This queer reader approached How to Survive a Plague with some trepidation. Might it just be too difficult to return to that painful time: a time when so many friends were dying of AIDS? Well, perhaps the biggest surprise in David France’s new book is that in addition to being an important, exhaustively researched history, this also happens to be a genuine page-turner.
How to Survive a Plague tells the history of the AIDS crisis through the stories of several persons who came to be defined as “AIDS activists”. Mr. France renders these characters with a novelist’s sense of detail. The most brilliantly drawn character is Spencer Cox, who this queer reader knew quite well. Mr. France perfectly captures his mixture of sweet, gentle warmth combined with a rapier wit–ready with a sharp quote from Addison DeWitt. It is wise that he chose Mr. Cox’s story to frame this book.
It is entirely appropriate that Mr. France chose to tell this history in the first person–telling his personal story along the way–because the history of the AIDS crisis is at once enormous and deeply personal. For those of us who lived through it, the AIDS crisis crept up on us: first appearing as a newspaper headline, then an acquaintance who lost too much weight, then a sudden death of a young friend. It’s all here: The initial puzzlement that gradually gave way to a completely justifiable panic. The numbing despair as the deaths of friends and acquaintances multiplied. The frustratingly conflicting news. The false hopes: AZT, interferon, remember compound Q?
It is quite remarkable that this queer reader–an ACT-UP veteran–found no inaccuracies in this book whatsoever. My only disagreements come down to emphasis. For instance, this queer reader would have emphasized the role of Ann Northrop more. Her advice to the room as to how to reply to the media when asked about Reagan’s AIDS plan: “It’s a lie! It’s a sham! And it won’t work!” became a rallying cry for the FDA action. Also, this queer reader would liked to have seen more about Michelangelo Signorile. Without his media committee, it is highly unlikely this chant would have ever led the NBC Nightly News. But again, these are questions of emphasis–not accuracy.
Near the beginning of the AIDS crisis, a David Hare play, Plenty, opened on Broadway. Plenty is the story of one woman’s struggle with her own sanity as the excitement of serving as a secret agent in World War Two is replaced by the banality of living in post-war Britain. In many ways this mirrors the activists portrayed in these pages. For what good are these special skills now? Anger? Rage? The willingness to disrupt–even to get arrested? Undoubtedly, the individuals portrayed in these pages are heroes–veterans of a great struggle. Like most veterans, they are underappreciated and traumatized. Mr. France is wise to conclude this book by returning to Spencer Cox’s story, because although Mr. Cox survived the crisis, somehow he could not survive the end of the crisis.
Queer Reader strongly recommends this important book.
David France’s How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS is published by Knopf.
Fans of openly gay stand-up comedian, Bob Smith will be delighted with his new book, Treehab. It’s filled with humorous stories and brilliant one-liners. Nevertheless, there is a dark shadow hanging over these dozen essays, because Mr. Smith reveals early on that he is suffering from ALS. While Mr. Smith is understandably angry about this diagnosis–“That abbreviation should stand for Asinine Life-Threatening Sickness according to me”–there isn’t a trace of bitterness in these pages. The net result is a celebration of the healing power of nature that is, at once, personal and universal.
Those who are familiar with Mr. Smith’s novel, Selfish and Perverse, will perhaps not be too surprised to learn that quite a few of these pages are devoted to Alaska. Mr. Smith spent a good deal of time there researching this novel and his descriptions of the state’s wildlife are lush, detailed–even seductive. And he finds gentle humor in the stereotype-defying gays and lesbians who live there. Treehab is also about what Mr. Smith learned from his rescue dog, the joys of hiking with his gay friends–“nature boys” he calls them–and more.
The last essay of the book, “At Walden with Henry”, is the best. In it, Mr. Smith imagines a conversation with Henry David Thoreau. His queering of Thoreau is humorous, but ultimately this piece becomes a passionate–almost militant–call to save our environment and our planet: a message that will resonate long after all of us are gone.
Of course, Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.
