Compassion, Michigan: The Ironwood Stories – Raymond Luczak (Modern History Press)

Raymond Luczak has written and edited twenty-four books of fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry—you name it, he’s written it. His latest offering, Compassion, Michigan: The Ironwood Stories, is a collection of sixteen short stories set in Ironwood, Michigan, his hometown. With one notable exception, all of these stories center on the lives and loves of Midwestern women, a departure from Luczak’s last collection of short stories, The Kinda Fella I Am, which focused exclusively on the disabled Gay experience.

Which is not to say that Luczak’s experiences as a Deaf Gay man do not inform these stories; in fact, the two stories that begin and end this collection (“Numbers Six and Seven,” “Independence Day”) feature a Deaf protagonist growing up in a hearing family, and it is impossible not to view them at least as partially autobiographical, the female protagonist notwithstanding. The subject of “The Traitor’s Wife” eventually comes out as Lesbian, and the narrator of “Stella, Gone” (although she does not say it in so many words) would now be considered ace. Several additional stories feature Gay characters as well, but the stories are not “about” them and their struggles; these stories are always about the women at their centers, women who deal with desire (frustrated or not), the demands of their families, infidelity, domestic violence, and the myriad experiences of everyday life.

This book is as much about Ironwood as it is about the women who lived and died there. Luczak includes many details about its geography and history; so much so, that I want to know how much of the setting is “real”–instead I went and looked up the Wikipedia article about Ironwood to compare. Set over most if its 130-year history, these stories retell Ironwood’s founding after the discovery of nearby lodes of iron ore, its expansion due to an influx of numerous immigrant communities, its booming heyday during the two World Wars, and eventual decline. “Yoopers” (for non-Midwesterners, this term describes inhabitants of the U. P. [Upper Peninsula] of Michigan) is a delightful story about acknowledging the unique qualities of where you grew up, whether you celebrate them or not. Two of my favorites imagine lost glimpses into small-town life at the beginning of the twentieth century, which are also glimpses into lost LGBT history. “The Ways of Men” re-creates the life of a transman who leaves his privileged life in Detroit for the relative anonymity of Ironwood; according to Luczak, it is based on a true story (although most of it has been lost to time). “Beginnings” is the poignant story about a marriage of convenience between two teachers—and when it suddenly becomes inconvenient.

“Beginnings” and “Stella, Gone” figure among my favorites in this collection for another reason: both retell part of the history of Ironwood, but both also are the recreations of the subject’s lives from the research and memories of the stories’ narrators. If being unable to tell your story is a living death (if not a literal one) as Rebecca Solnit states in the book’s epigraph, then these stories are affirmations of these women’s lives and choices, regardless of the circumstances they had to withstand, or the mistakes they made. Comparisons to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio seem inevitable, given the Midwest setting and the similar themes of isolation and loneliness; however, Luczak has not written a short story cycle (a novel in short stories) like Anderson did. Luczak has crafted an homage, not to Anderson, but rather to the place he grew up and the women who created it.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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North Point (Jagged Shores, Book One) – Thom Collins (Pride Publishing)

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Thom Collins’ debut novel in a planned romance series is set in the remote, picturesque northeast coast of England and features two men with accomplished careers but no luck at love. While a mysterious assailant looms in the background, they forge a deep, much-needed companionship in an unlikely place for a budding gay relationship.

Arnie is a star of the silver screen who is taking time off from the limelight to introduce his nine-year-old son AJ to the town of North Point where he grew up and enjoyed an idyllic boyhood. Since he moved away for college and his career, he sacrificed personal fulfillment to toe the line as the perfect, hetero leading man, and he was burned by an arranged, high-profile marriage to protect his image. His ex-wife Tara, also AJ’s mother, is a hard-partying socialite and a favorite of the tabloids whose exploits are a constant concern. Arnie is now parenting alone, trying to shield his son from his mom’s media spectacle, and figuring out how to live as an openly gay man.

