by Richard Labonte
“The Sweet In-Between,” by Sheri Reynolds. Shaye Areheart/Random House, 208 pages, $23 hardcover.
Life is physically turbulent and emotionally troubled for Kendra Lugo. Her father is in prison, her mother is dead, and – perhaps to deflect her older stepbrother’s sexual demands, perhaps because of her unarticulated lesbian desires – the 17-year-old girl binds her breasts, keeps her hair shorn, and calls herself Kenny. She’s taunted relentlessly at school by classmates bewildered and angered by her appearance; she finds solace on solitary trips to the sandy beaches near her ramshackle, lower-middle-class Southern neighborhood. At home she frets about the painkiller addiction of her addled guardian Glo – her incarcerated dad’s girlfriend – and dotes on Daphne, the 7-year-old daughter of Glo’s runaway daughter. And next door, her unsavory male neighbor has shot and killed a teenage girl. Amidst all this chaos, Kenny emerges as a stoic and canny survivor whose ambiguity about her sexual self makes her a compelling, convincing character. Reynolds, whose novel “The Rapture of Canaan” was an Oprah Book Club pick, has shaped an earthy, heartwarming, and inqusitive novel with definite queer appeal.
“Sea, Swallow Me,” by Craig Laurance Gidney. Lethe Press, 212 pages, $13 paper.
Gidney’s first collection of short stories showcases impressive storytelling range. In “Circus-Boy Without a Safety Net,” a young black boy’s gay obsession with Lena Horne troubles his dignified parents. In “Strange Alphabets,” a ticketless Arthur Rimbaud rides a train furtively while pondering a life of poetic depravity. In “Etiolate,” a gay black man pursues pale white boys in the Goth underground with a mix of lust and self-loathing. In “Her Spirit Hovering,” a neurotic white mama’s boy fails to exorcise the ghost of his censorious dead mother by having sex with a “colored boy” in her bed. In “Catch Him by the Toe,” monsters inhabit a third-rate carnival with Sambo and his three tigers as the central attraction. And in the title story, “Sea, Swallow Me,” a disfigured African-American medical student vacationing alone on a Caribbean isle is made whole by a muscular god of the sea. Poetic imagery, clever plotting, and a mature writer’s mix of magic realism, creepy horror, whimsical fantasy, and African-American folklore make this a stellar debut.
“Big Trips: More Good Gay Travel Writing,” edited by Raphael Kadushin. Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin, 296 pages, $24.95 hardcover.
Travel writing, says Kadushin in a deliciously didactic introduction, is “quintessentially queer”: gay men tend toward wanderlust – and just lust. Both qualities are honored in this strong anthology of short stories and personal essays, though the distinction doesn’t matter – fiction and fact both spring from the same impulse to tell a good story. Bruce Benderson, Duncan Fallowell, Mack Friedman, Michael Klein, Douglas A. Martin, Martin Sherman, and Edmund White are represented by reprints that well-read queers may have already encountered, though all merit a second visit. Among the original fiction, Ty Geltmaker’s “Lamb of God” is a lush story about gay encounters in a 1970s Rome where men with machine guns patrol the streets, and Trebor Healey’s “Saint Andy” is a poignant story about a gay man’s bicycle odyssey across America as paean to his dead lover. Original essays include Brian Bouldrey’s “On Going Back,” drawn from his experience trekking through Europe, and Clifford Chase’s “Egypt, in One Sense,” a staccato account of digestively troubled travels along the Nile. This is writing that transports readers to other places with transcendent verve.
“Banalities,” by Brane Mozetic, translated by Elizabeta Zargi and Timothy Liu. A Midsummer Night’s Press, 64 pages, $10.95 paper.
Mozetic, a prominent Slovenian activist, writer, and translator – of Rimbaud and Adrienne Rich, among others – writes unabashedly about a singular queer life in this collection of 50 powerful, untitled prose poems. In one, the poet’s first-person voice is haunted by a scent on his companion’s body. In another, he ponders caressing a visiting poet. In another, he is cruised in a bookshop by a brash boy “hunting intellectuals.” But beneath the surface sexiness and erotic memories, Mozetic bares more profound reflections on suicide and depression, recollections of a pained adolescence, and a longing for emotional permanence. And then, in poem number 50, he longs to forget: about boys who hid secrets from him, and boys he wrote first words about; about desperate drunkenness that gave him courage to touch other men, and the time he “turned my back on the life of men and towards a wife.” Better to forget everything, he writes, “because it keeps touching the painful raw spots.” Better yet, he has penned these vibrant visions of a poet’s internal and external worlds.
I watch all these thin boys, posing in the corners,/ Chinese, Arabs, Blacks, Latinos, Bosnians, how/ they laugh, spit while grabbing their dicks./ I undress them with my eyes, over their chests,/ their flat stomachs, their dark muscles, about their/ bodies to and fro. How they hurl themselves at the ball, take their shirts off in the heat until beads of sweat/ glitter, whistle at girls, and I imagine how they’d/ go after me if they knew I was watching them.
-from “Banalities,” by Brane Mozetic
…I find smoothness at the gym/ where muscles are on display. Or at the/ bars, or on the beaches, where thousands of gay men/ race against time. Yet how would they/ train in my bedroom, how would they compete, when/ time stopped, how would they comprehend tiny/ kisses, enjoy silence or a whisper./ The unknown would frighten them, as it did you, who,/ smiling, proudly stepped through the door, then became smaller and smaller until you/ vanished in the morning haze.
-from “Banalities,” by Brane Mozetic
AFTER THE MOVIE, THE WORDS: Newmarket Press has published two companion books to the Sean Penn-starring film based on the life and death of Harvey Milk. “Milk: A Pictorial History” – with a foreword by Armistead Maupin and an introduction by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black – features oral histories from people who knew Milk, along with 90 historical photographs, stills from the film, and the behind-the-scenes story of how director Gus Van Zant finally brought the film to the screen more than a decade after his first attempt. “Milk: The Shooting Script,” includes scene notes by Black, conversations with Black, Van Zant, and activist Cleve Jones – who was a consultant on the project – and additional movie stills… TOP 10s PLUS: So little space, so much fine fiction – here are a few more gay books representing the quality of queer writing in 2008, not quite my bests, but nonetheless pretty good, and worth noting. Two were reviewed in past months: Two were reviewed in past months: Evan Fallenberg’s heartfelt “Light Fell” and David Ebershoff’s historical “The 19th Wife.” Two are available now in Canada but won’t be distributed in the U.S. for several months, when reviews will appear: Daniel Allen Cox’s hustler “verite” tale, “Shuck,” and Ivan E. Coyote’s tough and tender story collection, “The Slow Fix .” And two were not reviewed here in 2008: Benjamin Taylor’s coming-of-age novel about a gay mathematician with one thumb too many, “The Book of Getting Even,” and Andrew Sean Greer’s love story triangle about a gay lover reappearing in his married friend’s life, “The Story of a Marriage.”