Monthly Archives: August 2012

California Dreamers – Mark Abramson (Lethe Press)

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Buy it now direct from Lethe Press

The sixth entry in Mark Abramson’s Beach Reading series,
which follows the exploits of San Francisco resident Timothy Snow, is
appropriately steeped in local color and features the cast so familiar to regular
readers of this string of novels. However, California Dreamers adds a
somewhat darker hue to the rainbow.

The aforementioned Timothy Snow, a longtime San Franciscan,
also has some measure of psychic ability. A nefarious shadow organization
called The Paulson Group takes advantage of Snow—as well as some other local
seers—by channeling their gifts with the help of a new HIV drug called
Neutriva. Their ultimate goal is to use this information to predict and prevent
suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. Or is it?

If you’re a fan of the series, all of your favorite
characters are back: Tim’s aunt Ruth, her new husband Sam, Tim’s partner Nick
and drag queen restauranteur Artie—who does some spectacular turns in
his new show at the restaurant. This installment deepens Tim’s character and
provides a great deal of background as to his upbringing in Minnesota. And
Ambramson’s mention and description of various SF locations is liberally
sprinkled throughout. Residents will recognize them immediately and tourists
will want to see them.

California Dreamers is different from its companion
novels in that The Paulson Group provides some moments of suspense and menacing
frisson, and the overall narrative tone is darker and more philosophical
regarding not only death but the afterlife as well. My only quibble is a
longish dialogue Tim has with his dead grandmother near the end which is less
entertaining than other parts of the book.

However, fans of the Beach Reading series will find this a
more than worthwhile addition that serves to deepen and darken Timothy Snow as
well as continue the storyline they know and love. 

Dream on.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Shirts and Skins – Jeffrey Luscombe (Chelsea Station Editions)

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Buy it now from TLAgay.com

The output of some publishers is so consistent that their
logo on a book raises my expectations. That’s the problem Chelsea Station
Editions has. I keep wondering when I pick up one of their books if this is the
one that will tarnish the crown. So far, however, the jewels keep glimmering
and Jeffrey Luscombe’s Shirts and Skins is no exception.

This collection of linked stories concerns Josh Moore, who
lives with his folks in slummy, industrial Hamilton, Ontario. He envisions a
life away from the steel mills once he grows up but finds adulthood even more
confining and frustrating than being a kid. He fights through dead-end jobs,
community college, nights at the straight strip club with his co-workers,
substance abuse and a bad marriage to become comfortable with the man he is
rather than who he thinks he should be.

The first stories about Josh as a boy amply illustrate
Luscombe’s skill at characterization, not only for his protagonist but for the
rest of Josh’s family as well. Particularly deft is his portrayal of Josh’s
father, Ted, who has an alcohol-induced nervous breakdown, morphing from a
brash, self-confident, long-haired Socialist into a reclusive Bible-thumping
shell of a hodophobe who can’t even drive to his own mother’s funeral. Luscombe
handles this transition with brave assurance, never putting a foot in
unsympathetic territory.

Josh also transitions from an overweight boy into a lean
adolescent boy with a ready sneer and a penchant for rye and Diet Pepsi who
stops just short of being a bully. Due to a particularly traumatic incident,
Josh has his sexuality firmly shoved into the back of his closet. Even so,
situations occur at the straight strip clubs or with friends that smoulder with
sexual tension—indeed, that tension bleeds from nearly every character. By the
time that tension is released by his coming out, we feel the relief as keenly
as does Josh.

But the final story is the real masterpiece; a synthesis of
both Josh’s family stories and his new queer life as Josh and his partner,
Glenn, visit Ted at the nursing home and take him out to breakfast.
Heartbreaking and revelatory, it brings both halves of Josh’s world together
and meshes them effortlessly.

Luscombe’s prose is never overwritten nor is it understated
and spare. It’s tight and economical without losing well-chosen details, never
forsaking Josh’s voice in favor of the author. Best of all, his dialogue is
wholly natural and never sounds written.