Dominic is a best-selling author of military thrillers who writes under a pen name and moved to North Point for a quiet place to stay under the radar. He’s a naval veteran who spent his younger years on tour around the world, lacking roots and the ability to explore gay relationships. He takes great pride in volunteering with the local coast guard, and he feels like he’s found his home, albeit without someone to share it with.

When Arnie and Dominic meet, their attraction is instantaneous, but personal concerns stand in the way. Arnie wants to normalize life for his son after the disintegration of his tumultuous marriage. Pursuing a boyfriend feels like it would complicate that goal. Dominic needs to extricate himself from a lackluster relationship with a guy who’s not going to take the break-up well, and that guy happens to be a childhood friend of Arnie’s.

Early in the story, Arnie and his son are witnesses to the shocking attack of a female jogger. A masked and hooded man throws her over a cliff. One thinks things are headed in crime/mystery direction. But North Point is first and foremost a slow burn traditional romance.

The portrayal of Arnie and Dominic’s relationship is enjoyable and puts a refreshing focus on guys outside the young adult or new adult spectrum. They’re both in their middle thirties, though on the other side, Collins takes an idealized “older hunk” approach. There’s plenty of gratuitous exposition on each fellow’s muscular, mouth-watering physique to please romance fans, and the sex scenes run rampant with superlatives.

Both men are well-drawn out, likeable characters who seem perfect for each other. Despite his fame and fortune, Arnie is a down-to-earth guy, owing to his small-town roots. Dominic meanwhile is a protector of his community, where extreme tides can endanger novice boaters and seaside hikers. The reader feels the stakes for Arnie as he carefully measures his personal interest against what’s best for his son. He’s in uncharted territory as a gay single dad, especially since he doesn’t have the freedom to live his life entirely privately. Can he trust Dominic to respect his relationship with his son and to not exploit his media profile?

There’s not an extraordinary amount of intrigue with the murder/mystery theme, but readers who prefer sweet, relationship-driven stories surely won’t mind. Danger lurks for Arnie, who could have several enemies who resent his rise above his small-time hometown and his gayness. One gets the feeling early on that love will save the day. Overall, North Point is a nice, atmospheric romance, perfect for fans of Rick Reed and Jay Northcote.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Foreign Affairs: Male Tales of Lust and Love – Daniel M. Jaffe (Rattling Good Yarns Press)

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Daniel M. Jaffe’s latest—a collection entitled Foreign Affairs: Male Tales of Lust & Love—might lead one to believe that he has written a collection entirely of erotica (especially with that provocative cover illustration!). And while I must disabuse you of that notion (yes, some of the stories are titillating, but most are not), I strongly urge you not to pass this collection by.

Jaffe has already written two novels (The Limits of Pleasure, Yeled Tov), a novel-in-stories (The Genealogy of Understanding), and a prior collection of short stories (Jewish Gentle and Other Stories of Gay-Jewish Living). His novels deal with the intersection of Gay and Jewish identities, and these themes reappear throughout his short stories. The dozen stories in his latest collection all feature a male protagonist, who is American, and they all occur abroad; those, however, are the only common traits shared by all twelve stories. Many of the protagonists are Gay, but a couple are not; some are Jewish, but again, not all are. All of them, regardless of their sexual orientation or ethnicity, are searching for something: usually it is to fulfill desire (illicit or not), but some seek knowledge, or to make peace with the past (in some cases entire centuries of the past), or even redemption (in one case, quite literally). The “Affairs” in the title is meant in all sense of the word.

I realize now that the above is not entirely true: all of the stories are filled with the colors, scents, and flavors of the places where they are set. In addition to each one serving up a sensual feast, these stories are filled with the intimate details of a traveler who has navigated these landmarks, viewed these artworks, and visited these neighborhoods. (Spoiler alert: in his Afterword, Jaffe recounts how each story was inspired by his travels to the places in question.) It sounds cliché, but reading these stories feels like being in Dublin, Mexico City, Seville, Munich; and I suspect that many quarantine-weary readers will enjoy the escape.

