By Richard Labonte
The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag, and Other Intimate Portraits of the Bohemian Era
By Edward Field. University of Wisconsin Press, 296 pages, $29.95 hardcover
Live in one place for 60 years, and anecdotes are bound to accrue. Longtime Greenwich Village resident Field shares scores of them in this unassuming but spirited collection of character sketches and short essays, which opens with the then-22-year-old landing in New York after World War II and longing for the bohemian life. He was gay, cute, and talented – attributes about which he is, alas, overly modest – and his entree into bohemia was assured. In one of the book’s more personal sections, he writes with affection about his affair with poet Frank O’Hara. But his focus is more on the artists with whom his life intersected. They included novelist Isabel Miller (“Patience & Sarah”), poet May Swenson, writers Paul and Jane Bowles, poet and dandy Ralph Pomeroy, reclusive novelist Fritz Peters (“Finistere”), and, most prominently, the eccentric, brilliant, baldheaded, and emotionally troubled critic and novelist Alfred Chester – the man who wanted to marry Susan Sontag. Field’s charming mix of memoir and memories opens a charming, gossipy window on a bygone literary era.
It used to be such fun to badmouth Susan Sontag for her intellectual pretensions, for her sense of entitlement, for her ambitions – for instance, saying bitchily that she wouldn’t come out as gay because she was bucking for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But even before her death in 2005, I began to admire her when, after 9/11, she spoke out so courageously, writing in the “New Yorker” that we should try to understand what our enemies were about, and got attacked for it, as if understanding were the same thing as condoning.
-from “The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag,” by Edward Field
My Lucky Star By Joe Keenan. Little, Brown, 352 pages, $24.95 hardcover
Hosanna: novelist Keenan hasn’t lost his comic touch in the too-many-years since “Blue Heaven” (1988) and “Putting on the Ritz” (1991) split many a queer reader’s side. With a decade’s experience working on the TV hit “Frasier” to draw from, Keenan relocates his hapless trio of heroes from New York to Hollywood, all the better to skewer the film world’s egos, ignorance, and homophobia. The gist: unctuous Gilbert Selwyn has passed off a barely doctored “Casablanca” script as something original co-written with his former lover, nice-guy Philip Cavanaugh; level-headed Claire Simmons, Philip’s long-suffering gal pal, is suckered into the scheme. Mix in: an aging has-been actress, her better-preserved movie star sister, and a deeply closeted male action-movie megastar who’s soon toying with Philip’s affections. Add: heinous Moira Finch, Gilbert’s malicious ex, and her high-class spa – in truth, a brothel where Hollywood’s shy homos can hook up with young hunks. The result: page after page after page of masterfully hilarious – and elegantly written – prose. What a succulent treat: this is a laugh-out-loud literary masterpiece.
Women of Mystery Ed. by Katharine V. Forrest. Alice Street Editions, 260 pages, $19.95 paper
Ask an acclaimed mistress of lesbian mysteries to put together an anthology of short stories, and the result is a perfect book to cozy up with on a winter’s night. The 14 stories assembled by the author of the popular Kate Delafield series range nicely over the genre’s many sub-genres (though, mercifully, while cats crop up in a couple of the stories, none of them are detectives). Joan M. Drury’s “The ‘Sound’ of Music” is a brisk exercise in amateur sleuthing. Ouida Crozier’s “Murder on Chuckanut Drive” features a hardboiled, wisecracking lesbian detective. Randye Lordon’s “Like a Sore Thumb” is a creepy crime whydunit about matricidal murder. J.M. Redmann’s “The Intersection of Camp and St. Mary” is a witty missing-sister story – with a mystery writer solving the mystery. Karla Jay’s “Speeding Cars” is a somber reflection on madness, sadness, and betrayal – less a mystery than a psychological thriller. And Forrest’s own story, “A Leopard’s Spot,” is a classic whodunit, with smart false starts and a nimble tying-up of loose ends. Case closed: “Women of Mystery” is a winning collection of original fiction.
Speeding: The Old Reliable Photos of David Hurles
Text and design by Rex. Green Candy Press, 152 pages, $36.95 hardcover
Rough trade, tough dudes, scary attitude, and crude tattoos: for four decades, gay guys seeking an underclass kind of sexual titillation could always rely on Old Reliable (OR). Over the years, the one-man L.A.-based porn factory produced hundreds of wrestling, boxing, and jack-off 8-mm films and videos, and more than 25,000 photos. Now, San Francisco homoerotic artist Rex has culled the massive OR archives to assemble this mesmerizing collection of images of street hustlers with muscles and dicks to spare. In the brief, brisk history winding through the sexually in-your-face images, Rex ably makes the case that the artifice-free photos of OR’s single-minded mastermind, Hurles, transcend mere porn and stand, quite gloriously, as artful erotic artifacts. That validation of Hurles’ oeuvre is well-deserved. “Speeding” is at the very least – for some tastes – a turn-on photo-book. But even more – for anyone with an interest in the more colorful niches of our queer past – it’s a rewarding historical work.
The first shoe in JT LeRoy’s outing dropped last fall, when early doubter Stephen Beachy asserted in “New York” magazine that the wunderkind writer (“Sarah,” “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things”) was a hoax. The second shoe dropped Jan. 9, when the “New York Times” revealed that “the public role of JT Leroy is played by Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Knoop’s half sister, who is in her mid-20s,” and that the books championed so giddily by authorial celebrities – Mary Gaitskill, Bruce Benderson, Michelle Tea, Dennis Cooper, and Susie Bright among them – were written by Knoop’s middle-aged wife, Laura Albert. For Bright, the revelation prompted introspection: “JT never forced me to help him; I wanted to,” she wrote on her blog. “He pushed my rescue buttons, which are large and soft.” Cooper echoed her reaction: “I have a pretty much lifelong interest in helping young people, particularly when they’re artists,” he wrote. “So the JT character triggered that in me big time, what with his kaleidoscopic neediness and talent.” Their take mirrored that of Ayelet Waldman (wife of novelist Michael Chabon), writing in “Salon”: “Whoever he was, he seemed so genuinely in need… It feels good to think of myself as someone so generous with my time that I was willing to devote hours of it to a fucked-up near stranger,” she wrote. Tea, however, is angry that LeRoy was being passed off as a transgender success story – sentiments expressed less vividly by Bright and Cooper as well: “It’s gross for a person with extreme non-trans privilege – a properly gendered, apparently heterosexual woman – to actually profit…by appropriating the scary realities most transpeople have to live with every day.”