The Wild Boys

The Wild Boys
William S. Burroughs
Difficulty: Hard
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Imagine Naked Lunch, but gayer and possibly even more abstract, then you’ve got The Wild Boys. The plot: organized gangs of homosexual warrior boys roam an apocalyptic wasteland doing battle with various military forces in order to bring about the downfall of western civilization. But it might take you two or three read-throughs to piece that all together because Burroughs is all in with his signature surreal style. The story is told in a series of vignettes–or fragments of vignettes–that leap wildly from one subject and style to the next. Most of the time it’s hard to see how they’re connected, and it’s only once you’re solidly into the book that you might be able to get a sense of what’s going on. But it’s not the plot you should read The Wild Boys for, it’s the aesthetic. 

Like a lot of Burroughs other works, The Wild Boys is dripping in color, texture, and bodily fluids. Vivid and trippy sexually charged scenes slide into one another and back again without warning. In one scene a boy dies and then steals the body of another boy by entering him as he cums. In another, several boys masturbate giant penis plants so they can collect the semen to sell at market. Or my personal favorite, the creation of a wild boy, achieved by summoning a spirit and having anal sex with it, creating a physical body for the spirit by ejaculating inside it. I’d like to say these are the more crazy scenes, but no, it’s pretty much all like that. Despite how weird and pronographic the book is, The Wild Boys was surprisingly influential upon its publication. Most notably, David Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust was based largely on Burroughs description of the wild boys. Duran Duran’s song “The Wild Boys” was also directly inspired by the novel.

I’ll admit, reading this novel the first time I mostly felt irritated by how incomprehensible it was. In retrospect this was an unfair reaction. Naked Lunch was much easier for me, but that’s because Naked Lunch received much more public attention than The Wild Boys ever did. I knew what to expect with Naked Lunch, I knew what I was getting into and how I might interpret it. Not so with The Wild Boys. But in the years since reading it I’ve come to appreciate it much more. I’ve never read anything else quite like it, and some of the scenes really stick out in my memory, for better or worse.

Taji From Beyond the Rings

Taji From Beyond the Rings
R. Cooper
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from Amazon:

“The Interplanetary Trade Coalition has not been welcomed with open arms by the Sha Empire. Isolated at the far edge of a distant system, the Sha are distrustful of outsiders, and previous I.P.T.C. diplomatic missions have ended with members imprisoned or dead. But, if pushed enough, the I.P.T.C. will overrun the planet to take what it wants. The situation is already precarious when student linguist Taji Ameyo is conscripted to translate for the newest I.P.T.C. ambassador. Taji, used to being alone, has never learned to hide his heart or his opinions, and the controlled Sha nobility regard little, outspoken human Taji with fascination, calling him shehzha.

Mysterious, coveted figures, so devoted to their lovers that pleasing them is a test of Shavian honor, shehzha are usually kept out of public view. Taji is a nobody, hardly alluring, and yet it’s not long before his runaway mouth gets him entangled in imperial politics, and he has no one rely on but the soldiers assigned to protect him—one soldier, more than the others.

At the mercy of both a greedy trade coalition and a proud empire, Taji has to determine what it means to be shehzha, while surrounded by ambitious noble families and a sharp-eyed emperor, and hopefully learn enough about the Sha to keep him and everyone he cares about alive.”


I’ve read a couple of R. Cooper’s books and found them to be enjoyable, but I had no idea she was capable of a novel like this. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read something this good from the self-publish/small press M/M community before, except for Klune’s Murmuration, and this one might be better. Taji From Beyond the Rings is a rigorous, anthropological science-fiction romance that repackages radical ideas of sex and gender first found in works like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand in the form of an accessible genre novel. The Sha society depicted in Taji is creative, consistent, and believable, and so are the interactions between them and the I.P.T.C. emissaries of which the eponymous protagonist is a member. Cooper uses the complex, perilous challenge of learning and navigating a foreign culture as a versatile plot device that grants the story natural momentum, something many romance writers struggle with when they try to force their plots to replicate desired romance genre conventions. The linguistic mystery of shehzha, an enigmatic, untranslatable rank in Shavian culture, was particularly engaging. The experience of constantly redefining the term as Taji discovers new information reproduces for the reader the experience that Taji is having in the story. Like him, we can only speculate on the meaning of Sha words and symbols and adapt when we find out we’re wrong. Readers less familiar with science fiction as a genre may find this experience disconcerting at first, but becomes easier to process with time.

