Times Square Red, Times Square Blue

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Medium/Very Hard
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Now seems like a good time to talk about this book since the 20th anniversary edition was just released. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is a classic of gay non-fiction, but probably requires a bit of an explanation. The book consists of two long-form essays titled “Times Square Blue” and “…3, 2, 1, Contact: Times Square Red”. The first is a relatively straightforward narrative of Delany’s extensive sexual encounters in the pornographic movie theaters of Times Square prior to then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s initiative to “clean up” the area, and the second is a much more academic explanation of Delany’s theories on interpersonal relationships in cities, and how Giuliani’s policies have negatively affected them. There’s a pretty big spike in difficulty from the first essay to the second, but the first one does help illustrate what exactly it is we’re losing, making the second essay easier to follow.

If you think you’ve ever had a weird hookup, Delany has had one ten times stranger. Anyone familiar with his non-fiction knows that Delany has been an enthusiastic participant in public sex and hookup culture since the ‘50s, and that he was lucky enough to avoid contracting HIV/AIDS. We are fortunate that he lived to tell us about how things used to be, since there are so few others who can do so. And tell us he does, gleefully and in extensive detail. The range of people, preferences, and practices that Delany engages with is humbling, and throws into stark relief the inadequacies of our popular understanding of sexuality. No amount of labels could account for the kaleidoscope of people out there.

The reason these stories matter to Delany is that they’re examples of the diverse forms of social contact only made possible by spaces like the porn theaters, spaces which were being removed as part of Giuliani’s campaign to “purify” Times Square. Delany argues that the destruction of the theaters are part of a larger trend in city planning which would have everything separated out and sorted into similar spaces. Neighborhoods would only contain houses, for example, not drug stores or restaurants, which would belong in a commercial district. The result is that everyone stays in their homes except to work or shop, which they would commute to without ever interfacing with their neighbors. There’s a class dimension to this too, the poor are grouped with the poor, the rich with the rich, and the two will probably never cross paths because there are fewer and fewer public spaces in which to intermingle. Without these connections we lose the ability to understand and to empathize with people not like us, and, worst of all, we might even forget that they exist. But that’s only a brief summary of his argument, and I would encourage anyone interested to give the full thing a read. It definitely caused me to reflect on who I interact with and how. And even if you’re not, “Times Square Blue” alone is an extremely interesting window into that historical period and a great look at the diverse forms sexuality can take.

Angels in America

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Angels in America
by Tony Kushner
Difficulty: Hard
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Blurb from the Goodreads page:

“In two full-length plays–Millennium Approaches and Perestroika–Kushner tells the story of a handful of people trying to make sense of the world. Prior is a man living with AIDS whose lover Louis has left him and become involved with Joe, an ex-Mormon and political conservative whose wife, Harper, is slowly having a nervous breakdown. These stories are contrasted with that of Roy Cohn (a fictional re-creation of the infamous American conservative ideologue who died of AIDS in 1986) and his attempts to remain in the closet while trying to find some sort of personal salvation in his beliefs.”

Angels in America is a pretty legendary play, even outside the gay literary world. It won numerous awards, including two Tonys as well as the 1993 Pulitzer prize in Drama. It’s long for a play, so long that it’s actually split into two parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, but don’t let its relative length scare you off. It’s still much shorter than a novel, and just the right length for a TV series, like the 2003 HBO mini-series (which is pretty good). The ideal way to experience it is, of course, to see an actual production, but Kushner included enough stage direction to make it an engaging read too, easy to visualize how each scene plays out. These stage directions are actually pretty important to the experience of the play because Kushner is constantly calling attention to the story’s existence as a play. He writes, for example, that the angel should be suspended from a very conspicuous, very visible wire. It’s supposed to look campy, even fake and unbelievable, which is something the T.V. series fails to capture.

