By Nina van der Linden
** This review contains spoilers for Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop **
Over the summer of 2021, I asked Aster, a friend of mine who’s an avid reader, for a list of recommendations for queer fiction. It’s been a while since I’ve had time for recreational reading, and my desire for enjoyable stories featuring queer people is universal across all the media I consume. Luckily, most of my friends have a similar interest, so I can always count on them to contribute to my knowledge of queer (pop) culture.
This group of friends was formed on Twitter, where one person asked around if people who were interested in attending a concert by Halsey, a queer artist, wanted to do so together. It evolved into the group of people I now consider my family. The people in this group have changed over time, but its essence remains. Groups of friends like these are not at all uncommon in queer culture. They are often referred to as “found family” or “family of choice,” and they are a way for members of the community to form a system of support and love not based on genetic relationality, but on being queer in a specific time and place.
The concept of “found family” is the backbone of Casey McQuiston’s sophomore novel One Last Stop, which was included on the list I received from Aster. The characters in the novel, much like my friends, are a seemingly random collection of individuals. A transgender psychic named Niko dating an electrical engineer-slash-sculpting artist called Myla, drag queen Isaiah, token straight line cook Jerry, an outcast member of the financial elite named Wesley, and Jane; a butch lesbian who has been stuck on the Q line of the New York City subway since 1977. The one thing all of them have in common is that they meet accidentally. August, the novel’s protagonist, who has never been the center of attention in anyone’s life, suddenly becomes the tether of Jane’s connection to the present.
“The Q train is a time, a place, and a person” is what August says after seeing Jane on the subway the first few times. Jane only appears on the Q line at a set time, the same time she used to take the train in 1977. Later in the novel, we learn that Jane’s existence is quite literally dependent on August, as well; the fact that Jane is stuck in a time loop means she loses her memories between the moments they see each other, and August must be the one to remember things for her. The anachronism of Jane’s existence is the main plot of One Last Stop, and it is reflected in more than just the retellings of important events in queer history. McQuiston wields linguistic temporality to bring the story to life, interchanging between past and present tenses as August, as a third person narrator, retells Jane’s stories to the reader. The switching of tenses makes it so that the events described by Jane blur into the present, to the point where the reader is unsure at times whether the “she” in a sentence refers to Jane or to August. While this complicates readings and doesn’t always work, it sometimes succeeds brilliantly. When Jane frustratingly tells August about the morning she wakes up and remembers half of her own found family died in a fire, the only thing that makes the reader realize August was not involved in this fire herself is the newspaper clipping at the beginning of the chapter about the UpStairs Lounge arson attack in 1973.
Details like this clipping make the book feel like just as much of a case to be solved as the cold case of August’s uncle, which plays a central role in both August’s relationship with her mother and, as it turns out later, her relationship with Jane. Information isn’t offered on a silver platter, but instead, the reader is coaxed into connecting the dots for themselves, much like August has a habit of doing. In fact, almost everything in the novel seems to be conveniently connected to each other. The third person narration is one that is frequently used in true crime documentaries, where events are often retold through the victim’s perspective. Myla, who is August’s roommate, has experience in electrical engineering, which leads to the group discovering that Jane’s connection to the Q line is an electrical one, resulting from a power surge when she touched the tracks in 1977. Myla’s boyfriend Niko’s psychic abilities are mostly used to get August to open up about what she’s feeling and to process those feelings, often conveniently right after August runs into an issue regarding her connection with Jane.
Unfortunately, the many intra-textual references and connections get a little too obvious after a while. The most glaring example is that August, who is desperately trying to get away from her mother’s obsession with the 38-year-old disappearance of her brother Augie, finds herself right in the middle of the exact same narrative. It already seems too big of a stretch for Jane and Augie to be connected, but when August accidentally solves Augie’s cold case while working on a way to get Jane off the Q line, the reader’s suspension of disbelief is broken. There can be too much of a coincidence even in a novel about being stuck in time. This could have been easily resolved by connecting Jane’s transtemporal existence to Augie’s missing person’s case, for example, if Augie’s case could only be solved if Jane and August ran into each other on the subway. However, the novel makes no such attempt, and instead the reader is left to chalk its resolution all up to chance.
Even though the different plots are interwoven somewhat clumsily, what One Last Stop does do extremely efficiently is encapsulate the feelings of a young adult trying to break loose from their parents. In the beginning of the story, August considers herself quite independent, crediting her mother’s approach to parenting for her supposed independence. Her actions, however, tell a different story. She initially meets Jane when she spills coffee on herself and needs a change of clothes. It is clear through her interactions with Niko that, while August has always been self-reliant, this is mostly because she’s learned to sideline her own priorities in favor of helping her mother. August comes to terms with the fact that despite her desire to distance herself from Suzette (not clear this is her mother), she does take after her mother. Her mannerisms and desire to solve Jane’s case directly result from being raised by Suzette, as is evident from her attention to detail; a result of going over every single aspect of Augie’s case. Her experience in studying the seemingly insignificant aspects of a case is what makes her realize that the postcard Augie sent Jane is dated three years after his disappearance, meaning he didn’t die 38 years ago. Inadvertently, August solves the case she’s trying so hard to escape.
