by Richard Labonte
“The Kid,” by Sapphire. Penguin Books, 384 pages, $26.95 hardcover.
This is a book that will make readers flinch. A sequel to Sapphire’s 1996 novel, “Push,” it opens with the funeral of Precious, that book’s center, nine years later – leaving her son, Abdul Jones, an orphan scrabbling for survival in a world where molestation is a festering norm. The boy is plunged into the dark heart of the welfare system, shunted from foster home to Catholic orphanage (and predatory priests) before landing in the roach-infested Harlem mansion of his doddering great-grandmother. At 13, he’s the kept boy of a dance instructor who nurtures Abdul’s startling talent, but at a sexual price. Abdul is the quintessential victim of a vicious sexual circle – thoroughly brutalized by easy cruelty and relentless assault, sexuality ambiguous, cruised by older men and lusting for younger boys even as he spews homophobic slurs. Somehow, though – and this is the redemptive quality of Sapphire’s unrelenting story – the boy retains, at 19, when the story ends, a compelling and potentially liberating inner artistic life. Bleak as the book is, there is a promise of transcendence.
“Sweet Like Sugar,” by Wayne Hoffman. Kensington Books, 290 pages, $15 paper.
Twenty-something Benji Steiner has a best gal pal and a dependable gay buddy, and his mostly observant Jewish parents are somewhat supportive of his gayness. But he’s having no luck finding that special someone – one potential romance flames out when Benji’s date refers to him as “bagel boy” in bed. On that level, Hoffman’s novel unfolds as dependable looking-for-love fare. But, more profoundly, it’s also a touching tale about evolving friendships, the shadow of intolerance and rediscovered faith – a process that starts when elder rabbi Jacob Zuckerman finds refuge from a blistering hot day on the couch in Benji’s shopping-mall office. Bit by bit, Benji assumes the role of caretaker for the old man; day by day, the rigidly Orthodox rabbi and the lapsed Jewish young man discuss their lives, their different approaches to faith and “bashert” – the concept that, out there somewhere, is a soulmate. Hoffman has crafted a solid story about the intersection of dual identities, Jewish and gay, and of a man’s attempt to come to terms with his faith.
“Dreaming in Color,” by Fiona Lewis. Tiny Satchel Press, 258 pages, $16.95 paper.
Most young adult coming-out novels with teen girls as protagonists focus on the youngster’s struggle to reconcile herself with her desires. Lewis turns that common plot on its head in this story of Jamaican teen Cee-Cee, beset by a “wolf-pack” of bullies – both girls and boys – at her new school but hiding her misery from her mother. Cee-Cee isn’t the queer-to-be; nor is Greg, also from Jamaica. The duo bond over both their outsider-ness – he’s an unashamed fat boy – and their passion for the arts – Cee-Cee for painting, Greg for music. Greg has a secret: he’s secretly dating a popular white girl, one of the members of the wolf-pack, who is ashamed of her attraction to a fat, black kid. And Cee-Cee’s mother, Nella, who left behind an abusive husband when she immigrated to America, also has a secret: she’s becoming more than friends with a woman. Lewis’ sharp-edged depiction of Cee-Cee’s initial intense intolerance toward her mother’s new desires digs deeply into the emotions of both mother and daughter in this vivid YA story.
“See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody,” by Bob Mould and Michael Azerrad. Little, Brown, 416 pages, $24.99 hardcover.
He wrote the theme song for Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” He was molested at 18 months. He smoked pot and threw knives with William Burroughs. He detoured from music to work for World Championship Wrestling. And, of course, he co-fronted the aggressive indie-punk band Huesker Due and founded the more commercially successful band Sugar. For hardcore music fans, Mould’s diary-like memoir and its exhaustive accounts of raucous recording sessions, rowdy road trips and sonic-boom concerts might be akin to catnip; more general readers may find themselves skimming. As for queer readers, Mould and his co-author, music scribe Azerrad, bare all – starting with a preface describing an altercation at an all-male clothing-optional resort. The musician’s early under-the-radar gay life included a couple of steady relationships; a coming-out article in Spin by Dennis Cooper angered him; he eventually embraced the Bear community after years as a “thoughtful whore”; he’s occasionally a shirtless DJ (at 50) for San Francisco dance parties. Part checklist of a life, part cathartic scream for understanding, Mould’s memoir succeeds best as a chronicle of self-acceptance.
“Being gay isn’t just about sex,” I began. “It’s about relationships and finding someone to love and spend your life with.” His hands clenched into fists in his lap. “But the Torah says – ” I cut him off. “I’m not talking about the Torah. I’m talking about you,” I said. “You can’t tell me that I’ll simply have to live without love forever. Is that really what you think?” He paused, lips pursed. I wondered if he had any ideas, other than what the Torah told him. “It doesn’t matter what I think. And it doesn’t matter what “you” think, either, about what you feel inside or what you think you want,” he said. “You are supposed to find a wife and have children together. That is God’s plan.”
– from “Sweet Like Sugar,” by Wayne Hoffmann
BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Rodger Streitmatter’s “Outlaw Marriages” profiles 15 prominent American couples who defied cultural norms and lived in same-sex unions decades before “gay marriage” became a political catchphrase; celebs celebrated range from Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta to Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo; the book is coming from Beacon Press next year… CASSANDRA LANGER’S biography “All or Nothing: The Life, Loves & Art of Romaine Brooks,” examines the lesbian artist life as confidante to a legion of 20th century modernists, including Jean Cocteau, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Carl Can Vechten and Radclyffe Hall; it’s a 2013 title from Magnus Books… MARSHALL MOORE, whose Signal 8 Press recently published gay writer and performer Philip Huang’s “The Pornography of Grief,” has now launched BookCyclone, dedicated to releasing e-book versions of out-of-print LGBT books; the first batch includes Neal Drinnan’s “Glove Puppet,” “Pussy’s Bow,” “Quill” and “Izzy and Eve”; Juliet Sarkessian’s “Trio Sonata”; Trebor Healey’s “Through It Came Bright Colors”; Andy Quan’s “Six Positions”; Jerome Kugan and Pang Khee Teik’s “Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology,” and two of Moore’s own books, “The Concrete Sky” and “Black Shapes in a Darkened Room.”