Disease – Hans Hirschi (Beaten Track Publishing)

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Nothing quite prepares you for the loss of a life partner, even books such as this one. From the stark, foreboding cover to the simple title, you can tell just what you’ll be getting at a glance. You’d be looking for a simple story of decline and eventual death, packed with emotional episodes and ending with a tastefully hopeful coda acknowledging the trauma while reminding the reader that life, ultimately, belongs to the living. And that’s exactly what you get with Disease.

Writer Hunter MacIntyre has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and must try to wind down his life as his health declines. Aided (and sometimes hindered) by his partner, Ethan, and their five-year-old daughter, Amy, he takes us on his journey through the Kubler-Ross model of grief as he mourns his life.

The temptation here is to wallow in those emotions, breaking occasionally for a bit of clear-eyed wisdom, but Hirschi has wisely chosen to eschew that over-emotional approach. That’s not to say this isn’t an emotional book. By using an epistolary style, however, Hirschi provides a welcome layer of distance. Hunter’s diary entries carve up the experience, proscribing the incidents and giving them clear borders and boundaries. Alternating those with the survivor’s point of view, written as reactions to those diary entries, sets up an incident/reaction chain that allows the reader to consume Hunter’s demise in more easily digestible chunks.

As the survivor of a similar experience, I well understand the markers and signals of decline, the importance of birthdays and “last” holidays, the joylessness beneath the joy of a “good day,” and the aftermath of grief. Hirschi hits all these points with deadly accuracy but never belabors them. He understands the situation has enough inherent drama and rarely stoops to wringing any extra out of the text (the lone exception to this is a piece of jewelry). By letting the reader’s reactions work for him, Hirschi turns a potential tear-jerker into a book which will induce those tears without overt manipulation.

The other bit of brilliance here is that–and I have to be vague to avoid spoilers–the deathbed scene is never shown. One would think missing that key element would leave the reader unsatisfied, but not following this to an overdone and cliched ending takes Disease out of maudlin company and puts it in a class by itself, rather like that tree on its cover.  We know what that ending would have been like, and I enjoyed the characters enough that I didn’t want that for them.

I’ll be honest. When I picked this up, I first thought “grief porn” and put it aside. However, I’m glad I second guessed myself and read it. Hirschi has done an admirable job in telling this story. Recommended without hesitation.

JW

© 2017 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Great Man – Dale Chase (Unzipped/Lethe Press)

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For all the fuss about m/m romance (the last time I’ll type that label here) and straight women writing gay men, Dale Chase keeps on doing what she’s been doing for the last twenty years–writing healthy, real, gay men. And, boy, do they have a lot of sex. Although neither Dale nor her publisher would like to hear it, The Great Man should be a primer for those women seeking to write men’s romance. In addition to having a lot of sex, the affection, the love, the relationship is right here. And it proves that the men don’t have to be…well, cover models. Or ape any sort of heteronormality. The Great Man, though billed as gay erotica, is far more than that. It’s a great romance.

Literary giant Lucian Sperring is having a life crisis at fifty-eight years old. His partner, Andy, has just died. Enter Scott Beach, thirty years younger, who has his cap set for his hero of letters. Scott wins his beau, but Lucian proves to be more of a challenge to keep than he was to win. So follows Lucian’s downward spiral. Scott could and would save him, but Lucian finds putting out his hand to be the most painful act he can imagine.

Where many of those other romances (and I’m generalizing, here – I have read some top notch ones) fail is that they’re way too concerned with form–peaks go here, valleys go there, and you have to have that main obstacle right here to be overcome. Life ain’t like that, chillun. And their characters are pallid, substituting pyrotechnic sex for passion. Neither is true here. The obstacle, Lucian’s inability to cope with Andy’s death, suffuses the entire book and is not relegated to the “right plot moment.” A shade over two hundred pages, three parts (one for Scott, one for Lucian, then back to Scott), and two points of view, it shatters all those romance tropes and delivers an absorbing and–goddammit, yes–real story about gay men.

