by Richard Labonte
“The Mere Future,” by Sarah Schulman. Arsenal Pulp Press, 194 pages, $22.95 hardcover.
Utopian novels are by definition set in a world where life is good: an ideal state or place. In Schulman’s dandy near-future novel, Manhattan has been reinvented through profound social reform – a “Big Change” fomented by a new (lady) mayor in which rent is suddenly, astonishingly affordable, nobody is homeless and ubiquitous Starbucks storefronts (and every other chain store) have magically disappeared. But there’s a dystopic flip side to what at first seems a perfect new New York. Most everybody has the same employer: The Media Hub. For example, the unnamed lesbian narrator, a copywriter by trade, is charged with profiling an obscure artist’s life in just eight words. All emotion seems scrubbed from anything artistic; and though intrusive advertising has vanished from the cityscape, invidious commercialism has taken over at home. Schulman injects wry political commentary and sly cultural satire into her dynamic (and decidedly oblique) plot with infectious constancy, a sardonic tone that infuses this unconventional novel with page-by-page pleasures.
“Once You Go Back,” by Douglas A. Martin. Seven Stories Press, 208 pages, $16.95 paper.
As with Martin’s celebrated debut novel, “Outline of My Lover,” there’s a definite aura of autobiography about this vibrant portrait of a young lad’s damaged childhood life. The narrator is a slim, blond, somewhat fey youngster, unhappily hunkered down in a schoolyard bumptious with athletic boys who wear size “husky.” He’s a nascent queer with an absent father, a menacing stepfather, a troubled home life, an urgent artistic bent and an embryonic yen for same-sex bodies. On the surface, the coming-of-age plot mimics that of any number of queer novels about growing up alien in an environment hostile to homos, a universe of stories about boys on the cusp of realizing a sexual self. But Martin, who possesses one of the most distinctive younger voices in contemporary gay lit, transcends the familiar with heartbreaking poignancy. His language is spare and evocative, his prose is infused with the compactness of poetry, and his graceful, elliptical narrative evokes painful early years with ferocious precision. The common coming-out novel is reinvented here, with feverish style.
“Twisted Head: A Bronx Memoir of Puberty, Penance, and Pizza,” by Carl
Capotorto. Broadway Books, 320 pages, $14 paper.
You’re a queer kid in a traditional working-class Italian family. Catholic guilt, schoolyard bullying, fumbled sex with girls, furtive longing for boys, running with an outsider crowd, coping with a demanding father, and being protective of an understanding mother: the standard stereotypes are in place. From those familiar particulars, Capotorto (Little Paulie in “The Sopranos”) mines his coming-out past for a memoir that is equal measures hilarious and haunting. The book’s rhythmic wit was honed during the author’s one-man show, on which the memoir is based. Its pain is rooted in the Bronx-born boy’s incautiously and emotionally cruel father, who so oppressed him – mad renovation schemes robbed Carl of many teenage weekends – that the scarring shows. Even so, this portrait of a tumultuous family struggling to achieve a slice of the good life in the late ’60s and early ’70s depicts standard adolescent gay angst with uncommonly tender honesty.
“Bigger than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to
Hardcore,” by Jeffrey Escoffier. Running Press, 376 pages, $24.95 hardcover.
Escoffier, the theory-steeped editor and author of books like “Sexual Revolution” and “American Homo,” here directs his queer-studies gaze toward the worlds of Bob Mizer’s pre-Stonewall Athletic Model Guild studio; early jerky 8-mm film jerkoff loops; the advent of the first charismatic porn pioneers, among them Al Parker, Fred Halsted and Casey Donovan; the flamboyant life of erotic flameout Joey Stefano; the career longevity of big-dicked survivor Jeff Stryker; and the contemporary dominance of prolific director Chi Chi Larue. The result is an absorbing hybrid that skillfully combines a porn history that charts how content and delivery have evolved over five decades – from the days of discreet peekaboo thongs veiling muscular young men’s privates to today’s let-it-all-hang-out Internet offerings – with insightful portraits of several porn gods that assess their psyches as much as their physiques. Though it’s certainly a pity there are no pictures to fluff the content some, Escoffier’s thoughtful study of how porn films and erotic performers fit into the context of gay rebellion and self-realization is its own provocative reward.
In the morning, in his bed, he’s the one who starts it between us. We keep our eyes closed. Then it seems easier to face the fact we are kissing each other, might have been too afraid to actually see our two bodies there together in his bed, doing what he’s trying to find other men to do with, watch what’s beginning to happen. Let ourselves start by just feeling it.
-from “Once You Go Back,” by Douglas A. Martin
Dig deeply enough into the cyber-bowels of “The Huffington Post,” where several thousand people are listed as contributors to the mostly liberal citizen blog and news aggregator, and something queer surfaces. Many things, in fact – a roster of several dozen gay and lesbian contributors, among them AIDS Quilt founder Cleve Jones, actor Alan Cummings, radio talk show host Charles Karel Bouley, educator Kevin Jennings, playwright Craig Lucas, tennis player Martina Navratilova, wiseass personality Rosie O’Donnell, journalist Karen Ocamb and activists Larry Kramer, Gabriel Rotello, Keith Boykin and Phill Wilson. Among the literati, Michael Rowe, author of “Other Men’s Sons” and editor of two bestselling “Queer Fear” anthologies, is the most consistent contributor, recently with a posting about “gay panic defense.” Other regulars include Noel Alumit (“Letters to Montgomery Clift”) with a “Letter to a High School Graduate”; Mike Albo (“Hornito”), waxing ecstatically about his crush on White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel; Tom Dolby (“The Sixth Form”), about the aftermath of California’s Prop. 8; Steven Petrow (“The New Gay & Lesbian Manners: Advice for LGBT Folks”), with weekly advice for both lovers and the loveless; Robert Rodi (seven comic novels, most recently “When You Were Me”), about Chicago’s summer charms; filmmaker John Waters, with a five-part series about why Charles Manson acolyte Leslie Van Houten deserves to be paroled; and Carl Capotorto (“Twisted Head”), about odd guests at his gay marriage. And even Gore Vidal has posted – though not in the past year.