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by Richard Labonte
“Parallel Lies,” by Stella Duffy. Bywater Books, 198 pages, $14.95 paper.
Yana Ivanova is Hollywood royalty, the best actress of her generation, with both a mysteriously vague past and a secret life that could shatter her hold on stardom. Jimmy is a chiseled hunk with a middling TV career whose primary occupation is pretending to be Yana’s partner. And Penny, polished personal assistant as far as the world at large knows, is Yana’s passionate – and increasingly needy – secret paramour. Jimmy sates his sexual needs through occasional frenzied flings with willing women; Penny screws a bar-pickup guy every six months or so to keep gossip at bay; Yana dines out with Jimmy once in a while to keep up appearances. Nonetheless, the paparazzi are curious, the studios are nervous, the threat of blackmail is inevitable, and someone is going to die. Duffy’s delicious-dish novel about glamorous celebrities and the tragic closets they force themselves into is partly a Sapphic Jackie Collins-style romp and – somewhat poignantly – partly a powerful meditation on the corruptive power of living a physical and emotional lie.
“Toss and Whirl and Pass,” by Shawn Stewart Ruff. Quote “Editions”, 198 pages, $19.90 paper.
The good life is gone for HIV-positive poet and would-be novelist Yale Battle. He’s gripped by a crystal meth addiction, most of his neighbors have fled New York in the wake of the Twin Towers tragedy, he’s still mourning the AIDS death of his dance-choreographer boyfriend, a surprise visit from a boyhood companion triggers unsettling family memories, and he’s trolling city parks for sexual release – until he lands in jail for a week on a perversion conviction. And, adding to his emotional angst, his cat, Zsa Zsa Gabor, is dying of cancer. In a city traumatized by terrorism, and for a man shell-shocked by life, the future seems bleak – though the outdoor tryst that lands Yale in jail hints, in the last chapter, at salvation. This roller-coaster novel about a grieving man’s out-of-control personal spiral, with vivid flashbacks fleshing out the nightmarish narrative, is packed with enough percussive plot and memorable characters for several books. But Ruff’s dynamic prose pulls everything together with an eloquence that makes for easy reading.
“The International Homosexual Conspiracy,” by Larry-bob Roberts. Manic D Press, 160 pages, $14.95 paper.
Roberts disdains “astrology fanatics,” suggests open mic events as an alternative to religion, knocks “self-righteous” meat-eaters, hates scooters on sidewalks, fears nothing more than “a cruise ship full of gay men,” frets that rock and even more annoying forms of music aren’t going away, is saddened at how little gay men know about dyke culture, believes the only thing stupider than a body tattoo is a facial tattoo, considers the Castro a strip mall – and relishes being an arrogant know-it-all. In short, he’s a cantankerous crank. A raging contrarian. And a breath of fresh air in his views of both queer culture and the world at large. This book of mini-essays – 88 observations that range from candid to scathing, mixing off-the-wall satire with smart social observations – considers, among other topics, community and communication (he wants more of both), popular culture (much of which he dismisses) and homosexuality – the longest section, where Roberts reveals himself to be well out of the homo mainstream yet completely content with his own queer life.
“Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary,” by David Sedaris, illustrations by Ian Falconer. Little, Brown, 176 pages, $21.99.
After six essay collections, Sedaris seemed to be running out of a life – his own – to mine for caustic commentary and quirky incidents. So it’s apt that he has transferred his sardonic style to this sharp-toothed collection, skewering human characteristics in the guise of beasts and birds. Be warned: despite the illustrations, this is not a book for the kiddies. Bad behavior is the norm, and gleeful tastelessness abounds: leeches plucked from a hippo’s feces-smeared butt burst into song, for example, and a cat presses on her baboon hairdresser the importance of a well-licked anus. The stories, most just a few pages long, are rife with oddball moments: storks wonder whether it’s best to tell their chicks that the mice brought them, a mink confesses at an AA meeting of selling her pelt for Kahlua, and a vindictive rabbit stands in for every militant border guard ever encountered. The closest the collection comes to queer is the title tale, in which Chipmunk allows prejudice to color the possibility of happiness with Squirrel – the kind of cutting resonance that marks these amoral fables.
Putting up with the way people look is one of the most unbearable burdens of being involved with subcultural scenes… Let’s start from the top. Nobody wants to see another bundle of white person dreadlocks or another eye-straining multicolor mullet dye job. Faux-hawks should have been made illegal years ago. Facial hairstyles are even more farcical. Sideburns, soul patches, and even ironic moustaches will never change the world. Nobody wants to look at your infected facial piercings. Stop fiddling with your tongue-stud; it’s as “alternative” as an old man clacking his dentures. The distraction is too much to bear. And guess what? An eyebrow is not an erogenous zone.
-from “The International Homosexual Conspiracy,” by Larry-bob Roberts
TWO QUEER-INTEREST BOOKS are among nominees for this year’s National Book Awards, both in Nonfiction: Justin’s Spring’s biography of the original sexual outlaw, “Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward,” and Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids,” in which photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is featured prominently… MAGAZINES TO WATCH OUT FOR: After a two-year hiatus, Charles Flowers has released a new edition of the journal “Bloom,” featuring fiction by Joan Nestle, Robert Warwick, Genanne Walsh, John Masterson, Dani Rado and James Magruder; art by Stephen Andrews, Catherine Opie, Iran do Espirito Santo and others; and work by almost two dozen poets, among them Mark Doty, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Kristin Naca and Kazim Ali; information at artsinbloom.com. Steve Berman has published a Halloween-themed issue of “Icarus,” with stories by Thomas Fuchs, Viet Dinh, Troy Carlyle and Kelly McQuain, poetry by Jeff Mann and an interview with novelist Robert Dunbar; information at lethepressbooks.com/icarus. And the September-October issue of “Gay & Lesbian Review,” the venerable journal launched in 1994 as “The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review,” features an interview with John Waters; a look back at the founding 30 years ago of the radical faeries by a founding faerie, Don Kilhefner; Jeff Mann on Bear culture; Katrina Casino on the phenomenon of the lesbian hipster; and more than a dozen solid book reviews. Information at GLReview.com… THE LAMBDA LITERARY FOUNDATION is seeking donations of $25 or more for the Chuck Forester Matching Grant of up to $10,000, with a Nov. 19 deadline; information at lambdaliterary.org.