by Richard Labonte
“Ruins,” by Achy Obejas. Akashic Books, 212 pages, $15.95 paper.
The hero of this magical, mystical novel is middle-aged Usnavy, so named because his mother could see the ships of the U.S. Navy from their home near Guantanamo Bay. Born in pre-revolutionary Cuba, and a true believer in Castro, his life nonetheless remains intertwined with the crushing reality of America. He is devastated when his closest friend boards a ramshackle raft for Florida in 1994, and he scrabbles ashamedly for black market dollars to support his wife and daughter by driving American tourists around a crumbling Havana. Cuban-born Obejas’ previous novels, particularly “Memory Mambo,” focused primarily on the lives of people – young lesbians among them – who escaped to America. The story here, exquisitely noble and fiercely illuminating, is of daily life in a Cuba where old blankets are marinated in weak beef stock and spices to be sold as sandwich meat. Queer content is slight – one muscular male character’s sexual identity is shadowy – but lesbian author Obejas has crafted a haunting novel about physical deprivation, emotional exhaustion and spiritual strength that resonates with queerly familiar defiance.
“Straight Lies,” by Rob Byrnes. Kensington Books, 336 pages, $15 paper.
Is this over-the-top caper novel fun? Somewhat. Is it in any way plausible? Not a chance. Suspend all belief in narrative coherence, ye easy-going readers who chance to crack the cover. Chase LaMarca and Grant Lambert are queerly incompetent petty thieves who think they’ve scored the ultimate blackmail target: Aging, heroically gay actor Romeo Romero, acclaimed for championing gay causes onscreen and off, is in truth a flaming heterosexual. The criminally inept duo of LaMarca and Lambert has proof of Romero’s devotion to dalliances with heavy-breasted damsels on unwieldy videotape (whatever happened to the simple camera phone?). Alas: an equally inept associate loses the tape, and it falls into the hands of an unscrupulous tabloid gossipmonger, now also intent on exposing Romero unless he forks over big bucks. Outrageous coincidences and unlikely plot twists ensue, as the comically charming crooks and the venally crooked journalist joust with each other. Fans of a good-humored comedy of errors with scant literary value will enjoy this featherweight trifle; anyone with a yen for substance best pass on it.
“Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division,” by Jon Ginoli. Cleis Books, 298 pages, $16.95 paper.
Since the early 1990s, Pansy Division has rocked the queer musical world with a ribald sense of humor and a rowdy enthusiasm for sex. Band founder Ginoli brings both qualities to this chipper, chatty mix of memoir and journal, along with a savvy insider’s perspective on the indie music scene and the world of queercore rock that the band helped create. The book is at its most introspective as memoir, where Ginoli writes about his pre-San Francisco days and his life off the road. Journal sections, written with rollicking immediacy as Pansy Division toured, bring to life both the band’s heady days opening for Green Day, and less exhilarating nights playing in front of homophobic (and often small) crowds in dive bars with crappy sound systems. He and longtime musical compatriot Chris Freeman are still making music – “That’s So Gay” was released this year, 16 years after the first album, “Undressed” – but Ginoli is genially sanguine about the band’s current low-key career. And, judging from this laconic but absorbing account, he’s the furthest thing from a tormented rock star.
“Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities,” by Julie Abraham. University of Minnesota Press, 380 pages, $29.95 hardcover.
It would seem to be an intuitive given that gays are having sex in the cities of the world, to say nothing of congregating in discrete neighborhoods, gentrifying inner cities, fomenting political change and artistic ferment and weaving “social webs.” This analysis does nothing to challenge that belief. Rather, with a deft synthesis of literary, cultural and urban history, Abraham tracks how homosexuals changed cities, and how cities changed homosexuals. Her research ranges from 19th century Paris, London and, surprisingly, Los Angeles, to social scientist Richard Florida’s 21st century assertion that the economic potential of cities depends in its cultural qualities – best provided by queer “social bohemianism.” While the author’s exploration of shifting urban forces and evolving cultural perceptions buttresses her theories, this academic study is most accessible when Abraham focuses on queer writing about the city. Armistead Maupin’s journalistic “Tales of the City,” James Baldwin’s use of New York neighborhoods, and Samuel Delany’s musing on the one-time sex trade of Times Square are among a long list of queer authors cited for their use of urban environments.
7.31.94 New Britain, CT: What a dump. The Sting was the name of the club, and it had two sections, a big room where the band played, and a titty bar next door with a “Saturday Night Fever”-style dance floor. There was a secret passageway between the two so the bands could sneak a peek. A bouncer wore an “AIDS Kills Fags Dead T-shirt.” It made me realize how condemned you are to a certain reality if your band becomes popular enough – there was nothing remotely “alternative” about any of the venues we’ve played this week.
-from “Deflowered,” by Jon Ginoli
LEE HOUCK’S DEBUT NOVEL, “Yield ,” was selected winner of the 2008 Project Queer Lit (PQL) contest for unpublished writers – but, unlike previous winners, it won’t be published by Suspect Thought Press, PQL’s organizer, which is on hiatus while the publishers try to catch up with bills, and which released all of its authors from their contracts earlier this year. But the award carries some cachet: the novel, about a young queer’s search for romance in Manhattan, has been picked up by Kensington Books for Fall 2010 publication… REBEL SATORI PRESS has launched the QueerMojo imprint, focusing on gay titles. Forthcoming titles include a 10th anniversary reprint of Emanuel Xavier’s autobiographical novel “Christ-Like”; reprints of Stephen Beachy’s “Distortion,” first published by shuttered Harrington Park Press in 2000, and Trebor Healey’s “A Perfect Scar and Other Stories ,” another Harrington title from 2006; and an original novel, L.A. Fields’ “Maladaptation,” which was also a 2008 PQL entry… BENJAMIN TAYLOR’S DEBUT novel, “The Book of Getting Even ,” was runner-up in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers Contest, earning the author $5,000; it’s also a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT fiction… BOLD STROKES BOOKS is celebrating another literary anniversary with a new edition of Felice Picano’s “The Lure,” a gay thriller that made the bestseller lists when it was first published in 1979.