by Richard Labonte
“Progress,” by Michael V. Smith. Cormorant Books, 262 pages, $21 paper.
Fifteen years and a haunting secret separate siblings Robert and Helen when he lands on her doorstep one day – the day Helen, while visiting the grave of a lost love, witnesses a horrific dam construction accident that is subsequently covered up. Life has stalled for Helen: she stayed in her small town to care for her parents, one frail, the other alcoholic; she can’t move on from her fiancee’s war-time death; and she won’t abandon her home though the land around her will soon be flooded when the dam is completed. Helen has long thought her younger brother dead, so his reappearance unsettles both her and her neighbors. Robert fled the family when his father learned he was gay, hustling the big-city streets to get by until rescued by an older man, Colin, whose connection to Helen’s beau is the heartbreak at the core of the story. Canadian writer Smith’s meticulous second novel is propelled by the jarring intersections of its principal characters, with writing that is elegant, laconic and emotionally piercing,
“Ditched,” by Josie Gordon. Bella Books, 288 pages, $14.95 paper.
There are cozy mysteries and bloody mysteries, police procedurals and private-eye plots. And, in the etymology of the genre, there are capers, featuring a lovable bungler who somehow, with much wackiness, solves the crime. That’s the stuff of the parallel plots in Gordon’s third book (after “Toasted” and “Whacked”). Episcopalian priest Lonnie Squires, dumped by her girlfriend in an earlier novel, learns that her decade-dead Aunt Kate has willed her a fortune – as long as she races a classic Ford Fairlane 500 around Lake Michigan, documenting her trip with photographs. At the same time, the town’s fiercely ambitious councilwoman, Star Hannes, resurrects seven civic laws enshrined in the town’s founding charter, from “No cursing in public” and “No dogs allowed in parks” to “No one may speak to a minister serving a congregation within twenty-four hours of that minister’s Sunday church duties…” – all restrictions aimed, it turns out, at the Rev. Squires and her beloved dog, Linus. There’s a murder, and it’s solved, but the fun of this comic caper lies in its exuberant silliness.
“My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, & Labor History,” edited by John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman. The University of North Carolina Press, 344 pages, $24.95 paper.
Allan Berube, whose essays are collected here by two gay studies compatriots, is best known for his astounding 1990 book, “Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two,” drawn from military documents and oral accounts by several dozen surviving veterans. Berube died in 2007; excerpts from his unfinished history of the gay-friendly Marine Cooks and Stewards Union are included, as is early writing on gay bathhouses, lesbians living as men, his own life as a gay white man, the early days of AIDS, and the plight of lesbians during the McCarthy era – all filtered through his instincts as a self-taught social historian and the lens of his working-class roots. Editors D’Emilio and Freedman introduce the intellectually and historically rich essays with a lengthy mini-biography that expresses both their love for the man and their admiration for his mind. This book is a terrific tribute to a lost queer thinker.
“Smiling in Slow Motion,” by Derek Jarman. University of Minnesota Press, 392 pages, $18.95 paper.
A decade after British publication, the last diary by filmmaker Jarman, recording the minutiae of his days from May 11, 1991 to just two weeks before his death in February 1994, joins his canon of earlier diaries and film scripts in print in the U.S. Fans of queer film know Jarman from “Sebastiane,” “Caravaggio,” “Jubilee” and “Blue”; this diary, along with the earlier “Kicking the Pricks” and “Modern Nature,” reveals the man behind the art. He is sometimes catty, dismissing gay actor Ian “Serena” McKellen (who came out more than 20 years after the director) as having “a heart as straight as a die.” More often, he is wry, particularly about his declining health, candid about his cruising, scathing about the conservatism British and American politics, and committed to radical politics. Like the best of diaries, commonplace moments – quiet times in the garden, a cuddle with his lover – dominate. But the small bits add up to a moving, majestic chronicle of an artist’s indomitable will. And there is a superb companion read: Tony Peake’s insightful “Derek Jarman: A Biography,” out of print for a decade.
Donny took us to a gay rodeo. Was it fun? I don’t know – the people there seemed to enjoy themselves. The rodeo looked like a scene from a B movie – somewhat over the hill. The stalls were totally apolitical, no books, pamphlets, no one collecting for AIDS, just shoeshine boys and clothes salesmen, and these gaunt, middle-aged men with cowboy boots and Stetsons. Roly-poly dykes line-dancing in a tent where the same drag queens routinely camped it up in moustaches and high heels. Donny had his boots shined and met a “fluffer” from Colt Studios – a rather nice young man who was employed to give blowjobs to porn stars to warm them up…
-from “Smiling in Slow Motion,” by Derek Jarman
JOANNA RUSS, THE pioneering lesbian/feminist author of the novels “The Female Man,” “Picnic on Paradise” and the novella “On Strike Against God” – a semi-autobiographical story about lesbian love – died April 29 in Tucson, after a series of strokes. Her nonfiction collections include “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” “What Are We Fighting For?: Sex, Racism, Class, and the Future of Feminism” and “Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts: Feminist Essays.” Her one book for children was “Kittatnny: A Novel of Magic,” published by the lesbian press, Daughters. Russ was 74… PLAYWRIGHT DORIC WILSON, who was present at both the birth of gay theater in Manhattan in the early 1960s and for the three nights of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, died in New York on May 7. He was one of the first resident playwrights at the legendary Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village – and also a “star” bartender at post-Stonewall gay bars like the Spike. In 1974 he founded TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence), the first professional theater company devoted to gay plays, staging work by Noel Coward, Joe Orton, Robert Patrick, Martin Sherman, Terrence McNally and Lanford Wilson; the company was resurrected in 2001 and continues to produce plays. Wilson was 72.