Arts & Entertainment
Biography investigates secret gay relationships
by Richard Labonte
Originally printed 2/9/2012 (Issue 2006 - Between The Lines News)
"Jack Holmes & His Friend," by Edmund White. Bloomsbury USA, 400 pages, $26 hardcover.
One of the many charms of White's latest novel is that there is nothing pretentious about it. The writing is sensuous and stylish, the story is sexy and straightforward, the characters are cultured and always ready to cavort sexually - though not with each other. Handsome, well-hung Jack, who escaped his rigid Midwestern upbringing with a porn star name that belies his initial reluctance to live a queer life, falls hard at first sight for Will, the well-bred sophisticate who becomes his colleague at an upscale literary magazine in the late 1960s - but who is, alas, irredeemably straight. Turns out that a promiscuous gay man in pre-AIDS Manhattan and a (for a time) suburban family man can at least be friends.
"Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform," edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. AK Press, 224 pages, $17.95 paper.
"My business is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," it's said that social activist Mother "Mary" Jones once said (though a polemical 19th-century journalist is often cited as the original source). In this third anthology, after "Nobody Passes" and "That's Revolting," Bernstein, herself something of an activist and polemicist, honors both of his antecedents. With a sharp editor's eye, she has collected 29 visceral essays celebrating defiant nonconformity and subversive flamboyance - writing that afflicts the gay mainstream while comforting the outcast rebels, fierce queens and gender-redefining queers who birthed Queer Lib but are now forsaken by it. D. Travers Scott dreams of a less fetish-rigid drop-down Internet; CAConrad offers body fascism-defying delight in his fat self; Lewis Wallace recalls youthful trans lust; James Villanueva writes about his spunky presence as a queer Latino in a straight, white cowboy bar. These contributors and their sisters and brothers are flipping their middle finger at both LGBTQ-phobia and the manifest intolerance of mainstream gays for their sort with candid cockiness and glamorous gutsiness.
"Franky Gets Real," by Mel Bossa. Bold Strokes, 236 pages, $16.95 paper.
Five old friends, a long weekend at the lake and 15 years of fear, regret, disappointment and denial - that's the volatile mix of Bossa's bravura third novel. Charismatic Wyatt's marriage is falling apart after an unexpected reminder of youthful sexual pain; law student Holly, the most level-headed of the lot, is pregnant and blissfully in love with a solid, stolid man; brainy but naive Nevins, swindled by a hooker, is stealing to cover his debts; Wyatt's baffling younger brother, Alek, is coping with disease; and Franky - who 15 years earlier rebuffed Alek's gentle, desperate offer of love - is torn between his strained relationship with a woman and his nascent desire for men. Blending the melodrama of the 1983 movie "The Big Chill" with the unsettling drunken confessions of a high school reunion, Bossa has crafted a textured novel that captures the drama of complex, realistic characters confronting the secrets and lies that threaten to fracture their friendship - and, in the end, learning to strengthen the ties that bid.
"J. Edgar Hoover & Clyde Tolson: Investigating the Sexual Secrets of America's Most Famous Men and Women," by Darwin Porter. Blood Moon Productions, 576 pages, $19.95 paper.
Tightly closed closet doors haven't got a chance when it comes to the fiercely tabloid tendencies of prolific biographer Porter. In earlier books, he has chronicled the same-sex hijinks of the likes of Marlon Brando, Howard Hughes , Katherine Hepburn, Steve McQueen and many more, mining Hollywood lore for the scandalous and the salacious. And though the focus shifts from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, in this explicit depiction of FBI honcho Hoover and Tolson, his BFF (and way more), there's no shortage of Hollywood cameos - Hoover sent his G-Men minions to ferret out the sexual secrets of the likes of Fred Astaire and Ramon Novarro, even as he and Tolson were frequenting boy bordellos and ogling sex acts in Havana in the 1930s. In anecdote after anecdote, many sourced in the text (though there is no bibliography of books used as reference), Porter leaves no doubt that the two men were more than bachelor friends; this breathless biography goes way past the innuendo of Clint Eastwood's film depiction of J. Edgar and Clyde.
We are all failing: the intoxicating visions of gay liberation have given way to an obsession with beauty myth consumer norms, mandatory masculinity, objectification without appreciation and a relentless drive to police the borders. And yet, what might we conjure, create, and cultivate with our dreams that remain. "Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?" reinvokes the anger, flamboyance, and subversion once thriving in gay subcultures, in order to imagine something dangerous and lovely: an exploration of the perils of assimilation; a call for accountability; a vision for change. We are ready.
- from "Why Are Faggots Afraid of Faggots?," by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Gay Voices, a newish addition to The Huffington Post, featured through January meaty conversations between gay authors. In the first, pioneering out writers Edmund White and Felice Picano discussed their own and each other's work with mutual respect - and much candor. In one exchange, White reveals that his classic, "A Boy's Own Story," is less autobiographical than many reviewers thought: "When I came to write "A Boy's Own Story," the boy in the book is an average student and is very timid about sex. But if I had written it about what I really was like, that same character that so many people identified with would have turned out as a sort of freak show because he is definitely not who I was. By 16, the age of that character, I'd won all these academic awards and I had like five hundred sexual encounters by then. I was a toilet queen..." In a second installment of the series, Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn dig into the question of how "gay sensibility" impacts their writing: "That's what I'm dealing with right now with my novel, "The Heavens Rise." One of the major characters is gay but...he's not dealing with sexual persecution. It's not about his romantic life. It's about him trying to unravel the mystery of his straight friend's disappearance.... So does his simple presence in the narrative make the whole affair a 'gay novel'?" For the full conversations: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gay-voices.Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s. He can be reached in care of this publication, or at BookMarks@qsyndicate.com.