Scott’s pursuit of Lucian through sex and writing is perfectly portrayed in the first part, as is Lucian’s reaction in the middle. Lucian is facing mortality and a mid-career slump and reacts just the way I’ve seen so many gay men do–an orgy of excess. Liquor, boys, and sex. Lots and lots of sex. Our denial mechanism. If we can just keep fucking, everything will be okay. By the time Scott comes back to pick up the pieces in the last section, Lucian knows his excesses haven’t worked. And he knew they wouldn’t. He realizes what Scott is offering and can finally accept.

Oh yeah, and it has a HEA, too. Gets there without artifice. By being real.

The Great Man reminds Chase’s audience what she can do when she leaves the Old West and the Victorian era (but I liked those books as well) and applies her skills to a contemporary setting. If the romance publishers put out books half this good, they might be worth the money and attention the industry generates. Highly, highly recommended.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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So Famous and So Gay – Jeff Solomon (University of Minnesota Press)

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The subtitle is the theory Jeff Solomon expounds in this book: “The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein.” Solomon differs from the many tiresome Queer Theorists who seem to dominate (and enervate) literary studies today. He teaches English, women’s gender studies, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University, and he is a close-reader who uses fact, philology, and other old fashioned scholarly techniques to understand how it is that these two very different and very odd writers attained 20th Century fame. Especially since most lesbian and gay artists either remained closeted or “played the game” of pretending to be straight. Fabulous is of course a gay-ish term. While potency is a virile and masculine word. How can an undersized femmie Southern man with a high-pitched voice and a zaftig, mannish, Jewish art-maven who spent most of her adult life in Europe possibly be either, never mind both?

Solomon spends two hundred pages doing exactly that, in a readable and often entertaining manner. If he spends more time with Stein, it’s partly because these days we know her less well than Capote. Reading everything that Truman wrote is not uncommon. Random House published his Early Stories posthumously in 2015, and before that, put out his “withheld” first novel, Summer’s Crossing. Few authors would have been embarrassed by the latter. But there was a reason that book was withheld and Other Voices, Other Rooms became Capote’s official first novel. Summers’ Crossing, about an upper-class girl who is headed to Europe by Atlantic liner is a fine, if expected first book. But Other Voices, Other Rooms is sensational in its Southern-ness, it Gothic-ness, and its Gayness. Big, manly looking Gore Vidal writing gay themed novels in the 1950’s was seen as, well, a little declasse. But this fey little squeaky voiced, short story writer doing so was newsworthy; rich publicity fodder and somehow completely apt. He’d been pictorially featured in the Life magazine spread on the Yaddo Writer’s Retreat, and his carefully posed author’s photo on the novel was both scandalous, and yet somehow exactly right. Everyone thought so. By the time he got to his masterpieces, In Cold Blood and Music For Chameleons, Capote had burnt more personal and societal bridges than most people ever get to cross. But he was nightly television famous too and he’d “acted” in a mainstream movie along with Hollywood stars. The rare public readings he gave were standing room only and everyone wanted to be at his infamous Black and White Party. Capote had a genius for publicity almost as great as his literary talent and almost as strongly vectored as his bent towards self-destruction.