Bob Smith’s Treehab: Tales from My Natural Wild Life is published by University of Wisconsin Press.
Click here to read my 2009 interview with Bob Smith. Among other things he talks a lot about his love for Alaska.
Our Young Man is the epic gay novel Edmund White was destined to write, because he is perhaps the only author who could have written it. Not only because he is brilliant writer, but also because he is a survivor. He can write of a time when everyone in New York believed that cocaine was the only drug that wasn’t addictive, because he lived through that time. He can vividly describe the scene at St. Vincent’s Hospital in the eighties, because he was there. And, because he is a survivor, Mr. White can perfectly render that period in time when every gay man in New York convinced himself that only men who had been infected with multiple STDs came down with AIDS. It is ironic and entirely appropriate that this Great American Gay novel has a French protagonist. Of course Mr. White is highly knowledgeable about France–having spent several years living there.
In Our Young Man, Edmund White achieves something that is seemingly impossible: namely, getting into the mind of a character who is anything but introspective. The hero of the novel realizes early on that he might possibly be able to make some money from his good looks. It doesn’t take long for him to hook up with a manager who sends him all over Europe for photo shoots. He becomes a supermodel and his life seems to flick by as though frames in a movie. Although he makes adjustments along the way, much of his life just seems to happen to him. Thus he becomes a spectator of his own experience: a camera. And through this camera, Mr. White presents two decades of queer history.
It should be noted that while Our Young Man is a historical gay novel, that is not all it is. For though the protagonist is not at all introspective, he is certainly not flat. Unlike the photographs of him, the portrait Mr. White paints is three-dimensional. Indeed he may well be the most psychologically fully-developed character Mr. White has ever written.
Queer Reader strongly recommends this Great American Gay Novel.
Edmund White’s Our Young Man is published by Bloomsbury.
Let’s face it: short story collections can be a tough sell. Even the best of them include a few clunkers. Some even throw in some unpublished fragments: bits of what might have been a novel (novella?), but didn’t quite flesh out. Perhaps more importantly, they tend to lack an underlying theme that somehow unites them. But Patrick Ryan’s new short story collection, The Dream Life of Astronauts, is different. These are undeniably short stories: superb, classically-constructed short stories. The common theme that unites them is geographic: all of these stories take place a few miles from the Kennedy Space Center. The net result is a smooth, enjoyable read and one of the best short story collections this queer reader has read in a long, long time.
Astronauts play a direct role in only one of the stories in this collection, but what happened in that region of the country was so extraordinary that it seems to resonate with everyone in these stories. And Mr. Ryan knows this region well: a quietly American enclave that sometimes resembles rural Wisconsin more than the sunny beachside stereotypes so often associated with Florida.
Beneath the surface there is another connecting theme to these stories: namely, empathy. Whether he is writing of a teen-aged boy with a crush on an astronaut, a grandmother contemplating an affair with her driving instructor, a teen-aged girl wanting to become Miss America or a mobster living in a retirement community, Mr. Ryan renders these stories with compassion. Though frequently humorous, the reader never laughs at these characters. Instead, we find ourselves cheering on their aspirations–not unlike the space mission itself.
Needless to say, Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.
Patrick Ryan’s The Dream Life of Astronauts is published by The Dial Press.
Posted on July 19, 2016
Filed Under Book Review | Comments Off on Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall is a Good Beach Read.
If you’re looking for a good summer read, consider James Magruder’s Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall. It follows the stories of the residents of a Yale dormitory in the school year of 1983-1984. In all the there are nineteen central characters. Normally following that many characters might present a challenge to the reader, but Mr. Magruder renders them crisply–without resorting to caricature. They are gay, straight, bisexual and above-all questioning. This is a college dormitory where the quarters are close and the hormones are raging and these characters find themselves in situations that seem to surprise even themselves.
Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall bears a resemblance to Armistead Maupin’s best work, but Mr. Magruder has a style that is all his own. This is a brilliantly-constructed novel, with enough plot twists to keep the pages turning on a sunny summer’s day.
For those of you who seek a fun read, Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.
