Alcibiades the Schoolboy

Alcibiades the Schoolboy
Antonio Rocco
Difficulty: Medium
Full Text, American Translation (cannot vouch for accuracy)

Published in the year 1652, Alcibiades the Schoolboy is a defense of pederasty, or love between men and pubescent boys, presented in the style of a Platonic dialogue and attributed to the Italian priest Antonio Rocco. The setting is ancient Athens, and the schoolmaster Philotimes, clearly intended to be Socrates, is desperately trying to convince his angelic and well spoken pupil Alcibiades to sleep with him by offering arguments defending the practices of pederasty and sodomy. His major points are that laws are arbitrary and often unjust, that nature gave men urges so they could act on them, and that women are icky and want things from you (putting it nicely). Bookending his argument are long poetic passages extolling the virtues of boys in startlingly explicit detail, even by today’s standards. In fact, the most striking attribute of the whole text is its incredibly frank discussion of sex, both its pleasures and mechanics. Such explicit writing leads me to believe it was also intended to double as pornography. As you might imagine, such a book was not particularly popular with the church, and it was promptly destroyed, with the few surviving copies hidden away for the next 200 years. It wasn’t until 1862 that it would finally be reprinted in the original Italian, before being translated into French in 1866. The novel wouldn’t appear in English until the year 2000, translated by Oxford Professor J. C. Rawnsley, now out of print.

The preface to the 1891 French translation calls it the first homosexual novel, and as far as I know they’re right. How is it that such a historically significant piece of writing has flown almost completely under the radar, not receiving an English translation for almost 350 years? The obvious answer is subject matter, I suppose, Rawnsley didn’t even want his translation published until after his death. But we willingly engage with other pederastic dialogues like Phaedrus and Corydon, though they’re nowhere near as explicit (Phaedrus gets a little steamy though, stop loosening your robe Socrates). It seems like an arbitrary line in the sand to me, but there it is. Erotica and pederasty are only okay as long as they aren’t both present in the same text.

As an argument, Alcibiades the Schoolboy comes off so-so. His points about arbitrary laws and natural urges are reasonable but hardly convincing, certainly not to the early modern church. After all, resisting our urges is pretty much the cornerstone of Christianity. It’s very jarring to hear Christian arguments delivered by Greek characters, especially the invocation of Sodom and Gomorrah, the setting and subject just don’t mix. The allusion to Socrates’ pursuit of Alcibiades is similarly confusing, as Socrates famously eschewed physical love in favor of the spiritual kind (as told by Plato). But for me, what really detracts from the argument is Philotimes’ descent into masturbatory rapture as he goes on and on about the beauty of a boy’s buttocks. Seriously, there are paragraphs upon paragraphs about it. It’s a little difficult to be enthusiastic about his argument when his motivation is so obviously base.

One more strange thing: at one point in the argument, Philotimes claims that it’s good to love young boys because dolphins, yes, dolphins, also love young boys. And he offers no less than three examples. I thought this was a very strange thing to say, and with so much evidence, so I did a little research. It turns out, according to “When A Dolphin Loves A Boy: Some Greco-Roman and Native American Love Stories” by Craig A. Williams, there are at least TEN separate stories in Greek history and myth of dolphins falling in love with boys. And they’re not ambiguous in the slightest. In several of the stories, the dolphin and boy are buried together. In another, a dolphin beaches himself to commit suicide after his boy dies. Apparently dolphins are associated with Dionysus, god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy (among other things), so perhaps Philotimes claim is that these sacred creatures love boys, so it clearly must be a good thing? I have no idea what to do with knowledge of this tradition of interspecies dolphin-boy love so I’m telling everyone. The world needs to know.

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.

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.