No greater contrast could be drawn than to Gertrude Stein who took over a half century to attain the notoriety Capote achieved in his early 20’s. As a writer she was for years the personification of the modern experimentalist. Even her friends made fun of her writing and its purposeful obscurantism. Those friends included famous—and popular–authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as ground breaking artists like Picasso and Matisse. By comparison with the Biggies, what Stein was doing with words in her earlier books seemed jejune, when it wasn’t deemed completely weird. Even so, by the late 1920’s and 1930’s other friends like Virgil Thomson composed operas out of Stein’s seemingly nonsense verse: Four Saints in Three Acts was a hit and is still regularly revived, and The Mother of Us All is also worth hearing. Also, and little by little, people in the know decided that at least one of her early books, Three Lives, was something quite special, although it barely sold its initial tiny print run. By 1933, when Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—Toklas being Stein’s equally unprepossessing lover — they were both middle-aged women and out of fashion. Yet the book became a best seller, and Stein’s photo by gay George Platt Lynes graced the cover of populist Time magazine and became almost as iconic as Picasso’s earlier portrait of her. If Capote seemingly courted fame from his days in the cradle, Stein had played the opposite game. At times, what people knew about her could be actually perilous to her person. She was a Jew in Nazi dominated France. She was a lesbian in a well-known relationship in an era of Pink Triangles. And she’d become known for driving ambulance supplies trucks in World War One– for the Allies. Yet she and Alice remained untouched by Hitler’s henchmen and while often in straightened circumstances, they supposedly had a protector in the Vichy Regime which, after all, deported 10,000 French citizens to German concentration camps.

Solomon’s in-depth analysis of Stein’s 1913 Three Lives, overweighs the book in Stein’s favor and it is so well-wrought, thoughtful, and worth reading that you may go searching for that college copy of the book you have somewhere to read it again. Solomon details each of the stories, the ironically titled, “The Good Anna,” the more accurately titled, “The Gentle Lena,” and the most famous one, “Melanctha,” about an African-American, to show how complex and layered Stein’s unique use of language was to illuminate each portrait. As well as confirming his finding that the three represent very different varieties of American lesbian women of the first half of the 20th Century.

Will any gay or lesbian writer ever again attain such unique claims to fame as Capote and Stein did? It’s unlikely for several reasons: first because authors are no longer the demi-gods of culture that they were in that time. Secondly because there are so many “out” LGBT writers today who lay claim the public’s attention that it must be divided, and lastly because figures in other, more visually arresting media—like Ru Paul– seem to have captured the American imagination.  So, in a way, So Famous and So Gay is a critique of a piece of cultural history that is unlikely to be repeated.

Reviewed by Felice Picano

© 2017 Felice Picano

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A Pornographer – Arch Brown (Chelsea Station Editions)

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Arch Brown’s film work formed the backdrop for most of my mid-1970’s sexual experiences, as those interludes often happened in either the odorific XXX theatres or the ordorific and claustrophobic peepshow booths in Denver. I didn’t recognize that from the cover, but once I saw stills of the films and read the names: Jack Wrangler, Scott Donovan, Scorpio, Justin Thyme, and my personal favorite, J.D. Slater, I was hurled back in time so hard I got a head rush from the memory of the poppers. Mmmm — were they stronger then? Where was I? Oh, yes. Arch Brown’s memoir. Great book. Let me step outside for a second and get some fresh air.

Gay porn in the 1970’s was different than it is today, if for no other reason than the performances of porn stars who were raised on the stuff are different from the performances of those who broke that ground. I’m generalizing, of course, but on the whole I think the vintage stuff is less studied and more genuine. Or at least as genuine as filmmaking gets. This same honesty shines through Brown’s memoir as well.

A quick glance at the first names listed in the table of contents would lead you to believe Brown has simply provided character sketches of a bunch of people he worked with, and indeed they are. But they’re hardly simple. Brown has grouped those sketches together and provided social and personal context to present them as both portraits of individuals and snapshots of the era. He outlines their positive attributes as well as their bodily flaws (too chunky, a bit flabby) and humanizes the bodies we see on screen.

As a writer, Brown is much like he was as a director–he puts all the elements on stage and gets out of the way so they can interact. His prose is simple and straightforward. He never attempts to justify or applaud himself and this is one of the least self-serving memoirs I’ve ever read. Instead, he concentrates on others and only brings his own thoughts in when they illuminate the situation at hand.

Brown’s manuscript is bookended by a great introduction by Jameson Currier, who also provided Brown’s filmography, and an afterword by Brown’s good friend and archivist, James Waller. Altogether, an informative and entertaining package well worth your time. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Best Gay Stories 2017 – Joe Okonkwo, ed. (Lethe Press)

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New series editor Joe Okonkwo hits the right notes in his introduction: diversity, eclecticism, and a wide cross-section of the gay experience. The volume delivers on that vow from the front cover down to the last story even as its larger underlying themes–running the gamut from dark comedy to bleak tragedy–underscore its universality. And we need to be reminded of that now and again.

