by Richard Labonte
“City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s,” by Edmund
White. Bloomsbury USA, 304 pages, $26 hardcover.
After a series of unabashedly autobiographical novels, and a steamy 2006 memoir, “My Lives,” what is there left of Edmund White’s life for Edmund White to mine? Plenty, as this delicious serving of homosexual dish demonstrates. About his own early Manhattan years, before he was a famous writer, gay or otherwise, he’s reflective – even admitting that he was nowhere near the front lines of Stonewall: “This was bad for our image,” he recalls believing. But much of the book focuses on the queers, queens and closeted folks with whom he rubbed shoulders (and, often, other more literal body parts) 40 and more years ago – a three-way with poet John Ashbery; sociologist Richard Sennett sporting a cocktail dress at a dinner party; a brief encounter with travel writer Bruce Chatwin; a falling out with Susan Sontag after he caricatured her in “Caracole,” his novel about foppish decadence in a surreal city. White left New York for Paris in 1983, as AIDS was starting to decimate the demimonde he embraced. This gaily elegiac memoir is an elegant love letter to that time and place.
“Day of the Dead,” by Victoria A. Brownworth. Spinsters Ink, 184 pages, $14.95 paper.
The title – and the cover, an array of skulls – suggests that this collection of five short stories and one novella, most set in New Orleans, draws on a spooky underworld of ghosts, succubi, vampires and ghouls for shivery entertainment. And it does – those avatars of scary settings and primal fears abound. But Brownworth’s otherworldly fiction digs much deeper into the horrors of the human psyche – and with far more artistry – than the supernatural norm. Sexual violence and sex slavery haunt “A Dying Fall,” in which two women flee Russia for the seeming safety of Berlin, only to be wrenched apart by a demonic man’s depravity. In the title story, a woman lost in the misty streets of New Orleans hangs on to life while waiting for her lover’s return – and for death. And in the fierce novella that closes the collection, “Fever,” a medical researcher’s belief in a rational world is shattered when she encounters a cloister of nuns doing battle with unfettered evil. There’s nothing “genre” about this collection – these lyrical stories are holy examples of writing artistry.
“Kelland,” by Paul G. Bens. Casperian Books, 250 pages, $15 paper.
Kelland is a hauntingly beautiful woman. Kelland is a seemingly devout priest. Kelland is a preternaturally precocious boy. Kelland is an emotionally sadistic lover. In all these guises, he’s a shape-shifter whose ephemeral timelessness bedevils the four disparate central characters populating this inventive debut novel, among them a gay Vietnamese-American student, the brother from whom he becomes estranged, a grieving couple whose relationship is gutted by their son’s suicide and a young Catholic queer boy with an extraordinary voice and an abnormal love of God. Bens’ narrative – somehow both dreamy and propulsive – touches on the horrors of child abuse and rape, of bodily violence and homophobic hatred and, with searing realism, on the carnal evil of Catholic Church pedophilia. But – without giving away too much of this unique novel’s intricate, layered plot – the narrative also embraces innocence, joy and hope, mutual desire and healing love, as Bens knits together his story’s several intertwined threads.
“The Beats: A Graphic History,” edited by Paul Buhle. Souvenir Press, $14.95 paper.
The best offense is a good defense, so it’s appropriate that the editors of this graphic (in the comix sense, not the naughty bits sense) history declare up front that their purpose isn’t to proffer either an exhaustive critical study of or a full biographical survey of The Beats. Rather, this is a playful hop-skip-and-jump through the life and work of Beats both major (Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg), relatively minor (Charles Olson, Philip Whalen, Kenneth Patchen) and even incidental – Tuli Kupferberg of the activist rock band, The Fugs. Most of the writers are sketched in just a couple of pages, while more than half the art and text are devoted to Jack, William and Allan and their intertwined sexual and literary lives. Profiles of Diane de Prima and of the “Beatnik Chicks” leaven the all-male cast, and a history of City Lights Books – publisher of many of The Beats’ early books – is a welcome footnote. Though not for scholars, this is a fun introduction for younger readers enthralled by the Beat ethos.
New York seemed either frightening or risible to the rest of the nation. To us, however, it represented the only free port on the entire continent. Only in New York could we walk hand in hand with a member of the same sex. Only in New York could we ignore a rat galloping across our path and head out for a midnight play reading. Artists on the Lower East Side were recycling the most primitive and worthless materials – junk, really. But there was also a mandarin New York, a place where painters and choreographers and novelists and poets strove to produce serious art of the highest order.
-from “City Boy,” by Edmund White
BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Jim Arnold’s “Benediction” (BookSurge, $13.99) navigates contemporary queer midlife angst with witty writing and nimble plotting, as dot-com drone Ben Schmidt confronts mice in his walls, corrosive workplace politics, an impossible deadline for finishing his first film – and prostate cancer… TAKE A BLIND Indiana Jones with a gang of young and horny homo sidekicks, mix in a dash of The Mummy’s muscles, add a brace of loathsome (but sometimes sexy) evildoers, and swoosh the daredevil action from a desolate Siberian prison to steamy South American rain forests to hot Egyptian desert sands. That’s the erotic essence of “Riddle of the Sands” (Cleis Press, $14.95), Geoffrey Knight’s high-octane adventure for queer boys-at-heart men… ROB ROSEN OFFERS a cheerfully cheeky romp through the boys and beds of America’s gambling HQ in his debut, “Divas Las Vegas” (Cleis Press, $14.95), a wacky drag-infused read that can be summed up in just three words: fierce sexy slapstick… THOUGH IT’S SET more than 40 years ago, Elliott Mackle’s sizzling depiction of queer sexual pleasure in the ranks, “Captain Harding’s Six Day War” (Alyson Books, $14.95) – and of the pervasive paranoia accompanying every encounter – rings no less true today. Military veteran Mackle’s resonant story, set with “Catch-22” authenticity against the backdrop of the Middle East’s Six Day War, spans an emotional spectrum from lusty horniness to nuanced romance with literary polish and story-telling punch.