Interwoven with all this detailed and complex science fiction is an interspecies romance I can only describe as “mushy.” There’s lots of pining and angst, stoic handsome space marines, several explicit sex scenes, the works. But where these elements might feel melodramatic or just plain silly in a typical romance novel, they’re all quite natural in the context of Cooper’s extensive worldbuilding. One Amazon review wrote, “Without the author’s storytelling skills and imaginative vision, this book could easily have been shelved under the overheated and unhinged section for teenage wet dreams.” The reviewer’s not wrong, Cooper is working with some very delicate sexual tropes that before now I would have said could not be done tastefully, yet there they are in all their erotic and sensual glory. I’ll admit, some of them made me a little uncomfortable, but that’s only because they challenge values western culture holds in high esteem, like agency, independence, and self-reliance. Through the Sha, Cooper convincingly argues for the beauty and bravery to be found in relinquishing those ideals in order to become closer with another. As I write, it occurs to me that this is the principle behind BDSM, though I don’t think this particular story could be described as that. Anyway, it’s not often that I come away from a pulpy genre like romance feeling like I’ve learned something, so I feel very fortunate to have come across Taji From Beyond the Rings and enthusiastically recommend it to others.

The Starless Sea

The Starless Sea
Erin Morgenstern
Difficulty: Hard
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Blurb from Amazon:

“Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth. What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life.”

We get a lot of retellings and reimaginings of classic fairy tales and myths, but not so many attempts at creating new ones. It’s no easy task, and the experience of reading Starless Sea is a quiet reminder of how much we rely on existing narratives and motifs to make sense of the world. Chasing bee, key, and sword symbols across a tapestry of separate but converging stories is an exercise in forbearance, resigning oneself to general disorientation as Morgenstern patiently works her way toward a unified narrative. But the final product is worth the effort. Readers of The Night Circus will already be familiar with her signature slow-moving, heavily visual brand of magical realism, and Starless Sea has it in spades. The mystery builds in momentum across the book’s ~500 pages and in the second half escalates into a full-on magical thriller, one all the more satisfying for the work both reader and author put in laying the foundation in the first half.

If the Amazon reviews are anything to go by, Starless Sea is probably not for everyone. It seems to have sharply divided its readers between those who found it pretentious and meandering, and those who think it’s an absolute masterpiece that trumps Night Circus. The key difference I observe between Morgenstern’s first and second books is the amount of effort she demands from her audience. Compared to Starless Sea, Night Circus was brisk, to the point, and heterosexual; all the mainstream reader had to do sit back and enjoy. But Starless Sea demands a bit of patience and a bit of work as Morgenstern sets the stage. And I’ll admit, sometimes it felt like too much. Constantly changing stories was a real momentum killer which, in a novel of this length, can be demoralizing. But her descriptive prose managed to make the experience a net positive, and by the time the action ramped up, I was completely on board.

As a bonus, enjoy this shrewd and penetrating critique from a top Amazon review:

“I also did not like the homosexual element. Homosexuals are fine with me. They are as normal as anyone, but I just don’t want to read about them. Give me/boy girl stories please?”

Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy
David Levithan
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Amazon:

“This is the story of Paul, a sophomore at a high school like no other: The cheerleaders ride Harleys, the homecoming queen used to be a guy named Daryl (she now prefers Infinite Darlene and is also the star quarterback), and the gay-straight alliance was formed to help the straight kids learn how to dance.

When Paul meets Noah, he thinks he’s found the one his heart is made for. Until he blows it. The school bookie says the odds are 12-to-1 against him getting Noah back, but Paul’s not giving up without playing his love really loud. His best friend Joni might be drifting away, his other best friend Tony might be dealing with ultra-religious parents, and his ex-boyfriend Kyle might not be going away anytime soon, but sometimes everything needs to fall apart before it can really fit together right.

This is a happy-meaningful romantic comedy about finding love, losing love, and doing what it takes to get love back in a crazy-wonderful world.”

It’s a little strange that such a flamboyant novel has such an unassuming name, but it actually fits pretty well. Beneath the campy exterior is a surprisingly deliberate and thoughtful coming-of-age romance with a meaningful message. Drag queen quarterbacks and harley-riding cheerleaders aren’t just there for comic relief (though they are often humorous), they also represent a utopic vision of society, one in which the star quarterback could be a drag queen. And that’s more or less what Boy Meets Boy is about. It’s delightful to explore Paul’s improbably progressive town and school and see the ways in which Levithan sets about subverting heternormative society as he creates his queer paradise. But unlike many other gay YA novels, he never forgets about the way things actually are. Paul’s friend Tony lives in the next town over, a town which more accurately reflects the actual societal attitude of 2003, and has very religious, very controlling parents. Tony serves as a constant reminder that, while Paul’s life might be charmed, the world still has its problems.

Paul’s character is particularly notable for being pretty much the only person in the novel not completely riddled with teenage angst. In contrast to most other YA protagonists, his life has been downright easy, something Levithan makes a point of emphasizing. Paul never struggled with his sexuality, his parents were accepting, and he’s never faced any social or physical consequences for his orientation, but most of his friends can’t stay the same. It’s a little weird reading a story from the perspective of the one person who’s just completely fine. Watching him solve problems thoughtfully and maturely was a bit bewildering at times because it’s so out of character for the genre. I’m not entirely sure why this aspect of Paul’s character is important to Levithan, but he’s pretty clear that it is. I suppose Paul’s ability to handle emotionally challenging situations caused me to reflect on similar situations in my life and to examine the reasons I might respond the way I do. How much of my behavior is colored by experiences grappling with my sexuality or the consequences of it? Paul could also be viewed as a bit of an instruction manual, demonstrating the right way to behave instead of validating more typical, emotionally charged responses. Regardless of the reason, Paul is a large part of what makes Boy Meets Boy stand out from the (admittedly small) gay YA crowd.

