By Richard Labonte
“Exiles in America,” by Christopher Bram. William Morrow, 372 pages, $24.95 hardcover
The fluidity of fidelity, coupled with America’s post-9/11 xenophobia, make for odd but ambitious bedfellows in Bram’s somber ninth novel. Art teacher Daniel and psychiatrist Zack are 21years into a now-sexless but still-sturdy relationship; Daniel cheerfully fools around, and Zack is contentedly celibate. New in the neighborhood are Iranian expatriate Abbas, artist-in-residence at Daniel’s Williamsburg, Va., college, and his Russian-born wife, Elena; theirs is a marriage mostly of convenience but sometimes sexual, between a straight woman and a gay man. Daniel and Abbas are soon having exuberant sex, perhaps even falling in love; Zack and Elena forge a fragile friendship around the passion of their partners. The story veers from the personal into the political – with justifiable paranoia – when two hardnosed FBI agents show up to investigate Abbas after his Iranian brother comes for a visit on the eve of the Iraq War. The intrusion of terrorist politics into the plot is a bit awkward, but Bram’s exploration of the dynamics of love and sex within these two very different relationships bristles with wise authenticity.
“End of Watch,” by Baxter Clare. Bella Books, 258 pages, $13.95 paper
There’s no shortage of lesbian mystery series with gritty cops doing the sleuthing, starting with the contemporary dyke prototype, Katherine V. Forrest’s Los Angeles detective Kate Delafield. Anyone waiting impatiently for the next Delafield, meanwhile, will find hardboiled solace in the novels of Baxter Clare. In this fifth book, alcoholic LAPD lieutenant L.A. Franco – psychologically bedeviled by the murder of her father when she was a child, and finally following the 12 Steps – goes home to New York to make amends for past misdeeds. While there, she stumbles across a clue that leads her, 35 years after her dad’s death, to the killer. Clare’s crisp storytelling – not a word wasted, not an emotion overwrought – nicely captures the tangled squad politics, challenging gender struggles, and stressed romantic life of a lesbian involved in big-city police work. There’s enough backstory woven through this book’s plot that it stands well on its own, but the full arc of Franco’s fictional career is worth following.
“The History of Swimming,” by Kim Powers. Carroll & Graf, 294 pages, $24.94 hardcover.
There’s an artful conceit to the premise of this account by Kim Powers of an emotionally fraught three days he spent in his late 20s looking for his alcohol-besotted and suicide-prone twin brother, Tim – a brother he loved and loathed, at that point in their lives, in equal measure. Tim wasn’t dead after all -Â he was just drunk, off on another lost-weekend bender. In fact, AIDS killed him a few years later, a passing recounted in a heart-wrenching coda. But Powers’ account of his frantic cross-country search for his damaged-goods twin, peppered with flashbacks to their younger days, is a testament to the unbreakable brotherly bonds underlying their difficult relationship as adults. Tim’s wasted life, the shattered mirror to Kim’s, makes for profoundly painful reading – all the more so because letters the gay brothers exchanged as they grew up show that Tim, even in the midst of his first nervous breakdown, possessed a playful wisdom and a lyrical way with words. “The History of Swimming” – swimming was one of Tim’s passions – is a mesmerizing memoir.
“Paws and Reflect: Exploring the Bond Between Gay Men and Their Dogs,” by Neil Plakcy and Sharon Sakson. Alyson Books, 274 pages, $24.95 hardcover
This is a mixed-breed collection. Some stories are as-told-to tales about the dogs in our queer lives, based on interviews conducted by the editors. Kevin Anderson reveals how his first dog outed him; Randall McCormick talks about how his dog’s unconditional love got him through the AIDS death of his partner; Justin Rudd describes forging a community of dog owners. These three, like a majority of the contributors, aren’t writers by either vocation or avocation; they’re guys who care about canines with a passion that shines through the otherwise prosaic prose. There’s more poetry in other contributions, including those by novelists Jay Quinn, who confesses the pain of having to put down a pet; Lev Raphael, who says his dog’s soul is “entwined around” his heart; and Victor J. Banis, who writes about the deep love shared by “the girls,” his dogs Jenny and Prima. Other “names” in the book include playwrights Charles Busch and Edward Albee – but each contributor waxes eloquently, as best he can, about the four-footed members of his family.
They were words I hadn’t ever expected to hear again, from the voice I had been waiting for all weekend: Tim’s. Tired, drugged, telling me he was – what? I want to be exact here – not “okay,” but just “was.” Alive. That’s not the word he used, but it’s the only one I can think of, right now. Alive. Speaking into the phone. Leaving wherever he was to go back to his apartment. Tim. It was Tim. It was. Tim. I suddenly understood Gertrude Stein. Yes and no, both at the same time. The word hasn’t been invented yet to describe what I felt; only gestures and angry scratches and blood would do.
-from “The History of Swimming,” by Kim Powers
ALISON BECHDEL’S MEMOIR “Fun Home” hasn’t been officially banned in the small Missouri town of Marshall yet – but patrons of the public library have been denied access to the book, about her gay father and her own coming-out, while a “materials selection committee” wrestles with deciding what’s fit for residents to read. “We’ll make a final decision based on what we want this library to stand for,” said the head of the library board – a decision Chuck Mason, the editor of Marshall’s newspaper, lamented. “Books are sacred. It’s with a heavy heart that I register my displeasure at the board’s precedent-setting decision to remove the two books from the shelves while this policy is developed,” he wrote. “I’m no legal scholar but there is one thing I do know: censorship is censorship.” The other book challenged as pornographic was Craig Thompson’s graphic novel “Blankets,” which – ironically, given that Bechdel’s book is about a lesbian’s life – chronicles a straight young man’s coming of age in a rural, evangelical society and addresses topics of faith, abstinence, love, and commitment… L.A. NOVELIST and essayist John Rechy (“City of Night,” “Rushes,” “Beneath the Skin”) was the recipient of ONE Institute’s first Culture Hero Award, announced in September, with a public ceremony on Oct. 28. ONE, with an extensive lesbian and gay book and periodical archive, is the longest-lived LGBT organization in the United States, founded in Los Angeles more than 50 years ago. For info: http://www.oneinstitute.org.