by Richard Labonte
“Mapping the Territory: Selected Nonfiction,” by Christopher Bram. Alyson Books, 258 pages, $23.95 hardcover.
Though best known as a terrific storyteller, with nine diverse novels published, Bram has dabbled with nonfiction over the years. This collection of 17 essays, primarily reprints with a couple of original pieces, showcases gifted writing and insightful thinking of the sort that’s all too rare – particularly in queer critical commentary, where the poison pen grinding an axe (to mix cliched metaphors) is too often the norm. In a personal vein, Bram lays out calmly why he and his partner of many years have opted not to marry; writes with warmth about his Greenwich Village apartment building and its quirky characters; and recounts his own coming-out experience. His astute critical eye ranges from Marcel Proust and Henry James to Larry Kramer’s forever-controversial novel, “Faggots” and the sub-textual queer wonder of Arthur Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories. The title essay on types of gay writers ought to be required reading for any aspirant gay storyteller; and the next-to-last essay, an elegy for the shuttered Oscar Wilde Bookshop, is as good a lament for the state of queer literature as any.
“The LABRYS Reunion,” by Terry Wolverton. Spinsters Ink, 242 pages, $14.95 paper.
There’s a murder at the heart of this novel about the fundamental necessity of fierce feminist art, but the story is no whodunit. In the guise of entertainment – and this is an evocative read – Wolverton digs into the confounding question of how feminist ideals that fueled both art and life in years past might yet hold sway as creative women move into their middle and elder years. Those ideals still hold for defiant New York performance artist Gwen Kubacky, though reviewers haven’t been kind to her recent work. So she’s both wary and intrigued when a young art student, Emma Firestein, asks Gwen to critique her fledgling art. When Emma is killed by a man while out clubbing, comrades from the era of LABRYS – a short-lived radical feminist school of the 1970s – come together for a memorial, where both old feuds and old passions resurface. There’s a whiff of nostalgia to Wolverton’s story, but its emotional assessment of an era and its hope that feminist art still matters are inspirational.
“The Sower,” by Kemble Scott. Numina Press, 224 pages, $23.95 hardcover.
In this smart and slyly provocative inversion of the horror of AIDS, Kemble posits a wildly subversive world in which a single man can cure anyone of any disease – but only by passing on his seminal fluids. The plot conceit is deliciously outlandish: Bill Soileau, a San Francisco sexual hedonist of the first order, is infected while abroad with a manmade super virus that is said to miraculously heal all infections. Talk about being an object of attraction. Kemble is too nimble (and political) a storyteller to make sex the focus of his story, however. What gives this imaginative tale its heft is how the author surveys the world’s reaction to the shocking appearance of a world savior, with all of the religious and cultural implications of such an almost God-like power. Fundamentalist arguments against sexual behavior are shattered – sex with everyone is suddenly something that could be fundamentally good. This page-turner is part potboiler (Vatican henchmen, an American president suddenly eager for “gay” sex), part parable (with its Biblical antecedents) and pure entertainment.
“The Pure Lover,” by David Plante. Beacon Press, 128 pages, $23 hardcover.
Literary elegies for our gay dead are, by their very nature, moving – even from a clumsy wordsmith’s fingers. But when a writer as profoundly able as Plante pens a lament for his lost companion, the result is a fierce encapsulation of grief, the fundamentally private wrought wrenchingly public. Plante and his partner, Nikos Stangos, were together for 40 years before brain cancer invaded. This remembrance – more a compilation of memory fragments than a linear life story – crafts a whole man (in truth, two whole men) out of scraps of time and flashes of happenings; bits and pieces that come together to manifest an evocative whole. The author is American, with 14 novels and two other works of nonfiction to his credit; his partner was Greek, a poet, translator and publisher; their life embraced a pantheon of literary and artistic luminaries, among them Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden. But in this bold remembrance, it’s the intimacies – shared beds, special dinners, the occasional spat, the odd infidelity – that express the measure of both men.
The shock of seeing you breathe out and not breathe in made me stand back and exclaim, “He’s dead,” that shock displacing me to a periphery from where I saw this other self, no longer me, his hand across his mouth, speechless. Your eyes were closed, closed so only a faint white showed, but I, I wanted to perform the final act of possession of you, to say “I closed his eyes,” and I pressed my palm against your lids to close your eyes completely. I lay beside you and felt your warmth give way to cold, so quickly.
-from “The Pure Lover,” by David Plante
Following the Sept. 30 departure of Lambda Literary Foundation Executive Director Charles Flowers – and while the foundation board launches a nation-wide search for a new director – Richard Labonte has been drafted to coordinate the selection of judges in 22 categories and to oversee the process of voting for Lambda Literary Award (“Lammy”) finalists and winners. Flowers was appointed to his position in 2006, when a new board of directors replaced Jim Marks, the previous director. “During his time with us, Charles has been an intelligent and compassionate ambassador to the diverse community Lambda Literary serves,” said board president and author Christopher Rice. “He helped shepherd Lambda Literary through a challenging transition period, and did a wonderful job of organizing the first writers retreat in history devoted to emerging LGBT writers.” Under his direction, the 2009 awards ceremony in New York saw record attendance, Rice noted in announcing the departure, also praising Flowers for developing “a dynamic, interactive new website, which will connect readers with LGBT writers and is set to launch later this year.” Labonte, the new awards administrator, worked with A Different Light Bookstores in Los Angeles, West Hollywood and San Francisco from 1979 to 2000, while also writing reviews for outlets ranging from “The Advocate” and “In Touch” to “Feminist Bookstore News” and Planet Out. He has written the Book Marks column for Q Syndicate since September, 2001. For info: http://www.lambdaliterary.org.