“What’s a little mermaid dick between friends?”—Emily
Have you ever seen those movies like Flipper or Free Willy where a young boy befriends a sea creature, who is smarter than the average member of his species, and through their emotional bond, learns more about himself? Once they’ve bonded, a villain comes along wanting to hurt or exploit the sea creature, and it’s up to the boy and his ragtag friends to save the day. So imagine that story except the main character doesn’t just befriend the sea creature—he starts dating it.
That Doesn’t Belong Here is the second novel from Dan Ackerman, releasing to the world on October 1, 2017, and published by Supposed Crimes. At its core, it is a love story. Most of the goings on in the story are ancillary to that love story, and it is through the lens of romance that most of the story’s themes develop. But this is not a perfect book, and there were some things that were a little odd, to say the least. But I’ll save those for later. Right now, let me give you a brief synopsis.
In That Doesn’t Belong Here we mostly follow Levi, a young Jewish man from Long Island in California for school. He spends most of his time at a beach house owned by his best friend, Emily. While out and about one lazy day, they discover a strange creature with a humanoid torso but the lower body of a dolphin in the back of a truck. Hurt and scared, the two take him home and nurse him back to health. Emily’s girlfriend, Charlotte, eventually joins them in teaching the creature, named Kato, all about the human world. But there is one human Kato wants to learn about more than any other. As the story goes, Kato and Levi grow closer. Levi struggles with the feelings Kato awakens in him, both due to his own beliefs in his heterosexuality and his confusion about attraction to what is essentially a merman.
After much soul-searching and a few awkward seaside cuddle sessions, Kato and Levi find in each other the acceptance they both had been searching for. But just as they finally get together, a dark force captures Kato and Levi must save him.
This is a very sweet story. The tenderness between Levi and Kato is well rendered, and you get a genuine feeling that the two are attracted to each other. The relationship is also allowed a healthy amount of time to develop, giving Levi time to examine his attraction to Kato. They fight, they make up, they share sushi. What starts as an accidental near-fling becomes a deep and soulful relationship. Both characters have wants, needs, and prejudices they need to overcome, shaping the development of their love story and leading to two very well-rounded characters that are easy to care for.
The relationship examines two barriers to love: differences of culture and differences of sexuality. At the start, being with men is normal for Kato but not for Levi, who has to come to terms with his bisexuality before he can enter into a relationship. Kato is also a fish person from the deep ocean, meaning that Levi’s attempts to explain and explore are hindered by the cultural barrier. The author doesn’t let this barrier come down easily, which makes Levi and Kato’s eventual coupling that much more satisfying.
Physicality Mixed With Emotion
The physicality of their relationship is well done too. Never too explicit, Ackerman captures the emotional resonance of the lovers’ movements with deft suggestive language. The tension of the book builds to these scenes, and the payoff tends to be worth it.
The author clearly has a great love for the ocean, and it shows in their descriptions. Beautiful and alive, idyllic when it needs to be, it serves as the perfect backdrop for much of the book.
This is an often funny book. The characters sometimes point out some of the ridiculousness happening around them, the strange things they are taking part in. They mock each other, they crack jokes. Many scenes with Kato incorporate a good deal of physical comedy. This humor balances well with the heavier themes in the story and adds to the natural way relationships develop.
The Not As Good
That Doesn’t Belong Here is at its strongest when it is focusing on Levi and Kato, and they are the most well-rounded and well-written characters in the story. When the story “zooms out” and looks at other characters, they seem much flatter. Emily and Charlotte, it seems, only exist in relation to their identity. As a lesbian dating an autistic girl, Emily spends much of the book admonishing her best friend Levi for his “close-minded” views on sexuality. Discounting the fact that not only has Levi only been with girls, the thing trying to kiss him is half fish! It is as if the author wants to equate being a lesbian with cross-species sexuality. Charlotte, while a relatively good portrayal of mild to severe autism, rarely seems to move beyond that. Her interest in archaeology is discussed but has less impact on the story.
The dialogue in this piece is often good with many scenes between Levi and Kato and Levi and Emily capturing the highs and lows of friendship and love. But at other times, the characters seem to only say things that relate to their identity. Every other sentence when Charlotte is around has to do with her autism, for instance. It limits dialogue and sometimes, can ruin emotional scenes when the reader is pulled out by these reminders from the author that they are reading about fictional people.
Just as the character work is best with Kato and Levi, so too is the plot best when it examines their love story. The first half of the novel is fantastic with this, with all the scenes helping Levi, and us, get to know Kato. We develop empathy and understanding along with Levi, all in service of developing their love for each other. But in the second half of the novel, plot threads begin to multiply, and as we get farther and farther from the romance, the silliness of the story begins to sink in. Hints of some ancient civilization built by Kato’s people start being dropped, but that never goes anywhere and just seems to be something for Charlotte and Kato to bond over.
The perspective also shifts in the last quarter of the book, moving us from Levi to Kato. It seems that after consummating their love, the two have developed an emotional connection that lets us see what Kato sees. However the style doesn’t change and we don’t get a real sense that we’re in Kato’s head, leading to a jarring transition we never get out of. And, as I alluded to in the beginning, the story feels like a weird mix of Free Willy and ET. Kato is kidnapped by an evil organization, roughly analogous to Sea World, to make the company profit. While separated from Levi, Kato begins to deteriorate physically and, like ET, is faced with the prospect of death should he not reunite with Levi.
This is a very fun read and, if you can overcome the silliness of it, a touching one as well. Gay fiction has not had a chance to get weird in the way so much straight romance has, and by god it’s good to see something truly out there getting published. If you want to read something with tight plotting, complex characters, and fantastical ideas, you may want to look elsewhere. But for something weird and wonderful, in all the ways love can be, you can’t beat That Doesn’t Belong Here.