By Richard Labonte
The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson
By Robert Hofler. Carroll & Graf, 468 pages, $26.95 hardcover
It’s no secret, these days, that Rock Hudson was a big ol’ queer. So there’s nothing startling about his sexual voracity in this peek into Hollywood’s minor-star-cluttered closets. Hofler’s well-researched focus is primarily on pudgy Henry Willson, the notorious agent who molded brawny boys fresh off the bus into movie (or at least minor TV) stars from the early ’40s through the late ’60s – helping to coin the term “beefcake” along the way. Some of the names he invented for his proteges are still familiar – Rory Calhoun, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, and of course Hudson (born Roy Scherer, arrived in Hollywood as Roy Fitzgerald). Others ring faint bells: Rand Saxon, Guy Madison, Race Gentry, and Cal Bolder are among the fresh-faced youths Willson befriended, renamed, sometimes managed to mold into minimally adept actors, and often bedded. Hofler’s biography provides a fresh, fascinating look at Hollywood hypocrisy about homosexuality – and, hokey names aside, suggests that the closet remains cluttered with nervous queers.
Just as sons grow to resemble their fathers, Rock could not escape inheriting some of Henry’s defining traits: the drunken bouts of depression and violent mood swings, the flair for pool-party bacchanals, and a penchant for youth and beauty, which in middle age bordered on the pathological. “The little uglies have taken over the business!” Rock ranted when Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino eclipsed his stardom in the 1970s. Henry Willson couldn’t have said it any better.
-from “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson”
The City of Falling Angels
By John Berendt. The Penguin Press, 414 pages, $25.95 hardcover
Venice’s cherished opera house burns down. Wealthy Americans trying to save the sinking city from the elements feud bitterly with each other. Two venal overseers of Peggy Guggenheim’s Venetian estate rip off Ezra Pound’s 101-year-old mistress. Those interwoven elements are the gist of Berendt’s long-awaited second book, after the phenomenally successful “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Alas: Lady Chablis, “Midnight”‘s soul and spark, is much missed. This atmospheric account of a watery city’s rich culture, storied history, and current travails is mostly an extended gossip column about strangers. Berendt’s solid prose nicely conveys the decadent mystique of the city, but where “Midnight” was nonfiction that read like seductive fiction, “City” is nonfiction that reads like a long, colorful travel essay. One chapter recounts the suicide of an eccentric gay poet; it’s the queerest part of the book, but, in the context of the longer stories Berendt is telling, feels forced.
The Iron Girl
By Ellen Hart. St. Martin’s Minotaur, 339 pages, $24.95 hardcover
Jane Lawless, the Minneapolis chef who doesn’t cook much but who sleuths a lot, is back in fine form in this 13th novel of a stellar series. The murder she’s investigating took place more than a decade ago, involving her dead lover, Christine – along with wealthy eccentrics, deadly homophobia, hushed sexual affairs, bondage in a decaying mansion’s attic, and a man wrongly convicted of murder. Scenes set in the past – particularly those recounting the last days together of Jane and Christine – are heartrending. Hart’s mysteries have a hard-boiled edge and don’t shy away from violence, but she writes about love with tender poignancy. Regular characters return, most boisterous among them Cordelia, the flamboyant theater impresario who’s forever meddling, and Jane’s father, an attorney who again lends his quiet expertise to Jane’s detection. Back, too, is the new woman in Jane’s life, a character first encountered in book No. 12, and whose continuing presence bodes well for Jane’s amorous needs in book No. 14.
Swimming in the Monsoon Sea
By Shyam Selvadurai. Tundra Books, 274 pages, $18.95 hardcover
A youngster senses that he’s “different”: He’s bullied at school, and he’s falling in love – bewildering, astonishing, insistent love – with a boy. The outline of Selvadurai’s fine first young-adult novel echoes “Funny Boy,” his compassionate, turbulent, 1994 coming-of-age debut: It’s set in Sri Lanka in 1980, it’s about a 14-year-old lad’s same-sex stirrings, and the backdrop is a culture highly condemnatory of queers. But this is a more gentle coming-out story: Young Amrith’s vibrant Auntie Bundle and Uncle Lucky, who are raising him in a cheerful household after the death of his parents, aren’t about to condemn him; his older cousin, visiting from Canada, isn’t gay but copes sympathetically with young Amrith’s rush of affection – and with his angry jealousy as well. The story arc doesn’t differ much from the standard gay YA motif of boy-finds-himself. But Selvadurai’s lush prose, the emotional complexity of his characters, and the novel’s distinctive locale all elevate “Swimming in the Monsoon Sea” beyond questioning-teen cliches.
NOVELIST JAMES PURDY, 82, is winner of the Mercantile Library of New York’s Clifton Fadiman Medal for “the most memorable book published at least a decade ago” – “Eustace Chisholm and the Works,” his unsettling, emotionally violent 1967 novel about gay men who don’t know how to love each other. The book outraged the New York literary establishment when it was first published, but has since become a classic of gay literature. It was reprinted this year by Carroll & Graf, publisher of Purdy’s most recent short story collection, “Moe’s Villa and Other Stories.” The novel was selected by Jonathan Franzen (“The Corrections (Oprah Edition)“) and comes with a $5,000 cash prize; critics write that “Purdy’s work has defied classification, and reflects his obsession with exploitation and abuse of innocents, disjunctions within ordinary families, loneliness, and the mid-century’s subculture of homosexuality, sexual experimentation, and depravity,” said the Mercantile in announcing the award. Purdy, who lives in Brooklyn, will accept the honor in person at a Nov. 8 ceremony… BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Hollywood biographer Darwin Porter digs into Marlon Brando’s sex life – with men as well as women – in “Brando Unzipped,” coming in November from Blood Moon Books.