faces the challenges of an expat but, due to his sexuality, he also has a much smaller pool of people he can trust with his true self. It’s akin to speaking a foreign language well enough for day-to-day interactions but not for communicating deep feelings or complex thoughts. You get along with the people around you but you are forever dogged by the knowledge that their impression of you is incomplete, that you have yet to find a way to say exactly what you’re thinking, and that you have no idea how they would respond even if you did.
A Single Man is one of those stories that is very conscious of the setting — in this case, Southern California — and how the protagonist fits or doesn’t fit into it. Fish tacos are a Californian classic and capture all the flavors of the story’s location, but I switched out tilapia for cod to reflect George’s Britishness. Just as George is at once part of his environment and completely separate from it, the cod is part of the fish taco but nevertheless stands alone.
BAJA FISH TACOS
¼ cup reduced-fat sour cream
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
½ small head of green or red cabbage (about 14 ounces), cored and thinly sliced
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chili sauce
1 ½ teaspoons paprika
1 ½ teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¾ teaspoon garlic powder
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground red pepper
4 (6-ounce) cod fillets
6-8 (6-inch) soft corn tortillas
½ ripe peeled avocado, thinly sliced
4 lime wedges
Combine sour cream, cilantro, 2 tablespoons of lime juice, and cabbage, plus salt and pepper to taste. Stir until thoroughly mixed. In a separate bowl, combine chili sauce and onion.
Combine paprika, brown sugar, oregano, garlic powder, salt, cumin, and red pepper. Sprinkle mixture evenly over fish. Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add non-frozen fish fillets to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness.
Warm tortillas according to package directions. Divide fish, slaw, and avocado evenly among tortillas. Add a squeeze of fresh lime and serve with lime wedges.