Faggots

Faggots
Larry Kramer
Difficulty: Medium
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Fred Lemish is on a mission: find love before turning 40. But that’s easier said than done in the chaotic world of 1970’s gay New York. From The Meat Rack to the Toilet Bowl, Fred trawls the all too familiar party, drug, and sex-obsessed scene searching high and low for something more. Published in 1978, Faggots is a viscious, merciless satire of urban gay culture before the AIDS epidemic, and I don’t mean that as a cliche. Kramer’s parody is so malicious it almost seems homophobic, an accusation not a few critics have leveled at him in the past, but anyone familiar with his career will likely be unsurprised by the confrontational nature of the book. Kramer made his name as a polemicist, someone who makes provoking, controversial claims ostensibly for the purpose of generating conversation, and has a long history of political activism and community organization.

When Faggots was first published, Kramer was all but run out of town. New York’s only gay bookstore at the time refused to sell it, and his nearby grocery store even banned him from shopping there. His repudiation of casual sex and party culture was viewed as regressive and puritanical, a return to pre-Stonewall era oppression. Many today still hold this view, but it must be acknowledged that the AIDS epidemic which so devastated the gay community was at least partially result of that lifestyle. In the end, Kramer was right, even if he might have had the wrong reasons. But I don’t know how quick I’d be to dismiss his reasons as entirely wrong. His critique of gay men as shallow and sex-obsessed is one I hear echoed frequently today. I will not hazard an opinion as to what lifestyles are ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but it seems clear to me that something about our culture regularly leaves people wanting more, and that’s worth examining.

This book pairs very well with Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance. They were published the same year, they take place in the same setting, and they tackle the same themes. They even recount the some of the same recent historical events, such as the Everard Baths fire in 1977. But where Faggots is angry, spiteful, and cynical, Dancer is tragic, melancholic, and regretful. Holleran’s depiction of the culture clearly highlights its shortcomings, but also shows something beautiful and poignant in it. Together, the two books offer an intriguing, multifaceted perspective on a moment in our history often eclipsed by the tragedy which followed. Kramer claims he always tells “the fucking truth to everyone [he has] have ever met,” but I think it’s clear that stories like this have no one truth, and its up to individuals to read for themselves and develop their own conclusions.

Christopher and His Kind

Christopher and His Kind
Christopher Isherwood
Difficulty: Medium
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In 1938, when he was only 34, Christopher Isherwood published his first autobiography, Lions and Shadows, about his schoolboy days at Cambridge with W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and other rising literary stars. I think that alone reveals quite a bit about his character, cocky, a little vain (I mean look at that title), writing a personal history before he’s even halfway through his 30s. Or maybe it tells us more about his method. Isherwood was an endlessly attentive and remarkably perceptive observer, and those he observed regularly found their way into his work, albeit by different names. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that someone so young might have so much to say about their life. But trust me, it’s also because he was cocky and vain if his depiction of himself in Christopher and His Kind is anything to go by.

Isherwood didn’t write Christopher and His Kind until his 70s, and it picks up more or less where Lions and Shadows leaves off, documenting his ten year emigration from England to California. In 1929 Isherwood had been living in Germany, enjoying the wild, sexually liberated nightlife he depicted so vividly in Goodbye to Berlin, but the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party forced him and his german boyfriend Heinz Neddermeyer to flee the country. Isherwood then spends the next decade bouncing around Europe, desperately trying to wrest Heinz from the legal clutches of his homeland. Isherwood depicts his journey with the help of his usual perspicacity and detailed journals from the time, writing about his younger self in the third person and giving his story a literary sheen not often associated with autobiography. 

The reason I started this post talking about Lions and Shadows is that Isherwood mentions it frequently in Christopher and His Kind, mostly with regret. What he regrets is his thorough erasure of any mention of homosexuality from a book purported to be autobiographical, and that’s part of his motivation to create this newer one. Isherwood’s young Isherwood is quite a character. An absolute diva, but in an endearing way, cocky, vain, and probably a genius. Faultlessly loyal to his friends, adventurous, highly emotional, and very privileged. His travels were exciting and unpredictable, it was rarely clear which exotic location he’d end up at next, and, not already being familiar with his history, I was never sure what the outcome of his odyssey might be. I don’t have much more to say about this one, an author of Isherwood’s caliber simply speaks for himself.

