By Richard Labonte
The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer By David Leavitt. W.W. Norton, 319 pages, $22.95 hardcover
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” is part of a Great Discoveries Series, in which writers of some renown are asked to illuminate scientific triumphs by telling the stories of the men, and women, at their center. So it’s entirely appropriate that great chunks of Leavitt’s brisk if dense biography are given over to the arcane intricacies of mathematical theory; it’s a credit to the clarity of the writing that many of those passages make some sense. But the meat of the book lies in the life story of British mathematician Alan Turing, who in the 1930s conceptualized a machine that evolved into the modern computer, before then leading a successful effort to crack the encryption codes of German radio messages in World War II. But after the war ended, he was sentenced to chemical castration for committing lewd acts – after reporting that he had been robbed by a young man who’d spent the night. The notoriety led him to kill himself by eating a poisoned apple, a tragic ending to a brilliant man’s life, rendered sensitively by storyteller Leavitt.
The problem, in part, was loneliness. Despite his ease with his homosexuality, which did indeed verge on pride, Turing had never had a really fulfilling relationship with another man. Instead, his erotic life so far had consisted of bouts of unrequited longing, usually for heterosexual men who had no interest in him, alternating with occasional “friendships with benefits” with other gay men in whom he had a minimal sexual interest, and with whom he was far from in love. These friendships, by their very nature, were compromises.
-from “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” by David Leavitt
Brando Unzipped: A Revisionist and Very Private Look at America’s Greatest Actor By Darwin Porter. Blood Moon Productions, 642 pages, $26.95 hardcover
Yummy. That sums up veteran entertainment reporter and biographer (of Howard Hughes and Humphrey Bogart) Porter’s titillatingly tabloidish account of Marlon Brando’s eccentric, sex-centric years. The author barely pauses to take a deep breath as he dishes – drawing on 50 years of conversations with dozens of Brando’s intimates – about the late, great actor’s personal life. As befits “unzipped,” much of the book focuses on the bisexual Brando’s many sexual partners, from his World War II romance with playwright Clifford Odets, through his affairs with Stewart Granger, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson – just a few among the many men he’s said to have bedded, all the while squiring the great actresses of the 1940s and 1950s, and marrying and divorcing a couple of women. There is more to the biography than sex: Porter writes with an insider’s astuteness about the actor’s movie career, critical passages that provide welcome depth. But it’s no exaggeration to report that practically every page discloses a fascinating homosexual tidbit – about Liberace successfully seducing Dean, for example, but failing to seduce Brando. This is an irresistibly flamboyant romp of a read.
Walt Loves the Bearcat By Randy Boyd.
West Beach Books, 740 pages, $24.95 paper
In one universe, black college cheerleader Marcus grows up to be a writer longing for his true love – and is gay; golden-haired college quarterback Walter’s promising football career is cut short by a painful injury – and he’s a twice-divorced straight man. They don’t meet for 21 years. In another universe, black college cheerleader Bearcat and golden-haired college and NFL quarterback Walt meet as young men and fall in love for life – a madcap whirl, too good to be true but blessedly real. Those parallel stories, told with infectiously and ferociously inventive prose, eventually overlap, intertwine, and finally fuse together quite fantastically in Boyd’s majestically imaginative epic. The novel embraces serious topics: interracial queer relationships, homophobia in the professional sports world, gay bar culture and one-night-stand stereotyping, black life on the down low, and living with AIDS. But “Walt and the Bearcat” is first and forever a love story, one written with a roller-coaster brio and a magical intensity that demand – and deserve – the reader’s perseverance.
Honor Reclaimed By Radclyffe.
Bold Strokes Books, 286 pages, $15.95 paper
In the bold alternate universe of prolific novelist Radclyffe, the president of the United States palavers with his beloved openly lesbian daughter before she accompanies him to Ground Zero days after September 11. Most of the Secret Service agents, covert FBI operatives, and undercover CIA sleuths in “Honor Reclaimed” are strong-willed women sleeping with other women. And in the midst of post-9/11 chaos, the president’s daughter – after surviving an assassination attempt by presumed terrorists and escaping unscathed and uninfected from a follow-up smallpox attack – is making wedding plans with her Secret Service lover. Terrorist attacks aside, it’s definitely not the world as we know it – but the author’s brisk mix of political intrigue, fast-paced action, and frequent interludes of lesbian sex and love sure does make for great escapist reading. This fifth in the “Honor” series draws on plot points and character interactions from earlier books, but it’s a satisfying stand-alone read – a lusty romance adroitly woven into the ominous backdrop of America under attack.
An Austin man’s bias against the short story “Brokeback Mountain” – on which the critically acclaimed film is based – looked like it might cost a small private school a $3 million donation to its building fund in the summer of 2005. Cary McNair, son of the oilman owner of the NFL’s Houston Texans, objected to the story’s inclusion in the Grade 12 reading list for a school of 750 students – two of whom were his children – on the grounds that the story of two cowboys in love was “pornographic material concerning deviant behavior.” Rather than pull the Annie Proulx story, however, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School stood firm for inclusiveness and the freedom to read, and returned the $3 million. But when word got out a few months later, school supporters – and more than 80 young adult authors, including gay writers David Levithan (“Boy Meets Boy”) and Brent Hartinger (“The Geography Club”) – rallied to the school’s defense. The authors sent autographed copies of their books and launched an intellectual-freedom website (http://asifnews.blogspot.com). More than enough donations poured in to replace the declined donation, and St. Andrew’s was on schedule to open a middle school addition this month. “Too often the first instinct is to avoid controversy by withdrawing the title,” said Chris Finan of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. “The idea that this school rejected a demand to pull a book and was willing to lose money over it is truly astonishing and very gratifying.”