by Richard Labonte
“The Girls Club,” by Sally Bellerose. Bywater Books, 288 pages, $14.95 paper.
Marie is the tough sister. Renee is the pretty sister. And Cora Rose is the uncertain sister – though she has the best hair of the three working-class Catholic LaBarre girls. As this debut novel opens, they’re respectively 16, 15 and 14, adolescents on the cusp of womanhood in the 1970s, best friends one minute and bitter rivals the next, held tightly to the bosom of a fractious extended family but ready for sexual adventure and fumbling independence. Over the next near-decade, the girls mature into women, babies come and boys go, a marriage dissolves into divorce with heated acrimony and aching heartbreak – and Cora Rose, bearing a colostomy bag as her cross, edges with tremulous uncertainty into a world of dyke bars and lesbian longing. Bellerose’s warm novel embraces the concept of sisterhood with propulsive gusto – mostly the real deal of sisters caring deeply for each other, even as they squabble, but with hints that the sisterhood of nascent feminism has reached the small town where the three are realizing their emotional and sexual selves.
“Patchwork,” by Dan Loughry. Harvard Square Editions, 174 pages, $15.95 paper.
There was a time when the intensity of the “AIDS novel” sprang from the agonizing immediacy of the epidemic: Paul Reed’s “Facing It,” David Feinberg’s “Eighty-Sixed” and “Spontaneous Combustion,” Robert Ferro’s “Second Son” and “Allen Barnett’s “The Body and Its Dangers” were all written by dying men in the days when infection was almost always a death sentence. Thirty years after the onset of AIDS, and 20 years after those novels gripped gay readers, Loughry’s unflinching, empathic debut honors the writers’ literary legacies. The story opens in 1989, as a querulous couple, Sal and Randy, confront mortality – and a loving monster of a mother who learns of her son’s disease when he invites her, after avoiding his family for a year, to come visit them for a picnic at a “quilting exhibit”… the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt. Randy dies; Sal survives; the story picks up in L.A. a decade later, as Sal finally accepts that it’s OK to love again. By turns courageously comic and heart-wrenchingly historical, this is a compelling reminder of the way things were.
“The Evolution of Ethan Poe,” by Robin Reardon. Kensington Books, 400 pages, $15 paper.
The fourth of Reardon’s teen-protagonist novels packs plenty of issues into its plot. Sixteen-year-old Ethan Poe knows he’s gay, but isn’t sure how open to be – until he’s seduced by hunky but closeted Max Modine. His parents are on the verge of divorce. His best friend, oddly so, is a straight-edged girl whose accelerating religious kookiness is fueled by a stepfather’s abuse. His one-year-older brother, also something of a religious fanatic and afflicted with Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), is determined to destroy his right hand (with which he masturbates), to the point of lacerating it beyond repair. The small Maine town where all this angst is set is torn apart by the contentious issue of evolution versus intelligent design – with ID proponents trashing a schoolroom, killing a dog and stoning a teacher’s apartment. And there are “power animals.” And illegal tattoos. Busy, busy. By story’s end, Ethan and Max have settled into contented – and open – first love, and Reardon has resolved this engaging novel’s many dysfunctions with textured insight.
“The Buoyancy of It All,” by Robert Walker. Lethe Press, 88 pages, $15 paper; “Chelsea Boy,” by Craig Moreau. Chelsea Station Editions, 78 pages, $15 paper.
One of these debut collections is a book of poetry that sizzles and sears. The other is a book of poetry that observes and reflects. First, the sizzling: Walker’s cute title (“Sacred Cows Make Fine Cheeseburgers”) honors the bawdy wit and flirtatious vibrato of many of the poems, but there’s a darker tone, too, embodied by an introspective nightmare series (“”The One in Which I Am a Wingless Bird”) and a wrenching boogeyman series (“The Boogeyman Wants to Know What I Fear”). Poem by poem, Walker excavates a painful past with an open heart and a fierce voice. Next, the observing: Moreau, a well-toned Iowa lad transplanted to Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, eschews sexy for poems that more often than not hold his environment – and his place in it, as the Chelsea of AIDS and disco and muscle queens evolves from heat to history – at an emotional distance. His poems, which offer surface memoir rather than deep introspection, are passionate about a place, but not about the self. Two quite different writers, yes, with one common inspiration: both honor Walt Whitman.
I knew it was wrong./ The boys sang a song/ while administering the beating./ I was bleeding/ from the gums./ Nick Peters & his chums/ held me by the shoulders/ their fists falling like boulders./ It happened in the third shower stall/ my back against the wall./ Cold tile against knees/ cold tiles against please/ let go,/ “no.”/ Nick’s waistband descended/ like an ogre in quicksand, ended/ with his dick in my face./ His face/ was angry as a trout out of water wearing/ a dangling cross earring/ screaming/ “Suck it faggot.”
-“The Rapee Remembers” from “The Buoyancy of It All,” by Robert Walker
Francis King, author of 30 novels, many infused with gay characters, died July 3, age 88. Few of the British writer’s books were available in the U.S., though his queerest writing, published or brought back into print by now-defunct Gay Men’s Press – among them his controversial, “A Domestic Animal” – were distributed in America in the 1990s. In 2010, Britain’s Arcadia Books published “Cold Snap,” with an Oxford Fellow’s passion for a German POW a significant subplot. It was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award; King’s first novel, “To the Dark Tower,” was published in 1946. Of “A Domestic Animal,” King wrote in 2010: “Autobiographical in inspiration, its story that of an obsessive love that devoured more than a year of my existence, this was the most painful novel that I have ever had either to live or to write. With the aftermath of its publication, the anguish merely worsened. A former Labour MP, a Brighton friend and neighbor, concluded, I must admit with justification, that a woman character was based on himself and at once sued for libel… Since the obsessive love was a homosexual one, many of the reviewers found the book at best distasteful and at worst disgusting, and when at last a new version was reissued took an all too obvious pleasure in laying into it. Yet the remarkable thing is that the book has survived, being repeatedly reprinted and bringing me more fan letters that any other of my works.”