Another Country

Another Country
James Baldwin
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Can I tell you a secret? I hate Giovanni’s Room. I mean, I really hate that book. It’s a masterpiece of course, arguably the public face of gay literature. But I hate it. Like a lot of American gay young men, Giovanni’s Room was one of the first books featuring gay men I’d ever read because it was one of the only ones I’d ever heard of. But while it may be about gay men, I don’t think it’s for them. Giovanni’s Room is a public tragedy, a cry for help designed to inspire public sympathy for the plight of gay men, a goal which it unquestionably accomplished. But when I read it, what I saw was that I was doomed to a life of misery, and that wasn’t a message I wanted or needed to hear. I wish I’d read Another Country instead at that time, instead of many years later. It’s still tragic, but there’s an optimism and a humanity in it different from Giovanni’s Room’s nihilism. Another Country feels like an instruction manual for loving yourself and the people around you, regardless of your differences, and that’s much more valuable to me.

Set in the 1950s against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, Another Country tells the story of a small group of friends coping with the suicide of one of their own. They’re a diverse group: black and white, straight and not, at home and abroad, and they struggle mightily against the prejudices of the age, both as they exist externally in the world and as they do inside each individual person. Juggling themes of sexuality, race, politics, and art, Baldwin strips away the masks that define so much about us and reveals his characters to be simply people, men and women who deserve each other’s sympathy and support as they try to navigate the world together.

In Another Country, more than any of his other books (except perhaps If Beale Street Could Talk), Baldwin relaxed his characteristic restraint and really let loose with some of his more radical ideas. Prostitution, interracial relationships, homo- and bisexuality, and extra-marital affairs all feature prominently in the story, making it  pretty transgressive for its time and definitely a bit out of step with some of his more controlled, strategic works, like Go Tell It On The Mountain or Giovanni’s Room. Because I’ve only got so much space to talk about this book, I’m going to focus on one aspect that really stood out to me: anger. More specifically, how to be angry, angry in a way that doesn’t destroy you from within. Baldwin is afraid of people becoming Wright’s Bigger Thomas or his own Rufus Scott, so beaten down by the world that the only thing they can do is lash out and be crushed. All of the characters in Another Country have good reason to be angry, and oftentimes they take it out on each other, but in the end they always manage, even if only barely, to see the humanity in each other. That sounds annoyingly vague when I write it out, but if the secret to shared humanity were simple Baldwin wouldn’t be writing so many books about it.

Less

Less
Andrew Sean Greer
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

I wasn’t planning to do Less for a long time since this site is mostly geared toward bringing attention to books that may have flown under the radar, but it’s been a favorite punching bag of wannabe literary snobs for a couple years now and I every time I read another “wHaT wAs ThE PuLiTzEr CoMmItTeE tHiNkInG” I get all fired up about it again. So, here we are. There seems to be this bizarre idea that the Pulitzer should only be given to books that ‘measure up’ against the great classics of Western literature, as if we publish four or five such books every year instead of MAYBE one a decade if we’re lucky. And of course, what are these great classics? What makes them great? Who gets to decide the answers to those questions? You’ll be hard pressed to find any two people with precisely the same answers to those questions, much less an entire committee, which is the entire point of having a committee determine the winner rather than a single person. Less is as worthy of the award as any of its other winners regardless of its ability to measure up against the ‘classics.’ And, believe it or not, I think it actually has an important place in the history of gay literature.

The two biggest things about Less which work against its popularity in the mainstream are the fact that it’s about a gay man just living his life–instead of angstily grappling with cruel society or suffering like a good gay–and that it’s humorous (you wouldn’t believe how many people think ‘good literature’ shouldn’t be funny). Mediocre novelist Arthur Less is about to turn 50 when he receives an invitation to the wedding of his only recently separated partner of nine years. In a frantic attempt to make himself unavailable on that date, he accepts a number of invitations to dubious literary events around the world. Over the course of the next few months Arthur finds himself stumbling from one ill-conceived interview or party to the next, all the while reminiscing about his past relationships and desperately trying not to think of his impending 50th birthday.