Always before, when I review a collection or anthology, I end up focusing on a couple of stories that either stood out, for whatever reason, or appealed to me personally (usually because of some fantastical element). After reading this collection, I have to confess that I enjoyed reading all of the stories herein, even the ones that were horror (“In the Colony,” “The Return,” “Walpurgisnacht”) or lacked a fantastical element (“Innocence Abroad,” “The Trickster,” “El Bochorno”). Whatever your pleasure—be it erotic delight, absurdist humor, a bit of otherworldly magic, or simply the vicarious thrill of the armchair traveler—I can guarantee that you will find something to enjoy in this travelogue; like as not, several somethings.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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The Man from Milwaukee – Rick R. Reed (NineStar Press)

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Rick Reed always looks in directions others don’t, finding inspiration and possibilities in territory untraveled by other writers. In this case, he twists a sort-of romance around a Jeffrey Dahmer obsession and comes up with a short, sharp, shock of a thriller that you can probably finish in an evening if you don’t stop to snack too much.

Emory Hughes is under a lot of stress. He’s the sole support of his sick mother and his uncaring sister, and the pressure is starting to show. Sensing a kindred spirit, he becomes fascinated with the Dahmer case and even ends up corresponding with the killer. Those letters are the highlight of his day, but he also finds some relief in a new relationship with Tyler Kay. When his mother dies, his sister leaves and so does Tyler. All Emory has left is Dahmer and the letters. Or does he?

No matter what genre he’s writing in, Reed never fails to entertain. Here, he builds up a nice sense of dread with the requisite shocks here and there to keep you interested. Emory is proper creepy, especially when his mother dies and he undergoes his transformation from undisciplined slob to a lean, mean, wannabe killing machine. Tyler is also an interesting character, all the more so because he sees Emory’s fascination with Dahmer, yet he continues to stay in contact with him. Emory’s sister also shines as a supporting character, making a solid transition from uncaring to life-saving.

There is, however, one plot point not fully resolved. I can’t be too detailed as it’s a spoiler, and it certainly doesn’t damage a finely told tale all that much, but the omission of its resolution did leave me wondering when all was said and done. I don’t know if it was left open for a possible sequel or if Reed’s editor was just asleep at the switch, but as I said, it doesn’t harm the narrative. Kudos to the art department as well for coming up with a nicely evocative cover.

So, Rick R. Reed’s latest, The Man from Milwaukee, is a fast-paced thriller from a sure hand at his craft. It’s a nice change of pace from the horrors of the daily headlines.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Never Turn Your Back on the Tide – Kergan Edwards-Stout (Circumspect Press)

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The subtitle of this book is Or, How I Married a Lying, Psychopathic Wannabe-Murderer and Kinda Lived to Tell. Heady stuff, that. On the other hand, how many of you out there have glimpsed some psychopathology up close and personal. Raise your hands. See?  It sort of goes with the queer territory, or at least it used to. I haven’t been a gayling for a number of years, but I can’t imagine things have gotten substantially different. It’s the commonalities that matter, however, and Kergan Edwards-Stout covers those bases with wit, intelligence, and just a little bit of sarcasm.

Edwards-Stout calls this a fictional memoir, which is to say that the facts are pretty much there, but he relates them as he remembers them. I get it, and it’s a fair distinction for those who need that. I just want a good story, which he more than delivers. The facts are less important than his veracity, and I believe him. Besides, principals who feel wronged can always write their own books.

Still, a whole life can be daunting. To combat that, Edwards-Stout has wisely opted to present his in smallish convo-over-coffee-sized bits that go down remarkably well and can be either savored slowly or gobbled. He hits the usual biographical points of interest–parents and their peccadilloes, childhood trauma, firsts, and lasts, but he also recounts his forays onto the stage and movie set. His amateur acting experiences are by turns sad and hilarious, but always entertaining.

Of course, a major part of the book is the relationship that inspired the title, some details of which remind me of the protagonist, Gabe, in Edwards-Stout’s 2012 book, Songs for the New Depression. Those scars run deep, and it’s no surprise that a presence so perversasive shows up elsewhere. But he never lets that relationship run away with the book, keeping it far more in balance narratively than I’m sure it was when he was living it. It could be tedious, but Edwards-Stout has a keen sense of when to let it go and move on to something else.