AIDS can be difficult to talk about, especially through a literary form. When we’re confronted with something so agonizing and terrible, viewing it through an artistic lens can be like staring into the sun. It’s too raw, too real, and much too human. That’s why some artists, like Kushner, may have looked for ways to soften the blow, ways to divorce their story from reality because reality was just too much. Samuel Delany’s 1985 “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” is one of the first fictional treatments of AIDS and also takes a surreal, experimental approach to depicting it. Perhaps it is from a place of grief that Angels in America takes inspiration for its more fantastic elements. And these elements serve an important purpose in communicating Kushner’s ultimate message: that this will not be the end of us, we are eternal, and we will continue to live and grow and change no matter what comes our way.

Mysterious Skin

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Mysterious Skin
Scott Heim
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from the Mysterious Skin Amazon page:

“At the age of eight Brian Lackey is found bleeding under the crawl space of his house, having endured something so traumatic that he cannot remember an entire five–hour period of time.

During the following years he slowly recalls details from that night, but these fragments are not enough to explain what happened to him, and he begins to believe that he may have been the victim of an alien encounter. Neil McCormick is fully aware of the events from that summer of 1981. Wise beyond his years, curious about his developing sexuality, Neil found what he perceived to be love and guidance from his baseball coach. Now, ten years later, he is a teenage hustler, a terrorist of sorts, unaware of the dangerous path his life is taking. His recklessness is governed by idealized memories of his coach, memories that unexpectedly change when Brian comes to Neil for help and, ultimately, the truth.”

I love me some gritty ‘90s angst, but for some reason there wasn’t a lot of notable gay literature published that decade, possibly due to the public response to the AIDS crisis. But Mysterious Skin has plenty of grit and angst to go around with its abusive fathers and underage hustlers. I can’t say it’s a comfortable read, but many do find it to be cathartic. There was a pretty well-received movie adaptation in 2004 starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is definitely worth checking out if the book doesn’t appeal to you. Of course I feel I should warn potential viewers that the movie is just as dark.

Mysterious Skin is one of the more interesting coming of age stories I’ve read, with Neil and Brian playing out two very different comings of age. I suppose it’s ultimately a story about child abuse and its after effects, but it doesn’t really feel like that to me. There’s something optimistic about it. Neil and Brian internalize and process their abuse in different ways, but they are never defined by it. It is only one small part of who they are, and they eventually grow beyond it. I would say that Neil even finds a way to channel it to aid his own personal development. I think that’s part of what makes ‘90s angst so appealing to me: no matter how shitty the world so often is, we can be resilient and still find ways to lead fulfilling lives.

Luck in the Shadows

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Luck in the Shadows
by Lynn Flewelling
Difficulty: Medium
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Around the age of 14 or 15 I was chewing through the entire Fantasy section at Barnes and Nobles, shelf-by-shelf, when Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows made its way into my pile. It is, to the best of my memory, the first book I ever read containing openly gay or bisexual characters, and as protagonists at that! Of course it took me a while to figure that out, as it’s rather subtle until the second book, and I was very stupid. And very closeted: when I finally figured it out I hid it under my bed and didn’t look at it for a week. But I did go back eventually because, gay or otherwise, it’s an excellent book.

A swashbuckle-y adventure in classic fantasy style, Luck in the Shadows tells the story of Alec and Seregil, two men imprisoned by a local tyrant on false pretenses (false for one of them, at least). Together they escape, and Alec, young and recently orphaned, agrees to accompany Seregil as his apprentice in the art of nightrunning which, as the name suggests, involves burglary, lock picking, spying, and other roguish shenanigans. The two soon find themselves ensnared in a sinister political plot endangering not only their lives but the lives of many others as well.

Luck in the Shadows was published in 1996 and bears many hallmarks of the fantasy genre from that era, so expect lots of world-building and a patient plot. Characters like Alec and Seregil have since become a little cliché, but they are still well-developed and fully realized. Though this is the first in the Nightrunner series, it is a complete story and does not end on a cliffhanger. As previously mentioned the protagonists’ sexuality is not very prominent until the sequel, but a variety of sexualities do exist in the world. To produce a successful fantasy with LGBT characters in the 90’s was no mean feat, and Luck in the Shadows is still worth reading today.