In the best Chelsea Station Editions tradition, Shirts
and Skins
is well-plotted and told with a craftsman’s touch, deeply felt
characters and a gritty sense of place. It belongs next to David Pratt’s Bob
the Book
and Michael Graves’ Dirty Ones as a benchmark for gay
literary fiction. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Ill Will – Jean Redmann (Bold Strokes Books)

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Buy it now direct from Bold Strokes Books

If I hadn’t seen Jean Redmann and Greg Herren standing side
by side, I’d swear they were the same person. They both live in New Orleans,
they’re both gay, and they both write superb mysteries for Bold Strokes Books.
Both Herren’s Scotty Bradley and Chanse MacLeod books are solidly plotted and
extremely satisfying, totally cut from the same cloth as Jean Redmann’s Micky
Knight series. Her latest, Ill Will, is as sure-footed and self-assured
as can be.

New Orleans detective Micky Knight, recovering from Katrina
along with the rest of the NOLA population, gets hit with the news her partner
Cordelia is suffering from lymphoma—which fits in thematically with her latest
case, herbal supplements which may or may not kill their recipients. Oh, and
there’s some insurance fraud. And a menacing meth addict. How does Knight cope
with Cordelia’s illness and manage to work on her cases? And find a decent
grocery store after the storm?

In Ill Will, Redmann does a great job of recreating
what it must have been like living and working in New Orleans post-Katrina. The
local color she (and Herren) bring to their mysteries is not only evocative,
but helps the city function as a character on its own—and NOLA is quite the
unpredictable queen.

But a terrific sense of place would be empty indeed if
Redmann didn’t populate it with such winning characters. Knight is tough on the
bad guys and vulnerable with Cordelia, and Cordelia is a delight. A doctor
coping with her new role as patient, she is by turns professional and perplexed
at being on the other side of the examining table. Cordelia was unfaithful to
Knight in a previous installment, and Redmann makes the most of that lapse’s
dramatic potential as they both cope with Cordelia’s illness while patching up
their relationship.

The mystery is also engaging, with Knight posing undercover
as a pink-garbed suburban hausfrau out to make some extra money peddling
Nature’s Beautiful Gift while she seeks another, more powerful drug called The
Cure from her distributor. Redmann’s wry sense of humor gives Knight some
marvelous lines here, providing welcome comic relief. In fact, that sense of
humor pokes through in the most unexpected places, lending a chuckle to the
drama.

I must admit this is the first Micky Knight book I’ve read,
so I’m late to the party. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a standalone and
would go back and read the whole series if I didn’t have a blog to review for
as well as my own writing to do. I’ll just have to wait for the next one, but
that shouldn’t stop you from beginning at the top and working your way down.

I guarantee you’ll enjoy the journey.   

Review by Jerry Wheeler 

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The Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words – Vince Emery, ed. (Vince Emery Productions)

Buy it now from Powell’s Books

The night Harvey Milk was elected, my college roommate (and
boyfriend) went out with me to celebrate. A few gin and tonics later, Randy
looked at me and sighed. “They’ll kill him,” he said. “I’m surprised they let
him get this far.” A year later, Milk was dead, but his name was always spoken
wth reverence when recalling influential gay men. Then Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”
came out, and suddenly Harvey was hot again. But precious little has been heard
from the man himself. Vince Emery has changed that with the release of The
Harvey Milk Interviews: In His Own Words.

Harvey Milk has no published writings, and that’s a shame.
We must, instead, rely on various interviews to glean an idea of his political
leanings and share in his dreams. Emery has provided a meticulously researched
and chronologically presented collection of these interviews including
transcripts from three debates Milk held with John Briggs, author of the Proposition
6 Briggs Initiative, which would have seen all gay (and gay-sympathetic)
teachers fired from California school districts.