Never Turn Your Back on the Tide is an enjoyable portrait of a life still in flux, well-written and thoughtfully presented–a book for those of you who married the psychopath as well as those who didn’t.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Songs and Poems – Felice Picano (Cyberwit)

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Felice Picano has written over thirty books, mostly novels, short story collections, memoir, even some plays and screenplays, but Songs and Poems is his first poetry collection since The Deformity Lover and Other Poems (1977). In the promotional page to his collection Picano notes that “it should really be titled Early Songs and Poems and Later Songs and Poems.” Many of the early poems were actually written before those in Deformity Lover; their publication now is due to the generosity of Picano’s friend, Dennis Sanders, who returned copies of “Fragments, 1972” and “On the Morton Street Pier, 1970,” which Picano had feared lost.

Picano indeed does organize his collection into two parts, early and late (i.e., poems that either predate or postdate Deformity Lover), each roughly equal in length, containing eleven and thirteen poems respectively. The earlier poems encompass a variety of forms, from sonnets (“Country-Pop Sonnet”) to odes (“Apples”) to pieces that are almost haikuesque in their brevity (“A Scroll by Mu Chi,” third in “Repaintings.”) The section ends with several longer pieces: selections from “On the Morton Street Pier, A Poem Suite,” “Repaintings” (four distinct poems, each describing a different objet d’art), and ending with “In Memoriam: Wystan Hugh Auden, 1973.” “In Memoriam” is definitely my favorite of this section: a beautiful homage, it describes perfectly the sense of dislocation one feels upon learning of a friend’s death (often under perfectly ordinary, even boring, circumstances), the reminiscing afterward, the refusal to avoid communal rituals of mourning in favor of more personal memorials.

The thirteen poems of the second section follow a similar pattern, beginning with shorter pieces, followed by longer works (“My Mother’s Life,” which is original to this collection, and “Window Elegies”) before ending with one final sonnet (the melancholic “Envoi”). Not surprisingly, the poems in this section are much more reflective, dwelling on such themes as loss, regret, and the inevitable endings (of relationships, of lives) that one encounters later in life. My favorites in this section are the aforementioned “Envoi” (because I cannot resist a good sonnet) and the (ironically?) titled “A Late Aubade.” The latter is part of a long tradition of “dawn songs”–poems about lovers leaving each other at dawn, after spending the night together; except here the lovers meet in the afternoon, perhaps to part at dusk.

This collection is aptly named. Poetry, I feel, should be spoken and heard, not just silently read: while reading these poems, I was struck by their innate lyricism, and thought how easily they could be set to music; in particular, a set of the later poems almost read like country-pop lyrics (“Lifted,” New Orleans Girls,” “Ashes and Ice,” and “Break Down”). Upon reading Picano’s promotional page I learned that, yes, indeed, many of these poems have been set to music: composer Walter Torgensen set some of the earlier poems, which Jackie Curtis sang in her act, and a California inmate from a medium security facility had set many of the later poems to music while incarcerated. These poems, indeed, should be sung and heard.

Picano writes with a clarity that makes reading his poetry a delight: no obtuse language or pretentious wordplay obscure the situations described therein—the reader never has to wonder what’s going on, or if an image is “just” a metaphor for what he’s “really” writing about. Even if you’re a reader whose love of poetry was destroyed by modern education, you will enjoy these poems for their humor, honesty, directness, and keen insight into the human condition.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Find Me When I’m Lost – Cheryl A. Head (Bywater Books)

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Da Mack is back!

Okay, she’s back minus one main character–but the loss is hardly noticeable, as this fifth installment of the popular Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series makes a brilliant substitution. The other elements, however, are all in place and operating like the sleek, well-oiled Detroit machine Head has constructed. Fans won’t be disappointed in Find Me When I’m Lost, and it’s also a dandy place for the newbie to start.

Charlie receives a frantic midnight call from Pamela, her ex-husband Franklin’s current wife. Franklin is missing, but that’s probably because he’s been charged with his brother-in-law’s murder. Of course, Charlie knows he didn’t do it, but she has no idea where he is or how to find him. The police and his father-in-law are convinced of Franklin’s guilt, but Charlie puts the weight of Mack Investigations behind her efforts to uncover the truth, leading to some twists, some turns, and some surprising conclusions.