Also, I would like to formally apologize for using the word perspicacity, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Dancer from the Dance

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Dancer from the Dance
Andrew Holleran
Difficulty: Medium
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Dancer from the Dance is one of my favorite novels from what I’ve come to call the “gay halcyon days,” referring to the years between the birth of the modern gay rights movement, with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early ‘80s (books in this category are tagged as pre-AIDS on this site). I use this term partially ironically, since that era is revered nowadays for the sexual freedom it offered gay men in big cities despite the suffering experienced by those in rural areas, among countless other serious gay rights issues. Nevertheless it is still a historically significant novel, documenting some important cultural events of the decade including the Everard Baths fire and the Fire Island experience.

Anthony Malone is on a quest for love in the streets of New York. He’s given up his life as a heterosexual lawyer and moved to the Big Apple to explore its gay underground and live a life he’d been denying himself. There he meets Andrew Sutherland, a debutante, drag queen, and addict who sees Malone’s beauty as an exciting development in the gay scene and is determined to leverage it to his own advantage. Dancer from the Dance follows the two in their adventures through discos, bathhouses, Fire Island, and more in their pursuit of their respective goals.

To be entirely honest, Dancer from the Dance would have benefited from several more passes through the editing process before publication. While the prose is enjoyable, Holleran could have easily lopped off 50 pages without losing anything too important. The framing of the novel doesn’t seem to serve too great a purpose either, since he rarely takes advantage of the anonymous narrator to develop another perspective on the story. But I’ve come to find that the rough, unfinished feel of the book is now one of its most appealing traits. It’s very much a novel of its time: self-indulgent, underground, and unpolished, and that’s okay. More than okay, I would argue, as the contemporary “literary” market is saturated with overly-polished, tightly-controlled, MFA debut novels which, of course, are very skillfully written, but so often seem to lack soul. Dancer’s got that, at least, and that fact combined with its historical value makes it worth a read.

Dhalgren

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Dhalgren
by Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Very Hard
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Samuel R. Delany was the first commercially successful black sci-fi author and the first commercially successful gay sci-fi author. He was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 2013, and is often cited as a primary inspiration for both the afrofuturist and cyberpunk movements. Many consider Dhalgren to be his magnum opus, with its unbridled formal experimentation, critical dialogue on minority cultures, and intense, unexplained surrealism.

Dhalgren takes place in Bellona, a burned out, hollow husk of a city in the American midwest, inhabited only by the margins of society and forgotten about by the rest of the country. What exactly happened to Bellona is never made clear, as, indeed, is the case for most things in the novel. At this city arrives the protagonist, a Half-native American amnesiac wearing one sandal and trying to remember his name. As he explores the constantly shifting city he encounters many different types of people, finds a girlfriend, finds a boyfriend, and becomes a poet, hero, and gang leader all at once.

Full disclosure, Dhalgren is pretty much my favorite book and I’ve got a lot of nice things to say about it. So before I do, let’s talk about some of the less nice things. This book is notoriously difficult to finish, on par with or perhaps even surpassing other postmodern door stoppers like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Recognitions. Most of the book appears to have little to no plot, and long stretches of it are intentionally, infuriatingly boring. It opens with the second half of a sentence only completed by the fragment which ends the book, and the story is periodically punctuated by inexplicable schizophrenic soliloquies. Many find the experience of reading Dhalgren to be literally maddening.

But many others, like myself, find the experience to be revelatory instead. It must be read with a willingness to accept, but not understand, and in a way that came very naturally to me. The real world is full of many things I cannot understand, yet must accept anyway, so why should I approach Dhalgren any differently? Bellona’s society showed me a new perspective on what it means to be a social minority, ways in which it can actually be liberating, freeing me from the oppressive institutions of heteronormativity, capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Dhalgren was a tremendously influential book for me, and I have since dedicated myself to reading and studying the rest of Delany’s bibliography in order to better understand the man behind it.