I don’t always read anthology entries in their listed order. Some authors I’ll read immediately, and George Seaton is one. His voice is always compelling to me, and “One More Day” is no exception. Older rancher Earl hires a young drifter named Tom to do some work around the place, sharing his experience as well as the story of his brief life with his late partner, Bill. Seaton fulfills the bittersweet promise of the story, but this tale is also a perfect illustration of what he does so well–he fills his glass to the exact halfway point, leaving you to decide if the end is optimistic or pessimistic. But the eldergay well runs deep, and Seaton is not the only one here using that voice. Troy Ernest Hill also gives it a somewhat ironic spin in “Whatever Makes You Happy” as Pupa attends the wedding of his granddaughter, negotiating the minefield of assumptions and mistakes about poly relationships and gender netural prounouning but keeping his worldview intact. Mostly.

An unexpected delight was Rich Barnett’s “Cooking Lard and Candle Wax,” a brilliant piece which finds young gay Billy, who does all his friends’ and relatives’ hair, hiding backstage in James Brown’s dressing room on one of his mid-Sixties chitlin’ circuit tours. Brown’s hairdresser is gone, leaving the GFOS without anyone to do his conk. Billy improvises with some homemade pomade and saves the day. The story is simple, elegant, and memorably told with great dialogue. Billy’s empowerment is evident as he watches JB and the Famous Flames drive away after the show. You know he’s not going to stick around his hick town much longer. Edgar Gomez’s “Dancing in the Dark” is as empowering but in a far different way. This story of an Orlando Pulse patron who had friends in the bar during the shooting starts out simply: The headlight fell off again. The narrative that spins out from that prosaic beginning waltzes effortlessly between first person memoir and queer theory:

Friends of mine have joked about how the catch-all slogan of late — OrlandoStrong — sounds like a 5K marathon, disguising the unquestionable homophobia motivating the shooting with a baffling motto that sounds like a quote from The Incredible Hulk … Erased is the queerness essential to the LGBTQ lives lost, replaced with generic calls to action to be McOrlando McUnited as if acknowledging our varying sexualities, genders, or authentic stories would make our lives any less worthy of reverence.

Gomez never, however, loses his balance or his voice.

“Logging in Old Algonquin,” by M Arbon, was another standout for me. Arbon also authored “Ship in a Bottle,” which appeared in Steve Berman’s recent His Seed, and has officially entered the list of names I search for first in anthologies. This story of spirit release features a medium of sorts assisting souls at an archeological dig at an old logging camp in a local park to pass over. Like the spirits it portrays, it fades in and out of reality, blurring that line so beautifully it doesn’t matter. The tale emerges from the mist, makes itself clear, then recedes. It’s a ghostly piece of work.

This first volume of Joe Okonkwo’s shows terrific taste and a keen eye, and I’m anxiously awaiting next year’s.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

 

 

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Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary – Jonathan Lerner (OR Books)

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“These are scary times. But now I understand that there has never been a time that wasn’t.” So ends Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary, Jonathan Lerner’s memoirs as an avowed underground revolutionary. In 1967, when he was nineteen, he dropped out of college and joined the Students for a Democratic Society; in 1969 (his watershed year) he helped destroy the SDS and went underground as part of the Weathermen (later Weather Underground), until 1976, when it too imploded. At its height, the Weather Underground comprised several hundred members, all committed to violent change, and was responsible for bombings at the Pentagon, the Capitol Building, and the US State Department, among other places.

This book is actually three different stories: the first, and largest, narrative thread is Lerner’s recollection of the events from 1967 to 1976; the second is his commentary on the events unfolding during July-November 2016 while he is writing down the first narrative; and the third is his own personal journey as a gay man. The first story provides the larger context for both of the others: in particular he draws connections between the events he participated in during his twenties and how they foreshadow the subsequent escalation of violence we currently experience. The third story often takes a back seat to the first two—it is not until Lerner has left the Weather Underground and living in Europe as a hustler that it begins to take center stage.