James Magruder’s Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall is published by Queen’s Ferry Press.
Although a novel, Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland reads like a memoir. The style is simple, direct, conversational, flawless. It’s the the story of an American abroad: a visitor to Berlin in the final days of the wall. His journey from the superficially exotic, but ultimately predictable world of Berlin’s nightlife to the entirely unpredictable reality of his own sobriety forms the core of this novel. The narrator’s voice is erudite, intellectual, highly-educated and peppered with ironic wit. As an African-American gay man, he defies the stereotypes many impose upon him. Indeed, defying stereotypes is one of the leitmotifs of this novel.
That most German of American cities, Chicago, plays a large part in this novel as well. Through a series of flashbacks the narrator’s middle-class childhood is revealed. But this is not Oak Park middle-class or even Hyde Park middle-class. It is the middle-class of Bronzeville. It is a middle-class world where people feel connected to their neighbors. It isn’t surprising to see them congregating at his family’s house to watch the funeral of Harold Washington. Nor is it surprising to see his mother taking in troubled women in the neighborhood–“crazies” he calls them.
The structure of this novel is almost invisible. Mr. Pinckney’s conversational style perfectly conceals it. And it is only at the very end that we realize how far we’ve come on this journey of discovery with this fascinating man.
Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.
Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland is published by Farrar Straus Giroux
Now that both the Publishing Triangle and the Lambda Literary finalists have been announced, it’s a good time to ask the question: What makes a novel gay? Gay characters? A gay theme? And does the author have to be gay?
The so-called “gay novel,” first attracted national attention when Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story made The New York Times Bestseller list in 1982. A Boy’s Own Story had a gay narrator, a gay theme and an out gay author. It was also masterfully written and many today consider it to be the “great gay novel.” Four years earlier, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance was published and many also consider this book to be “the great gay novel.” Of course, gay novels, in one form or another have been published for many years. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle are just a few examples. But prior to the nineteen-seventies, the term “gay novel” was rarely used and certainly wasn’t a tool for marketing. Nevertheless, by the nineteen-eighties, several gay novelists emerged. Most notably: Patrick Gale, Scott Peck, John Weir David Feinberg and David Leavitt. All of them were out gay men writing about gay characters in novels with gay themes.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that things have gotten more complicated in recent years. Many gay authors are no longer “writing gay”. And some of the best queer novels are written by straight authors. John Irving’s In One Person is arguably “the great gay novel”, although “bisexual novel,” is probably a more accurate term. It tells the story of one bisexual person’s survival over several decades, including the years of the AIDS crisis. It is exhaustively researched and brilliantly written. And in 2013, Lambda Literary awarded In One Person, the “Bisexual Literature Award”, even though Mr. Irving is straight.
When I chatted with Bernardine Evaristo at the 2015 Publishing Triangle Awards, she told me that when she learned her novel, Mr. Loverman was a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, she was certain it wouldn’t win. When I asked, why? she replied: “Because I’m not gay.” Fortunately The Publishing Triangle disagreed and awarded her the prize.
This year, queer readers are presented with yet another quandary. 2016 saw the publication of Hanya Yanaghihara’s A Little Life–a novel Garth Greenwell boldly proclaimed to be “the great gay novel”. But what makes it gay? Gay characters? Yes, but “bisexual” or even “questioning” might be more accurate terms. A gay theme? Debatable. And as to the sexuality of its author… Well, this queer reader would like to believe we’ve reached the point where that just doesn’t matter anymore.
But how else can we explain the absence of this great novel from any of the Lambda finalists lists? Is it possible that the sexuality of its author–or more accurately the lack of information about the sexuality of its author–prevented A Little Life from being a finalist? Or must a “gay novel” be gay themed in order for it to become a finalist? We will probably never know the answers to these questions.
Fortunately the Publishing Triangle got it right this year. A Little Life is a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT fiction.
The Publishing Triangle Awards will be announced on April 21st. Click here for a complete list of finalists.
The Lambda Literary Awards will be announced on June 6th. Click here for a complete list of finalists.