One surprise here is the departure of Gil Acosta, who (along with Don), was a mainstay of Mack Investigations. Actually, that was foretold at the end of the fourth book. What’s surprising is the promotion of capable, highly organized office manager Judy into an investigative role. She acquits herself well, too, bringing some interesting perspective to the client interviews she does. Her easy banter complements the crew well, and the reader gets the feeling she’ll be settling in for the long haul. And although that’s it for the personnel changes, this book shows a bit more of the relationship between Charlie and Mandy.

And, of course, Head’s local color is tremendous, from the legal student/pole dancer named Cursory Brief to a sumptuous description of the pierogies at Polonia’s in Hamtramck, a delicacy I remember well, especially washed down with a 16 oz. Zywiec porter and a shot of raspberry syrup. But never mind the snacks. Can we talk about how easily this book slips down? It has great pacing and never crowds you up with extraneous detail. If Head mentions it twice, pay attention – it’s gonna show up later. The action sequences move with assurance and authority, and nothing feels forced or inorganic.

In short, Cheryl Head and Bywater Books come up with another winner in the Charlie Mack series. I don’t think they need any prodding for a sixth book, but they should consider themselves prodded.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Pigeon – Richard Natale (Blazing Heart Publishing)

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I first ran across Richard Natale a few years ago when I edited some of his work for Bold Strokes–Cafe Eisenhower, Junior Willis, and Love on the Jersey Shore. One facet of all three books I enjoyed immensely was Natale’s characters. They’re always interesting and complex, but they also consistently make the tough decisions and stand up for the right things. That’s especially important for a murder mystery, which Pigeon, Natale’s latest, essentially is. However, that’s only the starting point for this richly detailed and well-told story.

American artist Yancy Gallagher has been invited to lecture at the same Italian university at which he took his degree a few years before. As he gets settled in, he reads of a local murder. Certain details convince him the unidentified dead man is actually Rudi, his ex from when he was a student there. His search for Rudi’s killer takes him to some “corporate” (read mobster) types who run a circuit of clubs Rudi was managing. Yancy, Rudi’s mother, and an understanding police detective combine forces to bring Rudi’s killer to justice–with some surprising results along the way.

As mentioned before, Natale’s characters are always worthwhile but here he’s transported them to a lovely Italian town. Although it does not become a character itself, it lends an undeniable air of languor to what is usually a harried and perilous situation in a more urban setting. Those metro murder interviews are conducted with wisecracks and threats, but Gallagher’s investigation is much friendlier, often taking place over a nice glass of red in some al fresco setting. That does not mean those inquiries are any less tense or driven, just that they’re more polite on the surface. And, perhaps, just a bit deadlier because of it.

And the mystery itself is well worth your time. Initially straightforward, Rudi’s fate becomes more and more questionable with each revelation until Natale has you not knowing what to believe. The twists and turns are intricate but also wholly believable, and they never serve the plot over character. Moreover, it never feels rushed or incomplete. Compliments also go out to the cover designer. The artwork perfectly conveys the slightly surreal environment.

Pigeon, then, is a beautifully layered mystery full of well-drawn major and minor characters. You won’t see the ending coming, but it will make perfect sense once you’re there. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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The Orange Spong And Storytelling At The Vamp-Art Café – St. Sukie de la Croix (Rattling Good Yarns Press)

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It’s 1924, and the Vamp-Art Café in Chicago’s Towertown opens from 6 p.m. ‘til midnight, seven days a week. The neighborhood is inhabited by bohemians, burlesque and vaudeville stars, film actors, writers, artists, poets, political radicals, circus and fairground folk, female and male impersonators, hobos, “temperamentals,” and vampires.

