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By Richard Labonte
“A Perfect Waiter,” by Alain Claude Sulzer, translated by John Brownjohn. Bloomsbury USA, 224 pages, $19.95 hardcover.
For 30 years, reclusive waiter Erneste has nursed his love for a young man he met before World War II. That’s when handsome 19-year-old Jakob arrived from Germany for summer work at the elegant Swiss hotel where Erneste – only a few years older – was a respected employee. Their passion ignited almost immediately, a thrilling first love for Erneste and a randy sexual awakening for Jakob. But by the following summer, young Jakob was cheerfully exchanging blowjobs for 5 francs from a celebrated German author, who was married and more than twice his age. And when, weeks later, the older man ferried Jakob with him to America, ahead of the Holocaust to follow, Erneste’s hollow, emotionally distant life was set in place – until, decades later, a letter arrives from Jakob, still in America, begging for money. Sulzer’s short novel about love’s betrayal and the lies of desperate men is a miniature jewel, its cool, dispassionate, and disquieting prose communicating an old-fashioned kind of doomed homosexual ardor with exquisite, nuanced precision.
“Venus Besieged,” by Andrews & Austin. Bold Strokes Books, 232 pages, $15.95 paper.
Snarky commentary on the shallow whirl of the Hollywood scene and an exploration of a threatening spiritual underworld make for an odd but engrossing blend in this third novel in the “Richfield and Rivers” lesbian mystery series. Teague Richfield is an aspiring screenwriter coping with the casting-couch come-on of an oversexed, androgynous-looking female studio executive. Callie Rivers is the psychic-astrologer love of Teague’s life – though the two women aren’t sure about the living-together part of their tempestuous relationship. The could-be couple meets in a secluded Sedona cabin for a month of screenwriting freedom and passionate togetherness, planning to sort out their emotions. But their romantic romp is swept up in a metaphysical mystery involving a powerful shamanic Native American woman, a callous land developer, a shape-shifting wolf, an ancient family feud, and the buried bones of a woman still very much alive. The offbeat pairing of goofy movie-making compromises and intense mystical elements gives this well-crafted mix of supernatural thrills and edgy romance a high-spirited flair.
“Crossing Borders,” by Will Carr. GLB Books, 372 pages, $23.95 paper.
Though he’s now in his 80s, Carr’s account of his youthful travels around the Mediterranean and North Africa more than half a century ago is remarkably vivid. The then-27-year-old Jewish man motored for months through countries as anti-Semitic then as they are now, including Egypt and Algeria, capturing both the physical geography and his own sexual and spiritual evolution with writing that is fluid and fresh – and fun to read. Carr traveled sometimes with companions for whom he felt a budding sexual attraction, sometimes alone with his thoughts and fears – often concerned as much about his own sexual bent as about his personal safety, but always enthralled by the people he met and the landscape through which he passed. It was an odyssey that changed his life many decades ago, and one that will charm readers today. Travel writing, coming-out story, historical document: this engaging memoir is rewarding on every level, a saga from a senior gay man still firing on all cylinders.
“In the Time of Assignments,” by Douglas A. Martin. Soft Skull Press, 248 pages, $17.95 paper.
There are three distinct geographies in Martin’s first poetry collection: the South, where he grew up, often an outsider; college, where he honed skills as a queer lad and a budding writer; and New York, where he moved – as the title of the third section of this book of memory shards and physical moments ably demonstrates – “to become a poet.” What ties the disparate locales together so memorably is Martin’s unguarded vulnerability, expressed through awkward yearning for emotional connection, unabashed need for sexual connection, and intense conviction that there can be a love connection. Readers familiar with his autobiographical prose – particularly the novel “Outline of My Lover” and the stories in “They Change the Subject” – will sense that Martin is drawing from the same well of personal experience for these poems. But poetry, released from the need for narrative structure, can express a free-form honesty and attain a seductive engagement with the reader that is so much more immediate. Fiction mined from a writer’s life is made up of words; this book is the music.
“Was she yelling at you?” Callie frowned, having heard Barrett’s voice through the phone and seen my dejected expression. “Yeah, redeveloping my story and then shouting at me because I don’t get the plot. By the time this project is over, I won’t recognize this as my story, which is good because it will probably be about a psychologically abused aardvark that has sex with a chicken, and there will be enough writers on the credit roll to start a ball team. The entire shape of the story is shifting…subtle at first, a tweak here, a tweak there…and soon it’s unrecognizable, like a screenplay suffering from Alzheimer’s, the original idea still buried inside there somewhere, struggling to communicate something.”
– from “Venus Besieged,” by Andrews & Austin
TWO OF THE OLDEST queer-friendly, independent bookstores are up for sale, though neither is in danger of closing. Barb Weiser, general manager of the 38-year-old Amazon Bookstore Cooperative in Minneapolis, says there have been some serious inquiries since she announced in February that she wanted to leave, after 21 years, and that none of the other collective members with equity in the bookstore were prepared to take it over. The sale of Little Sister’s in Vancouver, which opened in 1983, was also announced in February by co-owner Jim Deva, whose partner’s health was a factor in their decision to find a new owner; a condition of the sale is that Janine Fuller, manager of the bookstore for 12 of her 18 years there, stays on…MEANWHILE, ANOTHER branch of Lambda Rising – in Baltimore, Md. – is closing, says owner Deacon McCubbin, because of declining sales. McCubbin closed the Lambda Rising in Norfolk, Va., a couple of years ago, but the flagship store in Washington, D.C., and a smaller store in the resort town of Rehoboth Beach, Del., are going strong…BRIAN LAM, PUBLISHER of Arsenal Pulp Press, was one of the “CanLit 30” singled out in the March issue of “Quill & Quire,” a book trade monthly, as one of the most influential Canadians in publishing. Queer books are a healthy component of the press’s catalogue – including a classic series, suggested by the staff of Little Sister’s, which has brought back into print books by Jane Rule, Richard Amory, Sarah Schulman, and other authors.