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 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.

Family of Lies: Sebastian

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Family of Lies: Sebastian
by Sam Argent
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

This is my guilty pleasure book. It’s like a concentrated shot of angst, humor, and romance in a fantasy setting with no frills and I love it. Sebastian Orwell is the youngest son of a disgraced noble family and he just wants to be left alone. But when he finally gets a break from his incorrigible relatives, he chances upon the wounded Prince Turrin and knows his vacation is doomed. He tries leaving the prince in a nearby inn, where he’ll be someone else’s problem, but of course the prince insists on tracking him down to thank him in person. Now Sebastian finds himself unwillingly involved in combating a conspiracy against the Turrin, made all the more frustrating by the prince’s relentless romantic designs on him. Somehow, Sebastian will need to handle all of this without revealing his own powers, or the true reason he hides his face

For me, the chief appeal of this book lies in its dialogue. Every line in it is dripping in wit, and each character seems to have their own special brand. Sebastian and his improbably dysfunctional family share some of the most blistering exchanges, and it quickly becomes apparent why the title is Family of Lies, and why he’s always eager to get away from his relatives. Although this is a fantasy book, Argent doesn’t devote much time to initial world-building. Instead, much like a science fiction novel, she gives the reader information on the go, usually revealing it through interactions and dialogue between characters. This helps set a brisk pace that I found very engaging, but I could see as being a bit bewildering for some readers.

I know that the dynamic between Sebastien and Turrin is not particularly realistic or maybe even healthy (you probably shouldn’t go racing from town to town after someone who treats you with contempt), but it sure is fun to think about. It’s a bit heartwarming to watch Sebastian thaw towards Turrin over the course of the story, and as we learn more about both of the characters (and their families) their respective behaviors and attitudes start to make a lot more sense. For me, Family of Lies pushes all the right buttons so I don’t have much bad to say about it, but it’s definitely not a traditional romance or a traditional fantasy, so be prepared for something a little different if you decide to give it a shot.

Greenwode

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Greenwode
by J Tullos Hennig
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:

“When an old druid foresees this harbinger of chaos, he also glimpses its future. A peasant from Loxley will wear the Hood and, with his sister, command a last, desperate bastion of Old Religion against New. Yet a devout nobleman’s son could well be their destruction-Gamelyn Boundys, whom Rob and Marion have befriended. Such acquaintance challenges both duty and destiny. The old druid warns that Rob and Gamelyn will be cast as sworn enemies, locked in timeless and symbolic struggle for the greenwode’s Maiden.

Instead, a defiant Rob dares his Horned God to reinterpret the ancient rites, allow Rob to take Gamelyn as lover instead of rival. But in the eyes of Gamelyn’s Church, sodomy is unthinkable… and the old pagan magics are an evil that must be vanquished.”

I love retellings of classic stories and fairytales, especially when they’re tweaked or expanded to focus on different types of people (especially when those people are like me!). But to call J Tullos Hennig’s Greenwode a simple retelling would not communicate the depth and substance of the book. Hennig’s version of the Robin Hood myth is much more like Stephen Lawhead’s than Disney’s: complex, meticulously researched, and vividly realized. The culture and conflicts of the middle age setting plays a major role in the plot, and Hennig devotes plenty of energy developing Gamelyn, Rob, Marian, and others into believable, sympathetic characters instead of leaving them as mere mythic archetypes.

It’s important to know up front that Greenwode is on the longer side and ends in a cliffhanger. The sequel, Shirewood, is worth reading regardless, but I understand why the necessity of reading a second book might be frustrating for some. I found Greenwode to be an enjoyable historical fantasy/coming of age story on its own, but definitely a bit grim. The spectre of religious conflict seemed always to be present and gave even happier or funnier scenes a darker tone and sense of foreboding, and hit a little too close to home for me. But maybe I’m just not cut out for forbidden romances. The prose is pleasant and easy to read, and though the phonetic accents sometimes gave me pause I think they helped flesh out the setting in a meaningful way. Recommended for fans of high fantasy, forbidden romance, and myths or fairy tales.