The Last Sun

The Last Sun
K. D. Edwards
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Amazon:

“In this debut novel and series starter, the last member of a murdered House searches for a missing nobleman, and uncovers clues about his own tortured past. Rune Saint John, last child of the fallen Sun Court, is hired to search for Lady Judgment’s missing son, Addam, on New Atlantis, the island city where the Atlanteans moved after ordinary humans destroyed their original home. With his companion and bodyguard, Brand, he questions Addam’s relatives and business contacts through the highest ranks of the nobles of New Atlantis. But as they investigate, they uncover more than a missing man: a legendary creature connected to the secret of the massacre of Rune’s Court. In looking for Addam, can Rune find the truth behind his family’s death and the torments of his past?”

This one was super unexpected and a ton of fun. It took me a long time to learn to enjoy urban fantasy as a genre since it’s usually just ‘the present, but with the magic,’ and I like my fantasy to be farther removed from reality. But The Last Sun is a welcome departure from that formula. Yes, it takes place in the present, and yes, there’s magic, but there’s also a significant amount of engaging world building that I think is often missing from the genre. New Atlantis turns out to be a fascinating city with a well-developed history. When it was first established, its creators ‘borrowed’ iconic buildings and spaces from all over the world to populate it, and the result is a varied, kaleidoscopic landscape that reflects the city’s diverse inhabitants. It makes for an exciting setting, and Edwards does a great job describing the buildings’ histories without being tedious or disrupting the narrative.

But as fun as the world building is, it’s really the characters that are the main attraction. Rune and company are all well-developed, sympathetic, and endlessly witty, and their interactions are easily my favorite part of the novel. The intimate relationship between Rune and Brand was particularly refreshing, as neither character was afraid to express how they felt about each other despite the absence of any romantic or sexual feelings. Funnily enough, I think the plot itself was my least favorite part of the book. It’s not bad, there’s just so much going on and it moves at such a blistering pace that it often got in the way of quieter moments where the characters just talk to each other. But despite its many moving parts, Edwards manages to pull it all together in the end, more or less. It is the first in a forthcoming series, so expect some unresolved plotlines and a bit of a wait for future books.

Lord of the White Hell

Lord of the White Hell
Ginn Hale
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Goodreads:

“Kiram Kir-Zaki may be considered a mechanist prodigy among his own people, but when he becomes the first Haldiim ever admitted to the prestigious Sagrada Academy, he is thrown into a world where power, superstition and swordplay outweigh even the most scholarly of achievements.

But when the intimidation from his Cadeleonian classmates turns bloody, Kiram unexpectedly finds himself befriended by Javier Tornesal, the leader of a group of cardsharps, duelists and lotharios who call themselves Hellions.

However Javier is a dangerous friend to have. Wielder of the White Hell and sole heir of a dukedom, he is surrounded by rumors of forbidden seductions, murder and damnation. His enemies are many and any one of his secrets could not only end his life but Kiram’s as well.”

Lord of the White Hell’s chief asset is its diverse cast of likable characters. A regular complaint I have when reading YA or romance novels is that many plots rely on indefensibly poor judgement on the part of one or often more characters to generate conflict, making it difficult to sympathize with them. Youth and stupidity do not need to go hand in hand, but fortunately this is not a concern with Kiram and company. Though they may be young, they are cognizant of social and cultural practices and taboos, many of which mirror those in our world, and the potentially devastating consequences of failing to conform. At times I even found it a bit depressing since I usually read fantasy to escape reality, but I suppose that it speaks well of Hale’s ability to portray such a realistic society. And it’s not as though other prejudices like racism aren’t already staples of the fantasy genre, so I really can’t complain.

This book is definitely a romance before it’s a fantasy novel, but unlike most of the authors who attempt to bridge that genre gap Hale actually does a pretty good job building out her fantasy world. Granted, Cadelonia is essentially a medieval Christian nation subjugating a smaller indiginous population (the Haldiim), but Hale still gives it plenty of detail and character. Fans of romance might find it to be a bit slow paced, fans of fantasy a bit too fast and lacking intensive worldbuilding, but as a regular reader of both genres I still found it enjoyable. One important thing to know: this is only the first half of the complete story, so be aware that you’re signing up for two moderately long (~350 pgs each) but good books.

What Belongs To You

What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell
Difficulty: Medium
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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.