Book Marks: 'Eminent Outlaws' looks at revolutionary gay writers

by Richard Labonte

"Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America," by Christopher Bram. Twelve/Grand Central Publishing, 378 pages, $27.99 hardcover.

It's only a wistful whisper, but if there's an emotion threaded through Bram's clear-eyed gaze at gay writers and writing from the 1950s to the current decade, it's this: those were the days, my friend. The author himself of nine fine novels (among them, his 1987 debut, "Surprising Myself," and "Father of Frankenstein," basis for the Academy Award-winning film "Gods and Monsters"), Bram discusses several dozen gay writers, but has wisely chosen to focus primarily on a few - Ginsberg and Vidal, Capote and Williams, Isherwood and Baldwin, Crowley and Albee and Kushner, Kramer and Holleran, Maupin and White, seminal figures all in the post-WWII emergence of an assertive and self-affirming queer literature. In a meaty book that is both a celebration and a lament, both a critical study and a fount of literary gossip, Bram's assessment that "the gay experience ... energized American literature" can't be faulted. (And do read through the source notes at the back of the book, chockfull of insightful, anecdotal tidbits.)

"An Arab Melancholia," by Abdellah Taia, translated by Frank Stock. Semiotext(e), 144 pages, $14.95 paper.

There are echoes of Taia's strongly autobiographical first novel, "Salvation Army," in this book, which is not so much a sequel as it is a parallel tale. Like its predecessor, it opens in the small, dusty village of Sale, Morocco, where, in the first of four sections, a 12-year-old dreams of directing films and, something of a loner, welcomes the sexual attention of a slightly older boy and is nearly raped by a gang of tough teens - both situations that excite him. In the second section, the narrator, now studying film, falls haplessly in love with a French photographer, Javier, who would rather just be friends. In the third, he's working in Cairo, Egypt as an interpreter on a film shoot, still longing for Javier. And in the fourth, he's emotionally adrift again, lost in the pages of a journal written during his needy affair with an Algerian, Slimane. On one level, the narrator's loves and losses are typically gay. But Taia writes from within a distinctly different Arab culture in this passionate novel about two worlds intersecting.

"Camptown Ladies," by Mari SanGiovanni. Bywater Books, 304 pages, $14.95 paper.

The satire is broad and the broads are buxom - large "boobs" are a recurring image - in this rowdy follow-up to SanGiovanni's first laugh-a-lot novel about the rambunctious Santora family, "Greetings from Jamaica, Wish You Were Queer." The three Santora siblings have inherited immense wealth from a dead aunt, and something silly ensues - headstrong dyke Lisa's plan to buy a dilapidated summer camp, enlisting her lesbian younger sister, Maria, and their hopelessly straight brother, Vince. As for their love lives: Lisa hits on every woman she sees, Maria has broken off her affair with a closeted Hollywood actress, and Vince is heartbroken because the woman he loves - Erica, a contractor for whom Lisa once worked, and for whom she has feelings - has ended their relationship. Maria and Vince, despite their doubts, see Lisa's project as a place to lick their emotional wounds - until Erica is hired by Lisa to renovate ramshackle cabins, to the soul-shaking astonishment of sister and brother. It's not great art, but this slapstick novel earns its giggles.

"Citizen," by Aaron Shurin. City Lights, 92 pages, $10.95 paper.

Poetry in paragraphs. For readers for whom poetry is an occasional delicacy rather than a literary staple, the form can be confounding - no line breaks suggesting where it's OK to take a breath, certainly nothing as reader-friendly as rhyme or as familiarly formal as a sonnet, a haiku, even a sestina. With Shurin's eleventh book (including a short memoir and a collection of ruminations on AIDS), he returns to the genre-straddling prose poem almost 30 years after publishing "The Graces." These new, 60-plus, mostly one-page entries are bursts of lyric intensity and sensual imagery with at times hints of personal passions and sexual moments - "...A pulley system raising chin or ass - yanked in - grommet eyes - your grin flushed out as your hand clutches...." Each of the solid texts is saturated with words, a rush and a tumble of exciting and excitable but at all times controlled excess. This is writing that is volatile and nuanced, vivid and innovative, vital and inviting.

Featured Excerpt

Beginning with figures as different as Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin, these men are wonderful characters in their own right: smart, articulate, energetic, ambitious, stubborn, and even brave. They were often brilliantly funny. They were never boring. They could also be competitive, combative, self-destructive and confused. Their lives were not always exemplary. A career in the arts can make anyone crazy ("We Poets in our youth begin in gladness," wrote William Wordsworth, "But thereof come in the end despondency and madness"), but to tell gay stories in the Fifties and Sixties (and later, too) guaranteed further hardship. Not only was it difficult just to get published or produced, but success often led to literary attacks that ran from brutal insult to icy condescension.

- from "Eminent Outlaws," by Christopher Bram

Footnotes

It's lights out for Outwrite Bookstore and Cafe in Atlanta, but good news for Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto. The Atlanta store closed Jan. 26, with debts (including back taxes) of about $500,000, and after attempts to raise enough to move to a new location after the store's rent was raised fell short. "So many of you generously stepped up, shared your ideas and volunteered your time in an effort to transform Outwrite to meet the changing needs of our customers and our community," bookstore owner Philip Rafshoon said in a farewell letter. "Unfortunately, we have run out of time and money to make that transformation." Meanwhile, the Toronto store - founded out of a backpack in 1970 - was purchased in February by a consortium of book-lovers, two months after owner John Scythes, who dipped into his own savings for a year to pay the bills, put the store up for sale. "As individuals, none of us are rich. But collectively, there will be over 20 of us in the end, and we can pull it off," said Michael Erickson, who spearheaded the purchase. Erickson, a high-school teacher, spoke on behalf of an eclectic mix of lawyers, government workers, playwrights, musicians, community activists, even former Glad Day employees; the youngest investor is 23. "What unites us is that everyone cares about the preservation and growth of the LGBTQ community, and books and stories are important to us in doing that," Erickson said, in an interview with "The Torontoist."

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.

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