Book Marks: March 12, 2007

by Richard Labonte

"The IHOP Papers," by Ali Liebegott, Carroll & Graf, 248 pages, $14.95 paper.

Serving mushy pancakes to weird men for lousy tips is not the life aspiring writer Francesca envisions when she relocates from Southern California to San Francisco to be close to the woman she desires. Instead of passing idyllic days and sensuous nights with her onetime college philosophy teacher, Irene, virginal Francesca – a recovering alcoholic at 20 who still self-mutilates when stressed – is constantly wiping syrup off her icky IHOP waitress uniform, and forever pining for Irene. One problem: Her lust is complicated both by the presence of Irene's two lovers, one a man, one a woman, and by her own attraction to a voluptuous AA sponsor. Francesca does finally win Irene's affections, but there's a moral to this smartly nuanced coming-of-age tale – sometimes attaining a dream is followed by awakening to a nightmare. Coming-out novels are nothing new in the queer canon, and neither is punkish adolescent lesbian angst. But Liebegott's discerning take on a first-novel tradition is poetic and, despite its emotional turbulence, charming and often hilarious.

"The Chili Papers," by Chris Girman. Velluminous Press, 240 pages, $12.99 paper.

Fact-based fiction? Embellished memoir? It's hard to tell where this sometimes raunchy, sometimes reflective work falls along the literary continuum. Much of the story takes place in Latin America, where the first-person narrator, as a college student, indulges both his love for the culture and his lust for the men. At the same time, the narrator refers often to how different family members were either scandalized by or oblivious to "his" book – Girman's own scholarly study of a few years ago, "Mucho Macho: Seduction, Desire, and the Homoerotic Lives of Latin Men." In the end, this cheerful book's proper classification doesn't much matter. "The Chili Papers" is propelled by the cockeyed characters and absurdist world Girman either conjures up or draws from, one where his sister is in love with a gay cop, his oddball mother paints a dead lawn green so she can sell her house, and he's fired from his job at a T.G.I. Friday's for squeezing unauthorized lime juice into a margarita. Think Sedaris-lite.

"Vintage: A Ghost Story," by Steve Berman, Haworth Positronic Press, 164 pages, $12.95 paper.

The suicidal gay teen who narrates this queer ghost story – he's never named – is the kind of kid who fancies black clothes and black eyeliner, entertains himself by going to the funerals of strangers, and meets his only real friend, Trace, a straight girl with a fondness for fags, at a Tim Burton movie. He's a lonely boy, and he's desperate to fall in love. Then he does: Walking home one night, he's cruised by a handsome apparition – a high school student who died five decades in the past – and suddenly the lover of his dreams has come to life. But ghost boy, it turns out, is crazily jealous of the living, especially when our Goth gay teen develops a "special" friendship with Trace's 15-year-old kid brother. Malevolent emotions, one particularly dark and stormy night, and a sensational exorcism ensue. Berman's bracing first novel straddles several easy-reading genres – coming-out, romance, fantasy, and young adult – with an abundance of stylish writing and graceful storytelling.

"Breathing Underwater," by Lu Vickers. Alyson Books, 262 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

The only employer in town is a mental institution with as many patients as there are local residents, so growing up around crazy people is almost normal for high school student Lily. And though her mother works at the Florida State Mental Hospital – she's not an inmate – Lily counts her among the loony, too. After all, mom – a former beauty queen contestant whose life didn't turn out to be as charmed as she'd hoped – often takes to her bed for days and alternately neglects, smothers, and rejects her own three children. Adding to young Lily's tempestuous life is the naughty truth – scandalous and shameful in the novel's fervently religious small-town '70s setting – is that girls and not boys are what she desires. In fact, she wants to be a boy, so she can capture one girl's heart. Vickers' novel of dysfunctional family life, claustrophobic Southern mores, and adolescent sexual despair isn't particularly original, but the prose is polished, the emotions are authentic, and the story is full of rich characters.

Featured Excerpt:

Cat nuzzled her lips against my cheek, not kissing me, and I couldn't help it. I broke the rules. I turned to her and whispered, "Kiss me," and she did. She gently pushed me back on the wooden floor of the porch, kissing me deeply, her body rolling over mine, her breasts strange and soft. I couldn't help but wonder what would come next: what did two women do with each other after they kissed and kissed and kissed. We weren't pretending. Cat pressed her body hard against mine, like she was trying to push herself through me.

-from "Breathing Underwater," by Lu Vickers


GAY MYSTERY NOVELIST and Haworth Press senior editor Greg Herren's "Annunciation Shotgun" is one of 18 original, gritty short stories – though the only gay one – in "New Orleans Noir," edited by Julie Smith. The collection is part of the Akashic Books series of city-centered anthologies; half the stories are set in a post-Katrina New Orleans of gutted neighborhoods and deserted streets. "Noir" novels feature fiction where a fatalistic atmosphere matters more than solving a mystery, which certainly defines Herren's sexy contribution, about a gay man who, in covering up a killing by his neighbor, implicates himself in another death… "THE WHY NOT," A 1966 novel by Victor J. Banis that received an unusually warm review at the time from "Publishers Weekly" (."..a master storyteller"), has been reissued by Borgo Press. Used copies of the long out-of-print gay classic have sold for as much as $200; it was one of the few erotic novels with a real plot published by Greenleaf Press in the pre-Stonewall era. Banis is best-known for recent reprints of his many "Man from C.A.M.P." novels, a series from the late 1960s that satirized the James Bond novels while depicting a heroic gay man who was often happily in love.