Another important part in August’s journey of self-discovery is the connection to the queer community her found family provides for her. I’ve read many queer coming-of-age stories, most of which revolve around coming out. One Last Stop takes a refreshingly different route by having the coming-of-age story revolve around coming “in”; into the community. It is no accident that August’s first queer experiences, like falling in love and having sex with another woman, occur on the Q line of the New York subway. New York has been considered a queer haven since even before the Stonewall Riots; not always safe, but big and busy enough for queer life to thrive in secret. I also don’t believe the Q line was arbitrarily selected by McQuiston as the backdrop for this romance; it’s a little too on-the-nose for it to be an accident. Currently, the Q line runs alongside Greenwich Village, with a stop only a ten-minute walk from the Stonewall Inn. A detail I appreciate is that the particular stop in question, 8th Street, is offhandedly mentioned in the novel.
A story of a bisexual August from New Orleans meeting Jane, an Asian butch lesbian on the subway would have been a lovely coming-of-age story by itself, but what really drives the coming “in” narrative is the time travel. Because Jane’s memories slowly start coming back to her as she spends more time with August, the reader gets a firsthand account of many historical events that occurred before the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. One of the aspects of queer life that can make it feel extremely isolating is that there is almost no guidance from “those who came before”. Both lives and knowledge of queer history have been lost or outright destroyed by political motivations. As with any cultural group, history is an important tool for the queer community; it is what shapes the way we conduct ourselves. When that history is lost or obscured, or otherwise remains hidden from future generations, important lessons learned in the past are forgotten.
The open discussion of queer history/present but also of queer politics highlights how the movement has become more palpable to the mainstream masses over the past four decades. McQuiston demonstrates that, in some instances, the situation in 2020 might be comparable to the developments of the 1970s; the benefit drag show August and her friends organize to raise money for Billy’s Pancake House, a staple safe space for the queer community that has existed for over 40 years but is now at risk of disappearing because of gentrification and a sudden desire to “clean up the neighborhood” – an argument that has frequently been used to justify the demolishing of dominantly queer and BIPOC neighborhoods.
The contrast between then-and-now is showcased in some of the interactions between August and Jane; when a fight breaks out in the subway, August wonders why Jane doesn’t just call the cops, to which Jane replies angrily: “You know I don’t fuck with pigs.” The use of present tense becomes particularly important here; the narrative distinction between Jane’s experiences and August’s presence in 2020 is blurred. The first-hand accounts create a pocket of space-time displacement on the Q train, where every time August and Jane discuss Jane’s life before she got stuck, it’s like the story is transported back to the 1970s, bringing the reader along. In these moments, we collectively exist in two times in the same space; a time where openly being queer leads to being beaten up, arrested, set on fire and killed, and a time where advertisements for roommates can include “must be queer and trans friendly” without a problem. The Q train, then, truly becomes a time, a place, and a person. When August gets on the train, the reader is Jane in the 1970s.
One Last Stop definitely takes a difficult path. It is a history lesson and coming-of-age story hidden inside the package of a queer romance novel. While the romance between August and Jane is ultimately the biggest aspect of the story, especially in the discourse around the book, the other aspects of the book are, in my opinion, more valuable and more important. The different stories are interwoven in a way that sometimes betrays McQuiston’s relative inexperience as a writer, but the clumsiness fits the narrative of August’s own clumsiness and inexperience with queer issues and history. The cleverest aspect of this book is by far its marketing; the demand for queer romance is higher than ever, and it’s often difficult for young people to learn about queer history in an accessible way. By emphasizing the romance aspect, McQuiston is able to sneak in a history lesson to those who really need it. They do this not by lecturing about past events in hindsight, but through an imaginative narrative, compelling characters and by using linguistic structure and temporality to transport the reader into the past. The story of Jane and August’s romance is set in the 1970s, but it takes place in our present. It reminds the queer reader of the fact that thousands of queer people have come before them, presently exist alongside them, that thousands will come after them, and that they are never truly alone.
Nina van der Linden has a background in gender and media studies with a specific focus on the interdisciplinary field of representation, having written their B.A. thesis on queer representation in Orange Is The New Black. Additionally, they have been a part of the queer community for over ten years now and have extensively engaged with queer culture and history throughout. Nina designed RevUU’s logo for the Autumn 2021 issue.
- McQuiston, Casey. One Last Stop. St Martin’s Press, 2021.