Although Lerner focuses largely on the years 1968-76, he begins with his political awakening in 1961, the summer he turned 13: he joined a picket line as part of a campaign to desegregate McLean Gardens, an apartment complex in Washington, DC, near where his family lived in Chevy Chase. Lerner admits that his “original impulse had been innocent and idealistic. I wanted to humanize the world.” But as he documents his journey to becoming a revolutionary, his unflinching honesty exposes how corrupt, even cult-like, the Weather Underground was. (He is just as quick to acknowledge how his male white privilege often shielded him from the worst consequences of his actions, especially when those actions became more and more violent.) Lerner also forthrightly acknowledges the ironies of his life: for example, as someone who declared in 1968 that “elections don’t mean shit” he has voted in every one since 1972, including the most recent.

As interesting as Lerner’s recollections of the turbulent Sixties and Seventies are, his subsequent life-journey as a journalist and novelist provides insight into his continuing evolution as an activist: he still works for change, but it is now at the micro- instead of the macro-level. Both he and his husband Peter are involved in politics, but “at the hyperlocal scale of our very small city, where 6,500 people live in 2.5 square miles.” Lerner is currently on the Conservation Advisory Council, while Peter is working to equalize the city’s voting districts; Lerner wryly notes that “while I am now a sworn official of the city, working within the system, my husband likes to joke that he is busy overthrowing the government.”

As a piece of oral history, as an explanation for the current state of affairs, and as a personal story, Swords in the Hands of Children makes compelling reading.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Insatiable – Jeff Mann (Unzipped/Lethe Press)

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I have a special relationship with Jeff Mann’s Scots vampire, Derek Maclaine, as I took a story Derek appeared in for my Bears of Winter anthology (plug, plug), “Snow on Scrabble Creek.” His origin story appears in Mann’s Desire and Devourwhich is entirely devoted to this multi-faceted character. However, I’ve been one of the fans telling Jeff his wampyr deserves a longer, more complete narrative, and that’s exactly what he delivers in Insatiable.

Derek’s latest haunt is the hills of West Virginia, where he lives with his mortal mountain cub, Matt Taylor. Matt’s brother, a staunch opponent of Alpha Coal, a ruthless mining operation, is found dead of a suspicious heart attack, and Matt goes on in his stead. Derek and his coterie of delicious cubs come along for the ride, taking on the Man with the help of Derek’s oldest and dearest friends. They encounter a strong foe in Alpha Coal, made even stronger by their employment of a demonic presence, a “Lovecraftian blob.”

If you’ve read Jeff Mann’s work before, this hits all the required notes: food, sex, magic, and love of nature. He has carved out a comfortable corner of the gay literary world, and his fireside tales–for I can’t imagine them being told any other way than by a hearth with the hearty scent of beef stew and biscuits on the air–never fail to entertain.

In Peter Jackson’s “Fellowship of the Ring,” Samwise Gamgee has a marvelous speech in which he talks about the “great stories, the ones that really mattered.” Mann writes those sort of stories: elemental, full of lust and evil and good and wonder. Big emotions writ even larger. And it’s a marvelous feeling to throw yourself at stories like that, smiling with the impact as you crash against those big feelings. But for all that immensity, the characters retain their humanity (well, they’re vampires and werewolves and witches, but you know what I mean) and have the good of their fellow man at heart as they pursue their goals. And in these dark days when our rights and regulations are in danger of being rolled back by a government no longer in control of itself, we need stories of success in which we can take comfort so we can get up and fight again tomorrow.

I can’t think of a more perfect way to enjoy Halloween than with a cup of steaming pumpkin spice something-or-other, a dog at my feet, and this tale of bravery and heroics in my hand. Well met, sir. Well met indeed.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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