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 vicious, 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.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson
John Green and David Levithan
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Amazon:

“Two award-winning and New York Times–bestselling author join forces for a collaborative novel of awesome proportions.

One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical.

Hilarious, poignant, and deeply insightful, John Green and David Levithan’s collaborative novel is brimming with a double helping of the heart and humor that have won them both legions of faithful fans.”

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is pretty much a mandatory read for YA fans since it’s a superstar collaboration between two of the best in the business. When they set out to write it, all Green and Levithan knew was that they would each write a character named Will Grayson, and that their characters would meet at some point. While I’m not the world’s biggest YA reader, I have to admit that the end result is pretty unique. The story is told from both characters points of view in alternating chapters, with the second Will Grayson’s (styled ‘will grayson,’ written by Levithan) mimicking an instant messenger chatroom, complete with usernames and no capitalization. As a titanic nerd who lived most of his teen years online, this was very familiar to me. I admit I found it a little difficult to like will grayson during the first part of the book because he was just so damn angsty, but as the story developed so did he, and by the end he was my favorite. Admittedly, he didn’t have that much competition because Green’s properly capitalized Will Grayson was pretty cookie cutter protagonist, intent on keeping a low profile and never rocking the boat, and pretty much succeeding at it. As a whole, Will Grayson, Will Grayson has much more in common with Levithan’s goofiness than it does Green’s high-stakes drama, but as I’ve said before, we need more fun gay stories.

When it was first published in 2010, Will Grayson, Will Grayson became the first LGBTQ+-themed novel to ever make the NYT’s Children’s Bestsellers list, largely due to the fact that few YA or children’s authors wanted to touch the topic. I have to wonder what level of influence it’s had over the last decade. On paper I would think the split narrative might entice readers of any orientation to give it a try, but everywhere I look I see the book categorized as LGBT fiction, which I think is unfortunate. That label may help LGBTQ+ folks find it, but it also makes it easier for those NOT searching that label to never see it. It’s important to write for our own community, but I’ve always felt that the greatest challenge lies in getting those outside of that community to acknowledge our existence in their media. That’s something I really like about Will Grayson, Will Grayson, that it tries to cross those boundaries, albeit with limited success. I think on some level, LGBTQ+ people simply don’t exist in the lives of many individuals, so when they encounter them in media, they reflexively categorize that media as being for someone else. It’s easy to forget how large a role systems like Amazon’s play in shaping the content we see and the content we don’t.

Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada

Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada
Keith Hale
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Amazon:

“By turns funny, romantic, erotic, and sad, this evocative novel brilliantly recreates the landscape of late adolescence, when friendships seem eternal and loves reincarnate. Set in Arkansas but first published in Amsterdam, Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada (published under the title of Cody in United States) quickly won praise from reviewers and readers across Europe and North America. So beautiful, brave, and ahead of its time that William S. Burroughs was an early fan, Clicking Beat remains remarkably current and continues to be unique in coming of age literature. A haunting vision of young friendship shattered by an outrageously cruel world. Keith Hale’s novel aches with adolescent first loves.”

I’ve attempted to write about this book several times over the last few months but always ended up deleting it. On the one hand, it’s a poignant, sensitive, and thoughtful coming of age tale that definitely deserves attention, but on the other, it’s one of the most emotionally grueling books I’ve ever read, to the point where I don’t even want to reread it for this write-up. It’s not always sad–although it’s sad pretty often–it’s just emotionally dense. I feel like nothing ever just happens in this book because every character, plot event, and interaction is saturated with emotional meaning. It’s exhausting, but I guess it’s also impressive. Many writers struggle to make readers care about their characters, but with Hale’s book it’s like I care too much. I don’t think any of that quite qualifies as a downside though, and the book’s strong characters and crisp prose have earned it a lot of well-deserved praise.

Clicking Beat has a highly political focus that I’ve never been quite sure what to make of. The main character goes by Trotsky, and his mother is a university instructor and outspoken advocate of Socialism (remember that this Clicking Beat is set in the 1980s). The strange part of this is the fact that socialism fills the role of catalyst that sexuality normally would in a coming of age story. It’s his mom’s socialism that earns the ire of their Arkansas town and it’s socialism which inspires a number of the (often bad) events which move the story forward. I’m not sure if it was Hale’s attempt to complicate the traditional gay coming of age format or if there was a deeper political meaning to those choices but mostly I just felt confused. Perhaps if I were to reread it it would become clearer to me, but it’s been more than half a decade since I read the book and I don’t feel the need to revisit it, at least not yet.

Also, it is absolutely criminal that the American publisher initially changed the title to Cody. Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada is one of my all time favorite titles and I really can’t fathom how Cody is in any way an improvement.