by Richard Labonte
“Cloudland,” by Joseph Olshan. St. Martin’s Minotaur, 304 pages, $24.99 hardcover.
When an Olshan novel is gay, it’s very, very gay – consider, for example, “Nightswimmer” and “The Conversion.” His ninth novel mostly eschews the gay – except for the expectations around one of the major male characters, and in the case of a lesbian couple – but that’s no reason for queer-interest readers to pass on this compelling fact-based fiction about a New England serial killer. The story’s sort-of sleuth is reclusive Catherine Winslow, a former investigative journalist who has dialed her life down to writing a quirky household-hints column. The world intrudes, however, when she stumbles on the frozen body of a murdered nurse, the sixth such victim. But unraveling the mystery, thrilling as it is, is almost beside the point. Elegant writing, intricate plotting and, most particularly, wholly complex characters are what really drive the narrative. In Winslow – who is grieving the death of the husband she had divorced, is mending her relationship with a lesbian daughter and is ruing her somewhat scandalous romance with young graduate student Matthew – Olshan has crafted a fascinating female character.
“Don’t Let Me Go,” by J.H. Trumble. Kensington Books, 352 pages, $15 paper.
Small-town Texas high school senior Nate is the narrator of this gritty young adult novel, a story of coming-out anguish, teenage passion, romantic bliss, homophobic hatred, long-distance relationships, searing jealousy, straight friendship, puppy love and the eventual triumph of happy-ever-after. Nate’s beau of eight months is Adam, and after cautious flirtation leads to an intense affair, they’ve been inseparable – until Adam, at Nate’s urging, moves to New York to follow his actor’s heart. At first, the boys fill their days with IM’s and their nights with Skype, but their connection tapers off as Adam is drawn into his acting whirl – and as Nate glimpses one of Adam’s often-nude New York roommates in the background of their video chats. Bereft, Nate starts a gay-and-proud blog with the assistance of a tech-savvy older boy (though why Nate needs help to set up a blog is never explained), and among his followers is a love-struck younger student who only adds to Nate’s emotional conflicts. Trumble’s perceptive take on teen life is a plot-packed triumph.
“Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples,” by Rodger Streitmatter. Beacon Press, 224 pages, $26.95 hardcover.
Even when much has already been written about some of the same-sex couples covered in this exhaustively researched and cogently compact collection of joint histories – Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle, Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, for example – cultural historian Streitmatter brings fresh insights to his mini-biographies. His thesis: that the often lesser-known partner provided artistic stimulus or emotional support to his or her companion: 21-year-old Doyle became the muse for Whitman, 45; Merlo “single-handedly stabilized” Williams’ life and thus his career. The same can be said of almost all of the 15 outlaw marriages the author selected: over the 43-year relationship of Mary Rozet Smith and Jane Addams, it was Smith’s wealth that provided the financial backing for Addams’ activism; over the 38 years that James Baldwin was coupled with Lucien Happersberger, the latter’s emotional stability provided Baldwin with the security he needed to write. Many of these unsanctioned marriages endured until a partner’s death; one lasted less than a decade; some included jealousy and betrayal. But as America’s acceptance of marriage equality expands, Streitmatter’s study stands as proof that there have always been queer pairings.
“The Harder She Comes: Butch/Femme Erotica,” edited by DL King. Cleis Press, 208 pages, $14.95 paper.
Once upon a time, and that time was 1992, Joan Nestle edited “The Persistent Desire,” a slightly controversial-for-its-time collection of essays, poems and personal accounts celebrating the butch/femme dynamic. For a while, the subject remained mostly scholarly, though Bella Books released Therese Szymanski’s erotic fiction anthology, “Back to Basics,” in 2004; after a lull, two years ago, Cleis published the Tristan Taormina-edited fiction anthology, “Sometimes She Lets Me,” and last year Arsenal Pulp Press published “Persistence,” edited by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman, paying homage to Nestle’s pioneering book. Which brings us to King’s collection, 18 stories ranging from historic femme/butch role-playing (dark red dress desires well-worn denim, trouser-glad butch is drawn to a femme’s silver-skirted buttocks) to the kind of fantasies that would possibly have riled the butches and femmes of a more binary world – stories in which bois are in sexual play, in which a Daddy dotes on his little girl. The boundaries around gender have blurred, and this quality collection celebrates new dimensions of butch and femme.
From the moment a mutual friend introduced Martha Carey Thomas to Mamie Gwinn, the older woman was smitten. “Mamie is the cleverest girl – damnably clever – I ever had anything to do with,” Thomas wrote in her diary in 1878, when she was 21 and Gwinn was 17. “She is fantastic in so many ways.” Gwinn wasn’t initially attracted to Thomas, finding her unladylike because she spoke in “a sledge-hammer voice,” was “ill-dressed” and had a habit of “being highly animated” when she talked. But after learning that Thomas had an independent nature and a college degree, Gwinn was drawn to the slightly older woman. She offered the potential, as Gwinn wrote in her diary, “for me to escape alike a husband and my parent’s rule.”
– from “Outlaw Marriages,” by Rodger Streitmatter
BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Sprightly Lethe Press is having an active spring, with a number of new titles across several genres. This month sees the release of Jeff Mann’s “Purgatory,” a Civil War-set novel about the fraught romance between a war-weary young Southerner who would rather be a scholar than a soldier, and a Herculean Yankee captured by the Confederates. Two May titles are Lewis DeSimone’s “The Heart’s History,” about a dying man who has remained something of a mystery to his circle of friends, and “Beyond Binary,” edited by Brit Mandelo, an anthology of queer speculative short stories ranging in characters from angels to androids and in settings from space colonies to small college towns. And in July, the publisher releases Alex Jeffers’ fantastical short story collection, “You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home”; in one tale, an American teenager has an erotic encounter with Adonis while sailing off the coast of Turkey, and another teen on vacation is transformed by his encounter with three fallen angels. Other recent Lethe titles are Jerry Wheeler’s imaginatively titled short story collection, “Strawberries and Other Erotic Fruits,” and Joseph R.G. DeMarco’s “Crimes on Latimer: From the Early Cases of Marco Fontana,” a collection of six short stories, prequels of sorts to two novels, “Murder on Camac” and “A Body on Pine,” featuring the young sleuth.