By Richard Labonte
August 28, 2006
“Gay Power: An American Revolution,” by David Eisenbach, Carroll & Graf, 400 pages, $27 hardcover.
“Gay Power” began as an academic dissertation theorizing that a series of “media triggers” – from news of the first gay student group at Columbia in 1966, to the Stonewall riots, to Rock Hudson’s AIDS, to the well-planned antics of ACT UP – heralded a boost in gay visibility and propelled queers to their current level of acceptance. Quite a sprightly book, just fine for a popular audience, has sprung from that scholarly thought. It brims with readable vignettes about protests, marches, and personality clashes of yore, adding plenty of character – and characters – to early gay-lib history. Much of the credit for its accessibility stems from the we-were-there voices of surviving post-Stonewall pioneers of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activist Alliance who were interviewed by the author – Arthur Evans, Jim Fouratt, Ethan Geto, and Karla Jay among them, along with pre-Stonewall stalwarts like Frank Kameny and, before his death last year, Jack Nichols. Eisenbach brings these seminal figures to life by pairing solid reportorial re-enactments with extensive, often original research.
“The Ice Cave: A Woman’s Adventures from the Mojave to the Antarctic,” by Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Terrace Books, 182 pages, $19.95 hardcover.
Bledsoe loves nature, be it the top of a mountain, the majesty of the desert, the endless Alaskan tundra, or the Antarctic’s frigid vastness. She covets the silence, the solitude, the raw beauty, the sense of connection – and she captures these feelings with gripping grace in this vibrant outdoor-adventure memoir. She also loves the terror of wild spaces, an emotion she expresses with an honesty and intensity that are quite exhilarating. Almost every essay in “The Ice Cave” also recalls some shiver of fear – or dread – conjured by wolves in the night, a chance encounter with a bear, a sudden snowfall that traps her in her tent, the presence of men camping on a sand bar next to a woman alone, even – “one of the scariest of my life” – the apparent appearance of UFOs during a night-time desert outing. Bledsoe’s accounts of her years of travel and exploration are memorable enough, but the parallel inner journey she narrates endows this collection with a real spiritual strength.
“I Say a Little Prayer,” by E. Lynn Harris, Doubleday, 294 pages, $21.95 hardcover.
Harris is an enormously popular writer, the only gay author in decades to crack the “New York Times” bestseller list, book after book – even though his prose style definitely lacks literary polish. But he crafts breezy – no, make that hurricane-strength – stories, as smart as they are trashy, that buzz with black men blessed by bodacious bods and a sexual allure that sizzles for women as much as for other men. Like all his novels, “I Say a Little Prayer” incorporates the topics of racism, class, identity, and the consequences of living in – and coming out of – the closet. This one adds to the mix the black church’s general approbation of gays, and the sexual hypocrisy of one thunderous (but hunky) preacher in particular, a homophobe running for the U.S. Senate, who was once the narrator’s boyhood – and boy band – lover. The audience for Harris’ scandalously melodramatic tales is probably as much straight women as gay men, so it’s understandable that his characters are so darn coy about being queer. But, here, as usual, they “come out” OK in the end.
“18th & Castro,” by Karin Kallmaker, Bella Books, 208 pages, $13.95
One pleasure of reading a Kallmaker novel – she’s written 20-plus – is that her fiction hasn’t fallen into a formulaic rut. There are assured givens in every book: lesbians and love. And, first with “All the Wrong Places” and now “18th & Castro,” a lot of erotic noodling. But there’s something original to every book, too; this latest is set almost entirely on Halloween in the Castro, with costumed women coming and going from an apartment building inhabited entirely by dykes. Some have lovers, some want lovers, some favor the frilly look, some love leathers – and all are out for a night of juicy action. This is more a series of short stories than a novel, with a cast of characters who buzz in and out of each other’s lives (and apartments) in the course of one busy night, their sexual encounters framed by the tension between two women perched on the apartment’s rooftop to watch the parade of costumes below – and, of course, to fall in love. This is Kallmaker-brand fiction, after all.
The final obstacle between me and the highway was the worst one yet. The snowplow had created a giant berm, a pile of snow well over my own height, between the road and the parking lot. I had to reach down through the four-foot-deep snow to my feet in order to undo each ski, wrestle it to the surface, and then throw it like a spear over the berm. Getting my body over proved even harder. The snow was still too soft to climb over, and yet it had solidified enough to make pushing “through” it difficult as well. My strength was all but spent and I was forced to take rests, lying face down in the stuff and thinking how simple dying would be.
-from “The Ice Cave,” by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Though he’s never really fallen out of fashion since his death in 1969, at age 47, Beat writer Jack Kerouac will have something of a comeback next year. John Leland’s “What Would Jack Do?” – a critical reappraisal of “On the Road” – is coming from Viking Books in September, on the 50th anniversary of the memoirish novel’s original publication. And so is a new, unexpurgated edition of the classic, authorized by the executor of Kerouac’s estate, John Sampas – brother of Kerouac’s third wife. This is “the original scroll version,” according to Sampas, that the author tapped out in one feverish three-week stretch in 1951, on a long roll of copy paper – the paper rolls that, back in the day, fed through newspaper-office teletype machines. But “the myth that Kerouac simply sat down and exhaled the book in three weeks is misleading,” Sampas said in “The Lowell Sun.” In fact, Kerouac worked on the novel off and on for several years before producing the famous first draft. Much of what is being restored focuses on sex and drugs, “entire paragraphs on the scroll that were crossed out,” Sampas said. The original was bought at auction in 2001 for $2.43 million by the owner of the National Football League’s Indianapolis Colts, and has been touring U.S. museums and libraries since then.
Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-’70s. He can be reached in care of this publication or at [email protected]