I think Less is noteworthy as an early entry into a new era of gay literature, one determined to move forward from, but not forget, the struggles which earned us our status as a (somewhat) accepted group in American society. It’s a lighthearted and unapologetic presentation of contemporary gay culture, featuring casual relationships, age differences, and multiple partners. All very normal in the gay community, but still considered risqué by mainstream culture. Nobody likes to age, but aging is a particularly difficult topic in the gay community where youth is so highly valued, and there aren’t many people out there to show gay men how to age since the previous generation was decimated by AIDS. And it just feels good to laugh. Too much gay literature is soul-crushingly tragic, and comedies and other lighthearted books are sorely needed. I’m not here to say that Less is the greatest book ever written, but I think it brings a lot to the table. I complained in my post about What Belongs To You that the book appeared carefully crafted to appeal to a mainstream audience rather than a queer one. Less, on the other hand, seems to be a book about the gay community, for the gay community, and I think that makes it a worthy ambassador to the mainstream, which is probably why there’s so much complaining about it.

Christopher and His Kind

Christopher and His Kind
Christopher Isherwood
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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.

What Belongs To You

What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from Amazon:

“On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. He returns to Mitko again and again over the next few months, drawn by hunger and loneliness and risk, and finds himself ensnared in a relationship in which lust leads to mutual predation, and tenderness can transform into violence. As he struggles to reconcile his longing with the anguish it creates, he’s forced to grapple with his own fraught history, the world of his southern childhood where to be queer was to be a pariah. There are unnerving similarities between his past and the foreign country he finds himself in, a country whose geography and griefs he discovers as he learns more of Mitko’s own narrative, his private history of illness, exploitation, and want.”

It’s always interesting to me to see what kinds of queer fiction catches the attention of the mainstream. They seem to fall into a few different categories, the most popular of which is the classic gay tragedy. A Little Life is a prime example of this. People love a good tragedy, and queer people have the dubious honor of having one built right into their existence. Then there are the innovative or experimental books, like Fun Home or The Argonauts, which participate in the tradition of queer stories being told in queer ways. I usually enjoy these, but I sometimes wonder if the mainstream thinks there’s some queer ‘secret sauce’ that makes these books better than other experimental texts rather than them just being good books in their own right. The last common category that I see is what I’ve come to think of as the voyeur novel. What Belongs to You would fall under this label. These books offer outside readers a glimpse into a mysterious queer world, just a peek behind the moral curtain that obscures such deviant cultural practices as cruising or prostitution. They’re like tourist attractions: slum it with the Other before retreating back to the safety and cleanliness of ‘the real world,’ or at least that’s how my bitter ass interprets it. 

I don’t really know why I’m coming down so hard on What Belongs To You. It’s very well written, sleek and polished MFA prose, and it was nominated for a number of major awards, the full list of which you’ll find blaring out of any shop listing despite the fact that it didn’t actually win any of them. I think what rubs me the wrong way about the book is that it seems so carefully crafted to appeal to the heterosexual mainstream and was so successful at it. The Bulgarian setting adds this layer of foreignness that helps buffer the homosexuality for a straight reader, and for a book about loving a prostitute, Greenwell is pretty circumspect about what exactly they get up to, preferring instead to give us an Aciman-esque poetic meditation on desire and loneliness. And the plot of a lonely gay man lusting after rough trade is as old as gay literature. Queer, Our Lady of the Flowers, and The Thief’s Journal all follow that same pattern, and that’s just a few books already on this blog. But of course there’s nothing wrong with remixing classic plots for a present moment. And anyways, shouldn’t I be happy that a book featuring predominantly gay subject matter is getting so much attention? Probably, but I’m not. I think I’m turning into one of those ornery, anti-assimilationist critics. Anyway, I decided to include What Belongs To You in the blog despite those complaints because 1. I’m interested in what other people are interested in, 2. I recognize it as a quality book even if it frustrates me, and 3. Y’all should be able to decide for yourselves whether my opinions are justified or not. Oh, and it’s got a phenomenal cover.

