by Richard Labonte
“Probation,” by Tom Mendicino. Kensington Books, 344 pages, $15 paper.
Perfect wife, perfect home, perfect job – well, a perfect job if you like being a traveling salesman, and Andy Nocera does; he was born to sell. But perfection implodes when repressed queer Andy is caught with his pants down in a roadside rest area. Pulled strings lead to a year of probation with mandatory counseling, but his wife throws him out and he’s fired – reduced to living with his supportive mother while selling shoddy shelving in small towns. Mendicino’s debut novel about sexual shame and spiritual redemption is, on the surface, an oft-told tale of the closet door slamming open, with the usual shattering emotional consequences. But the common story is elevated by uncommon elements: Andy is no twink and he’s good at unglamorous work, traits that set this transformative novel apart from the queer coming-out norm. Mendicino, nicely balancing humor and drama, digs deeply into his character’s buffeted psyche, depicting with perceptive characterization the profound dilemma of a ruined man finding his way back to a place of balance.
“Songs Without Words,” by Robbi McCoy. Bella Books, 292 pages, $14.95 paper.
It’s not so much that love is elusive for college librarian, filmmaker and amateur musician Harper; her problem, until one shattering summer of the heart, is that she has shied away from it. For well more than a decade, she maintained a long-distance relationship with a nice enough man, all the while suppressing the memory of an adolescent romantic interlude 20 years earlier with high school best friend Peggy. But when younger Chelsea leaves her fraught entanglement with the much older Mary, part mentor and part lover, Harper finds the Sapphic half of her soul – for just one summer, until Chelsea returns to Mary. Two years later, though, Chelsea and Harper are fated to meet again. This time for good? No doubt. But arriving at the happy ending to this well-crafted romance, told through a series of summertime flashbacks, is a satisfying literary experience. The characters are emotionally complex, and subplots involving Harper’s slacker brother and runaway niece add spice to the intelligent if predictable narrative.
“Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr,” by Robert Hofler. Da Capo Press, 320 pages, $15.95 paper.
Gaudy. Flamboyant. Outrageous. Homosexual. Vulgar. Obese. And, in the end, tragic. There’s not a lot of affection in Hofler’s biography of Allan Carr, the caftan-wearing Hollywood (“Grease”) and Broadway (“La Cage aux Folles”) producer who, after a handful of film fiascos (The Village People’s “Where the Boys Are ’84”? Hello?), flamed out with what’s considered the worst Oscar broadcast ever in 1989, which opened with off-key Rob Lowe serenading a terrified Snow White. But there’s a lot of titillation. Hofler frames much of this tale of tawdry excess through Carr’s famed parties – one where guests were asked to bring mattresses, on which naked muscle boys wrestled to Carr’s voyeuristic delight, another set in a Los Angeles jail where Truman Capote cowered out of place in a cell, yet another where ballet star Rudolf Nuryev serviced man after man. This candid, sometimes cruel account of hedonistic excess depicts the Hollywood that moral conservatives have nightmares about. That said, Carr occasionally comes across as more than an egotistical buffoon – as a savvy showman more to be pitied than reviled.
“The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation,” by Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile. UBC Press, 584 pages, $34.95 paper.
Queers can marry each other and import their foreign-born lovers and serve in the military, so all’s right in the Canadian homosexual world, right? Definitely not so, if the history recounted with meticulous research in this chilling study is any kind of prologue, in a nation with a Conservative government caught up in the excesses of a “war on terror.” Through an eye-opening synthesis of detailed documentation and extensive interviews – most movingly with women and men whose lives were derailed by homophobic witch hunts and state-enforced workplace bigotry – longtime gay activist Kinsman and fellow academic Gentile chart five decades of intrusive human rights abuses stretching well into the 1990s. A multitude of oral histories provide the study’s compelling emotional structure, making clear that even in the baddest of the bad old days, when prejudice destroyed lives, liberation was a dream, if not a goal. But the honesty of those moving personal accounts is buttressed, time and again, by archival revelations that reveal Canada’s shameful past of a politics of fear aimed at queers.
Allan never admitted “ever” that the Snow White number was anything but stupendous. “In Allan’s world it was a fabulous number that had Alice Faye and Dorothy Lamour and Buddy Rogers and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and Merv Griffin and the Cocoanut Grove,” says Bruce Vilanch. “It was that old Hollywood glamour. But they were old chess pieces, and they didn’t do what had made them famous years ago. And [the TV audience] didn’t know who they were.”
-from “Party Animals,” by Richard Hofler
QUEER LITERARY GATHERINGS: March 27 is the date for New York’s second Rainbow Book Fair, a one-day free gathering of readers, writers and publishers hosted by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at City University of New York. In addition to authors Brad Gooch (“Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor”), Sarah Schulman (“Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences”), Martin Duberman (“Waiting to Land: A (Mostly) Political Memoir, 1985-2008”), Joan Schenkar (“The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith”) and others, book sales, panels on the past and future of LGBT literature and publishing, and a poetry salon are promised. For info: www.rainbowbookfair.org… NOVELISTS MICHAEL NAVA (the Henry Rios mysteries), Lucy Jane Bledsoe (“The Big Bang Symphony”), Jim Grimsley (“Jesus is Sending You This Message”) and Jess Wells (“The Mandrake Broom”) are among queer lit luminaries signed on as feature speakers at Saints & Sinners, the long-running literary festival set for May 13-16 in New Orleans. They’ll be joined by erotica author Fiona Zedde (“Hungry for It”), performer Tim Miller (Lay of the Land”), poet Emanuel Xavier (the spoken word CD “Legendary”) and essayist and short story writer Bernard Cooper (“The Bill from My Father”), with more speakers to be announced. For festival information: www.sasfest.com… MAY 27 IS the date for the 22nd Lambda Literary Awards in New York; the ceremony is at the School of Visual Arts. Ticket information is available at www.lambdaliterary.org, on a revamped site crafted by Antonio Gonzalez, hired earlier this year as Lambda’s first Web Producer.