By Richard Labonte
“Red Audrey and the Roping,” by Jill Malone. Bywater Books, 282 pages, $14.95 paper.
Jane Elliot, her psyche scarred as a young woman by the death of her mother, leads a life bounded by extremes. She finds emotional refuge in the formal rigidity of Latin declensions, as a teacher at the University of Hawaii. She finds physical release in risk, surfing wild waves at dawn and biking mountain trails to the point of exhaustion. Both passions are a hollow substitute for honest intimacy. Jane doesn’t love herself, can’t love others, and withdraws whenever relationships – with men and women alike – become anything near intense. She flirts with a hippie-handsome married man, is seduced by her heiress landlady, offers herself up for S/M sex with a playboy, and won’t commit to red-haired Audrey – won’t even leave a toothbrush in Audrey’s home. Malone’s nonlinear novel jitterbugs through time and place – the splintered chronology is a rewarding challenge – as it tells how a shattered woman comes to embrace self-forgiveness and accept the possibility of love. With its lyrical dialogue, complex characters, and atmospheric setting, this is a dazzling and dramatic debut.
“River of Heaven,” by Lee Martin. Shaye Areheart Books/Crown Publishing, 272 pages, $24 hardcover.
With coming-out stories almost a queer-fiction norm, it’s jolting to come across a novel where the protagonist is 65 and still closeted. Sam Brady, retired owner of a custodial service – hardly a stereotypical gay calling – and his devoted basset hound Stump lead a quiet life in a quiet town. And then the world comes calling. A nosy local reporter has questions about a boyhood chum of Sam’s who allegedly committed suicide five decades earlier when he was fingered as town faggot. The teenage granddaughter of Sam’s pushy next-door neighbor shows up after her mother dies of AIDS. And Sam’s long-estranged brother Cal, five years older, appears on his doorstep, implicated in a homegrown terrorist plot to blow up Chicago’s Sears Tower. Martin (a Pulitzer finalist) writes with easy grace about the crippling consequences of hoarding a dreadful boyhood secret for a lifetime. Sam is an uncommon gay character in a loud-and-proud age, but his story is a reminder that some closet doors are still closed.
“King of Shadows,” by Aaron Shurin. City Lights, 176 pages, $16.95 paper.
A memoirist honest enough to reveal that he can’t sit down to write until he’s made his bed is comfortably in confessional mode. In these 21 essays – an intimate charting of more than four gay decades – Shurin reveals a multitude of selves: the young student diving with sensual pleasure into sexual San Francisco; the homemaker enthralled by how sunlight adds exquisite sheen to his new natural pine floors; the “lovechild of Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan,” dedicating his soul to the purity of poetry; and, in several of the essays, the reader relishing the perfect book on a perfect summer’s day in the perfect vacation retreat. In one entry, he’s cruising an attractive man in a cafe; in another, he’s a silver-haired single man drinking alone in a bar where everyone else is 20 years his junior; in yet another, he’s bringing poetry into the world of second-graders who greet him joyously with “Aaron! Yay! Poetry!” One by one, these resonant fragments – drawn from everyday life with a poet’s delicate touch – coalesce into a vibrant mini-autobiography.
“Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles,” ed. by Thomas Glave. Duke University Press, 416 pages, $24.95 paper.
With excerpts from the work of luminaries like Audre Lorde, Reinaldo Arenas, Michelle Cliff, Assotto Saint, Achy Obejas, and Aldo Alvarez, there’s no question this anthology has serious literary heft, beyond its import as a first-of-a-kind collection. But it’s the lesser-known (and, in some cases, never-before translated) contributors who add value. Glave has rounded up fiction, essays, and poetry by writers from Jamaica, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Barbados, St. Kitts, Grenada, and Bahamas, but Cuba is particularly well represented. Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes’ “Travel Notes of a Queer Puerto Rican in Havana” is an engrossing autobiographical and ethnographic assessment of queer life there; Leonardo Padura Fuentes’ “The Hunter” is a sorrowful story about a gay man yearning for connection beyond sex; and Pedro de Jesus’ “The Portrait” – written in 1998, when the author was 28 – is sexually charged literary fiction that wouldn’t have been out of place in Susie Bright’s “Best American Erotica” series. Several contributions are emphatically academic, footnotes and all, but these provide ballast for Glave’s authentic, eclectic collection.
Last call at the Rendezvous – we stood around drinking, eyeing, and we went home and sometimes talked and sometimes didn’t and spread our legs or got spread, we licked and bathed each other in sweat and sometimes traded tender kisses that seemed to matter and sometimes didn’t, a repertoire of intimate address played out in a microcosm of distance: the one night stand, the trick; the Rendezvous which had no warning printed above its legendary unmarked door into which I entered shivering a hundred nights, all in my youth, 18, 19, not yet part of an army of natural lovers – but I will get there, it will come – not quite yet one of the soldiers of ecstasy.
-from “King of Shadows,” by Aaron Shurin
NOVELS BY TWO young lesbian authors were among the winners April 28 at the Publishing Triangle’s 20th anniversary awards ceremony in New York. Myriam Gurba’s “Dahlia Season,” a semi-autobiographical coming-out story about a goth Chicana dyke with obsessive-compulsive disorder, won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, and Ali Liebegott’s “The IHOP Papers,” a marginally autobiographical coming-out story about a soap-opera-obsessed International House of Pancakes waitress, was a co-winner for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction. Peter Cameron’s young adult novel – a coming-of-age story about an 18-year-old’s attraction for an older man that is mistaken for sexual harassment – shared the Ferro-Grumley prize. Poetry honors went to Joan Larkin for “My Body,” winner of the Audre Lorde Award, and, in a tie, Steve Fellner for “Blind Date with Cavafy” and Daniel Hall for “My Sleep,” winners of the Thom Gunn Award. Nonfiction honors went to Janet Malcolm for her academic study, “Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice,” and to Michael Rowe for his collection of arts journalism and personal essays, “Other Men’s Sons.” Katherine V. Forrest, author of eight Kate Delafield mysteries, the classic lesbian romance “Curious Wine ,” and three utopian lesbian science fiction novels – and currently acquisitions editor for Spinsters Ink – received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, awarded in alternate years to a gay and lesbian author; last year’s recipient was Andrew Holleran. Carol Seajay, who published “Feminist Bookstore News” for 25 years, started the newsletter “Books To Watch Out For,” and now works with Bywater Books and Bloody Brits press, was honored with the Leadership Award, shared with yours truly, Richard Labonte. My background includes managing A Different Light Bookstore’s California stores for more than 20 years, editing anthologies for Cleis Press and Arsenal Pulp Press, and writing “Book Marks” for Q Syndicate since 2001.