The Sins of the City on the Plains

The Sins of the City on the Plains
Anonymous
Difficulty: Medium
Project Gutenberg

The Sins of the City on the Plains was published in 1881, and is one of the first primarily homosexual works of pornography published in English. And it is porn, hardly different than the erotica we have available to us today. That’s what makes it such an interesting read. We usually imagine the Victorians as being socially rigid and highly moral, and while that’s true on the surface, the reality is that many Victorians adhered to those principles as little as we do today, and that fact is made abundantly clear in this text. The Sins of the City on the Plains is supposedly the memoirs of a male prostitute known pseudonymously as Jack Saul (a reference to the real-life prostitute John Saul, who was involved in multiple sex scandals at the time), though as the book was published anonymously, there is no way to know how ‘true’ it is. But whether or not the events of the book actually happened, it still offers us a window into Victorian-era homosexuality. Jack Saul recounts a variety of sexual experiences ranging from titillating to outright scandalous, featuring acts including but not limited to: rimming, sixty-nining, cross-dressing, mild-to-intense S&M, gangbangs, orgies, candlestick dildoes, and intercourse with a cow udder.

I don’t really know what I expected when I started reading this book, but it certainly wasn’t all of that. But why shouldn’t it be? Sexuality isn’t new, and there’s no reason to think that we’re particularly special in our own sexual practices. Though we fancy ourselves sexually liberated from the oppressive cultural regimes of the past, there’s actually quite a bit of evidence suggesting that isn’t true. Prior to the 1860’s, when intellectuals began categorizing sexualities, homosexual behavior wasn’t regarded as any more serious a sin than any other. Sodomites were looked down upon, but were viewed only as men incapable of controlling their impulses, not as a special class fundamentally flawed sinners. Foucault writes extensively about this in Volume One of his History of Sexuality, arguing that ‘homosexual’ did not exist before this impulse to categorize emerged, and it was the creation of this new category of people which formed the social framework that allowed them to be oppressed. Put another way, sodomy used to be something men did, not something men were. With that perspective in mind, it’s less surprising that the Victorians may have gotten up to such elaborate sexual hijinx.

The Sins of the City on the Plains was a fun, sometimes goofy, sometimes arousing read, but for anyone interested in checking it out themselves, I highly recommend reading the Project Gutenberg edition. The e-book version I originally acquired from Amazon features numerous revisions and additions that alter the tone and content of the book, and I’m very grateful to the Amazon reviewer who pointed this out. Some sexual descriptions are embellished to the point of comedy, and several of Jack’s heterosexual encounters are rewritten to feature men instead of women. Normally I wouldn’t complain about a book being made more gay, but since a significant part of its appeal stems from its historical authenticity, those changes make a difference.

The Last of the Wine

The Last of the Wine
Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:
“Alexias is a young aristocrat living during the end of Athens’s Golden Age. Prized for his beauty and athletic prowess, Alexias studies under Sokrates with his closest friend, Lysis. Together, the young men come of age in an Athens on the verge of great upheaval. They attend the Olympics, partake in symposia, fight on the battlefields of the Peloponnesian War, and fall in love.

The first of Mary Renault’s celebrated historical novels of ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine follows Alexias and Lysis into adulthood, when Athens is defeated by Sparta, the Thirty Tyrants take hold of the city, and the lives of both men are changed forever. Through their friendship, Renault opens a vista onto ancient Greek life, uncovering its vibrancy, culture, and political strife, and offers an unforgettable story of love, honor, loyalty, and the remarkable bond between two men.”

