by Richard Labonte
“Room,” by Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, 336 pages, $24.99 hardcover.
The horrific is rendered unsettlingly normal – even hauntingly innocent – in lesbian author Donoghue’s mesmerizing (and mainstream-straight) novel about 5-year-old Jack and his young mother, held captive in a tarted-up garden shed by a sexual pervert. “Ma,” as she is known for most of the novel, was kidnapped at age 19, and knows there is a world outside their four spartan walls. But for Jack, born inside the windowless room, the world is compressed into Rocker and Wardrobe, Lamp and Bed, five children’s books, and a few channels on Television – which for the boy is in no way a representation of reality. His mother – who still breastfeeds – has consciously raised him in the cocoon of a self-contained universe; he doesn’t know that an “outside” exists. For the boy, their hell is a perverse paradise. Narrated entirely and endearingly in Jack’s voice, the story of their self-contained isolation – ruptured weekly when their captor, Old Nick (Jack’s father), enters the shed for sex with Ma – is nonetheless never claustrophobic, a testament to Donoghue’s amazing, always-credible imagination.
“Ganymede Unfinished: Gay Men’s Culture from New York,” edited by Bryan Borland. Sibling Rivalry Press, 294 pages, $18 paper, $12 e-book.
This anthology, says editor Borland in his introduction, is “a love letter to a man and a publication.” That would be to John Stahle, who died this year, and to the seven issues of his exquisite journal, “Ganymede.” The “unfinished” of the title encompasses the collection’s last 44 pages, unedited text and art slated for Issues 8 and 9 of the journal. But the preceding 250 pages constitute an impressive homage. Sixteen poets are represented, among them Jeff Mann, Jee Leong Koh and Borland. Gay activist pioneer Perry Brass writes about the pioneering queer journal, “Mouth of the Dragon.” Jorgen Lien muses about “Hustlers and Boybands,” and Philip F. Clark remembers the late editor in “John Stahle and the Art of the Eye.” Among these gems, two works sparkle – and startle: Charlie Vazquez’s “El Baile Divino/The Divine Dance” is a haunting story about eyes and evil; Scott Alexander Hess’ “Diary of a Sex Addict” – the title says it all – is relentlessly erotic and divinely written. Stahle would have savored it – and this respectful remembrance, too.
“If Jesus Were Gay & Other Poems,” by Emanuel Xavier. Queer Mojo, 136 pages, $14.95 paper; “Slut Machine,” by Shane Allison, Queer Mojo, 130 pages, $13.95 paper.
There’s much more than lust, sex and a celebration of the erotic in these two supercharged collections – but that’s definitely, and defiantly, a quality they share. Xavier’s poems encompass childhood abuse, hustling, race and religion – themes running through all his work. But the poems that really pop are the wistful ones about not-quite romances and absent passions: “We are the same, hopeless romantics/ this time with reason,” one poem opens; “I long for your caress/ I try to remember the smell of your hair,” says another; and, “I just need to know you think of me sometimes.” A thread of longing runs though Allison’s collection, too, but he’s more raw about sex – in “Sestina for Twenty-Six Boys,” Ulysses “with his legs spread is ready for my mouth” – and his titles are infused with sex-charged bluntness: “If You Find Me Dead in a Bathhouse,” “Robert Mapplethorpe’s Fist,” “White Boys That Have Been Up My Ass.” Both collections are intense and personal, with Xavier a master of the sacred and Allison rocking the profane.
“Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature,” by Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley. Duke University Press, 296 pages, $23.95 paper.
Queer scholarship explores neglected but rewarding territory here, as Tinsley excavates erotic relations between women as represented in Caribbean poetry and prose. Two of the subjects are surely familiar to literate lesbian readers: essays consider Dionne Brand’s “No Language is Neutral” and Michelle Cliff’s “No Telephone to Heaven.” The real discoveries are names not known: Ida Faubert, French-educated daughter of a Haitian president, whose first poems appeared in 1912, and who after, she returned to Paris, started to write “erotic poems to women”; Mayotte Capecia (born Lucette Ceranus) from Martinique, whose 1948 novel “I Am a Martinican Woman” focuses on a washerwoman “who luxuriates in watching laundresses swim nude”; Eliot Bliss (born Eileen), a white Jamaican whose autobiographical second novel, “Luminous Isle,” is about its protagonist’s “roving desire for many women” and her recurring love for one; and, in the most fascinating chapter, the same-sex traditions of Surinamese oral poetry. Tinsley’s survey of the region’s literature is always lucid; more than a critical study, though, this work, in abundant ways, knits together a literary past and the political present with lyrical acuity.
If Jesus were gay,/ would you tattoo him to your body?/ hang him from your chest?/ pray to him and worship the Son of Man?/ Would you still praise him after dying for your sins?/ If it was revealed Jesus kissed another man,/ but not on the cheek,/ would you still beg him for forgiveness?/ ask him for miracles?/ hope your loved ones get to meet him in heaven?/ If Jesus were gay,/ and still loved by God and Mary/ because he was their child after all/ hailed by all angels and feared by demons,/would you still long to be healed by him?/ take him into your home and comfort him?/ heal his wounds and break bread with him?
-from “If Jesus Were Gay,” by Emanuel Xavier
REPRINTS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Forty years after he started working on it – in collaboration with British illustrator Malcolm McNeill – and more than 30 years after it was published in text form only – William Burrough’s novella “Ah Pook Is Here” will be published in its intended graphic novel form by comics publisher Fantagraphics, whose catalog ranges from R. Crumb’s early underground comix to the family-favorite strips of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz… “THE VILLAGERS,” A NOVEL tracking the lives (queer and otherwise) of four generations of a Greenwich Village family, is back in print from Bleecker Street Press, authorship credited to Bruce Elliott. That was the credit for the original edition, published by Avon Books as a mass-market paperback in 1982; a revised and expanded edition, credited to co-authors Edward Field and Neil Derrick, was published by Painted Leaf Press in 2000… GRAYWOLF PRESS HAS REISSUED James L. White’s 1982 collection “The Salt Ecstasies,” as part of the Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series; this edition, prefaced with a generous introduction by poet and essayist Mark Doty, includes three previously unpublished poems… “MY NAME IS RAND,” Wayne Courtois’ elegant blend of the literary and the fetishistic – in this case, tickling – is back in print from Lethe Press; the novel was originally published by Suspect Thought Press in 2004… ANOTHER SUSPECT THOUGHTS title back in print, from Arsenal Pulp Press, is S. Bear Bergman’s essay collection, “Butch is a Noun,” with a fresh afterword.