Faggots

Faggots
Larry Kramer
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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 viscious, 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.

Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada

Clicking Beat on the Brink of Nada
Keith Hale
Difficulty: Easy
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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.

Jack the Modernist

413tvrkybhl

Jack the Modernist
by Robert Glück
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the inside cover:

“Set in the early 1980’s, Robert Glück’s first novel, Jack the Modernist, has become a classic of postmodern gay fiction. Bob is excited and lonely. He meets and pursues the elusive Jack, a director who is able to transform others without altering himself. Bob goes to the baths, gossips on the phone, goes to a bar, thinks about werewolves, has an orgasm, and discovers a number of truths about Jack. A paean to love and obsession, Glück’s novel explores the everyday in a language that is both intimate and lush.”

This is probably one of the edgier novels on this website. Robert Glück was one of the founders of New Narrative, a 1970s literary movement that aimed to depict subjective experiences as honestly and candidly as possible. In the case of Jack the Modernist, that means a lot of graphic sex. I admit I’m deeply skeptical of New Narrative–‘honestly depicting subjective experiences’ doesn’t seem very unique to me–but I do find something interesting about Glück’s pornography (though he might resent that label). In a way we’ve been scared of sex since the AIDS crisis, and our literature reflects that fear through our unwillingness to depict it in detail. So where should people go for honest, authentic portrayals of the act? The modern porn industry isn’t exactly the best place to learn about it, so books like Glück’s definitely have a purpose to serve in the culture.

I had a pretty lukewarm response to the actual story. A fairly typical tale of unrequited love in a promiscuous, pre-AIDS gay community. Very reminiscent of other ‘halcyon era’ books like Dancer from the Dance. Glück’s prose is pleasant, and the book is full of little postmodern flourishes which keeps it fun and flexible (some conversations are carried out like plays, for example). It’s also fairly short, which is to its benefit as I can only read about shallow gay men fucking each other for so long before I start to get bored. I don’t usually comment on the actual physical book itself, but the copy I own (linked above) is a nice little piece. Great cover, french flaps, with full page (black and white) images that complement the story’s events. All in all, while Jack the Modernist probably isn’t going to blow your mind, it’s interesting enough to warrant a look, and it’s low-commitment enough to probably be worth the time.

Dancer from the Dance

41ma5kplpal

Dancer from the Dance
Andrew Holleran
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Dancer from the Dance is one of my favorite novels from what I’ve come to call the “gay halcyon days,” referring to the years between the birth of the modern gay rights movement, with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early ‘80s (books in this category are tagged as pre-AIDS on this site). I use this term partially ironically, since that era is revered nowadays for the sexual freedom it offered gay men in big cities despite the suffering experienced by those in rural areas, among countless other serious gay rights issues. Nevertheless it is still a historically significant novel, documenting some important cultural events of the decade including the Everard Baths fire and the Fire Island experience.

Anthony Malone is on a quest for love in the streets of New York. He’s given up his life as a heterosexual lawyer and moved to the Big Apple to explore its gay underground and live a life he’d been denying himself. There he meets Andrew Sutherland, a debutante, drag queen, and addict who sees Malone’s beauty as an exciting development in the gay scene and is determined to leverage it to his own advantage. Dancer from the Dance follows the two in their adventures through discos, bathhouses, Fire Island, and more in their pursuit of their respective goals.

To be entirely honest, Dancer from the Dance would have benefited from several more passes through the editing process before publication. While the prose is enjoyable, Holleran could have easily lopped off 50 pages without losing anything too important. The framing of the novel doesn’t seem to serve too great a purpose either, since he rarely takes advantage of the anonymous narrator to develop another perspective on the story. But I’ve come to find that the rough, unfinished feel of the book is now one of its most appealing traits. It’s very much a novel of its time: self-indulgent, underground, and unpolished, and that’s okay. More than okay, I would argue, as the contemporary “literary” market is saturated with overly-polished, tightly-controlled, MFA debut novels which, of course, are very skillfully written, but so often seem to lack soul. Dancer’s got that, at least, and that fact combined with its historical value makes it worth a read.

Dhalgren

41MB2xpI34L

Dhalgren
by Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Very Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Samuel R. Delany was the first commercially successful black sci-fi author and the first commercially successful gay sci-fi author. He was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 2013, and is often cited as a primary inspiration for both the afrofuturist and cyberpunk movements. Many consider Dhalgren to be his magnum opus, with its unbridled formal experimentation, critical dialogue on minority cultures, and intense, unexplained surrealism.

Dhalgren takes place in Bellona, a burned out, hollow husk of a city in the American midwest, inhabited only by the margins of society and forgotten about by the rest of the country. What exactly happened to Bellona is never made clear, as, indeed, is the case for most things in the novel. At this city arrives the protagonist, a Half-native American amnesiac wearing one sandal and trying to remember his name. As he explores the constantly shifting city he encounters many different types of people, finds a girlfriend, finds a boyfriend, and becomes a poet, hero, and gang leader all at once.

Full disclosure, Dhalgren is pretty much my favorite book and I’ve got a lot of nice things to say about it. So before I do, let’s talk about some of the less nice things. This book is notoriously difficult to finish, on par with or perhaps even surpassing other postmodern door stoppers like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Recognitions. Most of the book appears to have little to no plot, and long stretches of it are intentionally, infuriatingly boring. It opens with the second half of a sentence only completed by the fragment which ends the book, and the story is periodically punctuated by inexplicable schizophrenic soliloquies. Many find the experience of reading Dhalgren to be literally maddening.

But many others, like myself, find the experience to be revelatory instead. It must be read with a willingness to accept, but not understand, and in a way that came very naturally to me. The real world is full of many things I cannot understand, yet must accept anyway, so why should I approach Dhalgren any differently? Bellona’s society showed me a new perspective on what it means to be a social minority, ways in which it can actually be liberating, freeing me from the oppressive institutions of heteronormativity, capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Dhalgren was a tremendously influential book for me, and I have since dedicated myself to reading and studying the rest of Delany’s bibliography in order to better understand the man behind it.

The Swimming-Pool Library

51W3rDnds+L

The Swimming Pool Library
by Alan Hollinghurst
Difficulty: Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Alan Hollinghurst’s debut novel was considered by many to be a gay modern classic upon its publication in 1988, winning both the Somerset Maugham Award and the E. M. Forster Award. Though Hollinghurst has since outdone himself, winning the coveted Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty in 2004, The Swimming-Pool Library still retains a well-deserved place among the best of gay literature.

William Beckwith is an attractive, promiscuous, and exceptionally privileged young man. He is the grandson and heir of the very wealthy Viscount Beckwith, who has already bestowed much of his estate onto Will. As a result, Will does not need to work to sustain himself, and instead spends his time swimming at a prestigious club and cruising men in the locker room (and everywhere else). By chance, Will saves the life of an aging aristocrat, beginning a friendship between the two which ultimately leads to Will reassessing his perspective on the world.

To be entirely honest, I didn’t much care for this book when I first read it. Will is rather difficult to like, being an extravagantly wealthy, pre-AIDS fuckboy (still hot though), and the book has a narrative arc so shallow I didn’t even realize what it was about until I’d already finished it. By shallow arc, I mean that the events constituting the plot are not immediately obvious as being so. But over time the book grew on me. It is delightfully erotic, though rarely explicit, and modern, pre-AIDS stories are uncommon at best, and reveal an era before the intense sexual paranoia we are still recovering from today. It’s also, as you’ve probably already noticed, the place from which this blog takes its name, proving that it does have some staying power.