I feel a bit under-qualified to speak about Mary Renault’s historical fiction. I’m not a classicist, and pretty much all of my knowledge of that period is drawn from popular works like The Odyssey or Symposium, so I really have no idea how historically accurate her work is. After thinking about it a bit, I decided it doesn’t really matter whether it’s accurate or not. The Last of the Wine’s value comes from its rich representation of an alternative culture, not from some intrinsic truthfulness. Historical fiction author Hilary Mantel expresses this in much more eloquent terms:

“[Mary Renault] does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.”

To say that Renault’s Grecians are not like us might seem obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate just how alien they can seem at times. It’s not like a fantasy novel, where a fictional civilization still operates on modern western principles, Alexias and Lysis truly live by laws and values that today seem incredibly foreign to us (and even morally dubious). Sometimes this manifests itself in unexpected ways, such as Alexias’ father advising him on choosing an older male lover when he’s 16, or the practice of exposing infants when the child is undesirable, either because it is female or because the family is too poor. We know these things to be historical facts, but it’s unusual to see them performed without any of the usual reflexive commentary by our own culture.

I found it to be both a humbling and comforting experience to read. Humbling, because, more than sci-fi or fantasy, it caused me to reflect on my own culture and to remember that the way we are is not the way we have always been, and is not the way we always need to be. Comforting, for about the same reason. It was an exciting experience to watch Alexias, at 16, trotting around like a Victorian debutante, attracting the gaze of half the men in the city. I’m not saying that Greek pederasty is a key component of an ideal society, but it was something different. A different way of thinking about intimacy, sexuality, and society that helped expand my views of my own culture.

Cloudbusting

Cloudbusting
by Slade Roberson
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

A common refrain I hear in the gay community is the desire for stories with gay characters “that aren’t about being gay.” I’ve always had mixed feelings about that line, because on the one hand, I understand what they mean and why they want it, but on the other, I’m not sure people agree on what that looks like. And that’s because the experience of being gay involves much more than romantic or sexual attraction to the same sex. Being in the closet, coming out, the scarcity of partners, the special attention to behavior, even just the relentless awareness of a fundamental difference between you and most of the people around you are all a part of being gay, though it’s experienced differently by different people. So the desire for a “normal” character who “just happens to be gay” sometimes seems to me to be a fallacy or an act of self-erasure. But occasionally I come across a story like Eric Slade’s Cloudbusting and it starts to make a lot more sense.

After his boyfriend unexpectedly left him for another man, college student Rusty Stewart finds himself alone and aimless one summer break in 1980s Georgia. But things become a little more interesting when his friend and drug dealer introduces him to Charlotte, an unusual woman who behaves like a southern belle and claims to control the weather, and thinks Rusty can too. Happy to have something to do, Rusty follows her lead and experiments with his dormant magic, when he’s not working or stumbling into awkward social situations that is. But as the summer wears on, it becomes increasingly unclear if Charlotte has Rusty’s best interests at heart.

Cloudbusting is an unusual book. It’s too short to be properly a novel and doesn’t fit into any marketable genre. The magical elements in the story are so subtle it’s ambiguous as to whether or not they’re even there at all, and while there is a plot, there isn’t much of a resolution. It’s like a smaller part of a larger story, and the feeling that there’s no beginning or end adds a lot to the sense of ennui and nostalgia that permeates it. As previously noted, Rusty is a complex, three-dimensional gay man, and while his experiences greatly inform his character, they don’t define it. Cloudbusting isn’t a romance, and I don’t even really think of it as a coming of age tale, it’s just a strange little novella I’m afraid few people will ever read because it’s hard to stumble upon something like this on accident in a digital marketplace where categorization is king. That’s partly why I started this blog to begin with, to curate overlooked books so that others don’t have to spend as much time sifting through the digital muck as I did. But even though I don’t really know how to define it, Cloudbusting has always stuck out to me as unique among the masses, and I hope it gets read.

Also, I greatly prefer the original ebook cover (featured above) to the print edition, which isn’t terrible, but does little to capture the feeling of the story.