Posted on February 3, 2016
Filed Under Book Review | Comments Off on What Belongs to You is a Good Old-Fashioned Gay Novel.
Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is a good, old-fashioned gay novel. In the tradition of Edmund White, Mr. Greenwell tells a very personal story. And like Mr. White, Mr. Greenwell doesn’t shy away from sex. Sexuality isn’t incidental to this book; it is central.
What Belongs to You tells the story of an American school teacher’s relationship with a Bulgarian hustler named Mitko. Mr. Greenwell’s writing is at his best in the first part of this novel. Here he precisely–and often amusingly–describes Mitko’s almost childlike appreciation of the smallest material things and his seemingly genuine affection, which can be turned on like a faucet with the prospect of cash. Early on we learn that the narrator is breaking an unwritten self-imposed rule not to pay for sex, as much from sexual ego as from economics. But the narrator succumbs to Mitko’s charms. The reader isn’t entirely sure why. In fact, the underlying question in part one becomes, why? Why does this seemingly normal, out, gay, middle class American with friends decide to become involved with a twenty-two year old hustler with only a seventh grade education?
In part two, valuable insights about the narrator are revealed. Here a series of flashbacks reveal a troubled, deeply unhappy childhood. We learn that his father was a serial philanderer. We learn how his first potentially meaningful same sex relationship was shattered by fear and heterosexism. And ultimately we learn that his father–driven by homophobic hatred–abandoned him.
And yet this central question remains unanswered. Perhaps that’s for the best. After all, there is something that is ultimately mysterious about the human heart. And good literature explores it.
Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is published by Farrar Straus Giroux.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, great novels are not all alike. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, for example, is like no other novel. It is an epic novel that follows several characters over decades. But what sets A Little Life apart is the depth of its characterizations. The characters in A Little Life are fully realized, complex and not at all predictable. They are also interconnected completely. Co-dependency isn’t a dirty word to them. When a childless couple decides to adopt a grown man, it isn’t entirely surprising. Though approximately the same length as The Fountainhead, A Little Life is the anti-Ayn Rand novel. In Yanagihara’s world, no man (or woman) is an island. A Little Life is the story of how people not only depend on each other, but beyond that, how they are shaped by and even defined by each other.
At the heart of this story is Jude, a brilliant man who is tormented by a horrific childhood. His response to this is to cut himself: to literally take a razor blade to his skin and watch it bleed. It is to Ms. Yanagihara’s credit that this queer reader found these sections to be almost too painful to read. On several occasions I actually found myself looking away from the book. Her detailed descriptions are grisly, ghastly–as they should be. A Little Life isn’t exactly an easy read, but this queer reader found it to be compelling and, near the end, almost impossible to put down.
Ms. Yanagihara doesn’t serve up a cliched happy ending here. For while A Little Life is about how some people can help each other, it is also about how some people can harm each other deeply. And sometimes that harm is irreparable.
Needless to say, Queer Reader strongly recommends this novel.
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is published by Knopf.
This month, QueerReader.com quietly celebrated it’s seventh anniversary. It’s a good time to take stock.
When this website was launched, there were literally LGBT bookstores from coast to coast. A Different Light had branches in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Washington DC had a gay bookstore, as did several medium-size cities across the U.S. And New York’s historic Oscar Wilde Bookshop was still going strong. Or so it seemed. No one I knew then was predicting that within a few short years they would all be gone.
There is no doubt that the landscape of queer literature is changing drastically. For one thing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define. Some of our best gay authors are no longer “writing gay.” And the two best queer novels were written by straight authors: John Irving’s In One Person and Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman. Queer Literature today is fluid, unpredictable, but in many ways the quality is higher than it’s ever been.
Last year was an exceptionally good year for queer fiction. The jury is still out on this year. But for those who continue to proclaim the death of Queer Literature, consider this: Next year will see the publication of new works by Garth Greenwell, James Magruder, Patrick Ryan, Bob Smith and Edmund White.
So stay tuned.keep looking »