The above quote is from the introduction to The Orange Spong by St Sukie de la Croix. The titular “Orange Spong” is Ra, the Sun, who, it turns out, is the god of vampires. For de la Croix’s vampires can walk about the Roaring Twenties in broad daylight, and need not fear garlic, crucifixes, or holy water; nor do they drink blood. So the vampires who frequent the Vamp-Art Café are nothing like the bloodthirsty revenants of Stoker’s Dracula or F. W. Furnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (which, by the way, they disdain as libelous lies). Rather, they have more in common with the sophisticated and cosmopolitan immortal characters of Anne Rice—minus the blood-drinking.

So what do vampires do if they’re not drinking blood, either indiscriminately, or specifically of the evil doer? In general, these vampires instead confer immortality upon mortals by sucking out their fear of death; specifically, the denizens of the Vamp-Art Café meet every night to tell stories from their centuries-long existences. The Orange Spong records one such evening, with the seven pieces therein flanked by eight interludes “Back at the Vamp-Art Café,” which introduce each of the storytellers. Many of the speakers are ex-pats from Europe, meeting in this Chicago salon, paralleling the similar Parisian salons populated by contemporary American artists.

Although some of the vampires in this novel are centuries, if not millennia, old, most of the stories fall during the fin-de-siècle period of the nineteenth century or immediately preceding/following. One notable exception is the final story, “In the Beginning,” which ironically closes the collection of stories with the vampires’ origin story—an Adam and Eve story retold from a vampiric point of view.

Despite all of the historical name-dropping throughout the collection of stories (e.g., the Brontë sisters and Lewis Carroll), it is clear from the quote above that vampires are not part of what we consider “normal” or “polite” society—they exist always on the fringes of it. Two stories (coincidentally, my favorites) in the middle of the collection especially deal with outsiders: “The Other Side of the Door” and “The Woman in the Puddle.” The first describes the love between a ventriloquist and his dummy; the second describes the journey of a man who initially flees the woman he sees reflected in water, until he finally gives in and follows her. Both stories also explore the theme of transformation, as the ventriloquist’s dummy becomes a vampire over the course of the story (for even nonhuman objects can confer immortality in de la Croix’s milieu), and the protagonist of the latter also transforms—not into a vampire, but something distantly related.

Regardless of whether you are a vampire purist or not, these stories will entertain you, while they titillate you with their strangeness, provoke you with their ideas on the nature of art or immortality, or amuse you with their unusual historical details. Certainly you will never look at a head of lettuce the same way again.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Southern. Gay. Teacher. – Randy Fair (Atmosphere Press)

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The title raises some questions for me right away. Is the period at the end of each word supposed to indicate emphasis, as one does in Social Media Shorthand these days, or is a more subtle categorization at work here? And what of the order? Are these attributes in order of importance? Having been two of three of these, I can certainly relate to Randy Fair’s experience and celebrate his commitment to gay activism as well as maintaining a career in secondary education instead of bailing out on one or both somewhere along the way. Southern. Gay. Teacher. is an interesting look back at that career with the appropriate lessons for all.

Fair taught in Atlanta during the 1990s and so, saw many changes and was involved in the March on Washington. All of these experiences are reflected in his memoir as well as his classroom. Any teacher in the game has their share of war stories, and Fair is no exception. From stunning successes to shattering failures, we’ve had them all, and they’re all in these pages – as are administrators and fellow teachers running the gamut from lovely to loathsome. Some are out, some are not, some are straight, but they all have an opinion on the school GSA.

He includes some biographical information by way of introduction, but once those chapters have concluded and his academic career begins to take off, we tend to lose the personal side of this equation. We know, for example, that he attended the March on Washington and understand it affected him deeply, but we never really see how. We also never see the romantic side of his life, and you might well say that it’s none of our business and has nothing to do with the subject of being a Southern gay teacher. You might be right. But its lack is noticeable and as a result, sometimes the narrator seems more dispassionate than he is.

That said, there aren’t enough of these memoirs on the market – stories of gay men and women not living in safe urban enclaves–if anywhere is safe these days–and fighting for respect for themselves and others on a daily basis. Teachers like Randy Fair are where real change starts, and we should all be glad to share in his experiences, maybe taking a bit away to use for ourselves tomorrow.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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