What emerges is a surprisingly detailed portrait of Harvey
Milk’s rather populist philosophy and thought processes as well as some
tantalizing self-reflection and the idea that Milk was a political perpetual
motion machine. He never seemed to rest. Several of these interviews were given
on his way to some event or were interrupted by calls to vote or even other
interviews.

Strong on civil rights, public housing for the elderly, more
efficient public transportation, effective use of vacant public property,
funding neighborhood groups, and bringing industry to San Francisco so that it
did not become dependent on tourism, Milk’s battles were fought with courage,
conviction, tenacity and a consistency not seen in many politicians today. And
he fought them without big gay money—many wealthy gay men, such as The
Advocate
publisher David Goodstein, actively supported Milk’s opponents.
Instead, Milk built a coaltion of trade unionists, neighborhood groups and
“little guys.”

These interviews reveal a witty, committed man driven by a
strong sense of personal responsibility who thrust himself into politics as a
result of watching Nixon’s Watergate hearings on television. Even more
revealing, however, are the debates with John Briggs. Milk and Briggs battle
with some incredibly dramatic exchanges. It’s amazing how many of these
specious arguments against gay men and women are still being used today—the
idea of homosexual “recruitment,” the child molestation angle, the Biblical
saws. The more things change…

Many gay men can tell you how influential Harvey Milk was,
but perhaps they’re fuzzy on the specifics of why. The Harvey Milk
Interviews
proves to be an invaluable resource in laying out those
specifics. You’ll laugh, you’ll think, and you’ll come away inspired all over
again.

And we could sure use some of that these days.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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Eddie’s Desert Rose (CreateSpace)/Tio Jorge: A Mexican Soap Opera (Fallen Bros. Publishing) – Vincent Meis

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To purchase either of Vincent’s books, visit his website.

Some authors make a huge splash with a
first novel, leaving fans and critics alike ever-expectant about and always
mildly disappointed by every subsequent offering.  Other authors, however, need some time to
find their footing, revealing glimmers of their talents and thematics in
earlier work, finding their mature voice along the way.  Vincent Meis belongs to this latter
category.  His first two novels show an
incredibly deft hand and engaging sensibility when it comes to finding the
pathos of familial dysfunction and narrating the unfolding consequences of
unresolved relational tensions.  They
also have a similar structure and stylistic devices.  But his second novel has abandoned some of
the distracting and unsuccessful features of the first, concentrating on what
Meis does best.

Both Eddie’s Desert Rose and Tio
Jorge
open with a death, and unfold around the protagonists uncovering the
causes and negotiating the consequences of that death.  Both contain narratives built around the
tensions created by ethnic and national difference.  Both are comprised by multiple narrative voices.  Both include gay characters, but neither
gives this character center stage.  Both
are engaging, suspenseful, well-crafted stories. 

Eddie’s Desert Rose is, fundamentally, the story of two
brothers, Dave and Eddie Bates, who have taken jobs as English language
teachers in Saudi Arabia to earn enough money to live the lives they want to
live back home.  Eddie dies within the
first few pages of the novel and its remaining pages are devoted to Dave and
his wife Maura traveling through Europe and the Middle East solving what turns
out to be Eddie’s murder.  Along the way,
through Dave’s recollections and Eddie’s journals, the reader learns about the
brothers’ lives, their deep affection for each other, their unresolved
conflicts and Eddie’s erotic adventures. 
Meis is at his best when he is conveying the affective and historical dimensions
of his characters.  When he is narrating
the brothers’ past, Dave’s relation to his wife, the characters’ respective
familial dysfunctions, as well as their more contemporary struggles, the
writing rings true and has an admirable, enjoyable gravitas. 

Meis has a particular gift for mundane and
banal details.  There were a number of
times, when reading a description of a scene—in both this novel and Tio
Jorge
—that a phrase or sentence  made
me gasp with recognition, for the way that it perfectly captured and
conveyed a moment.  At the same time,
Meis lets himself get caught up in the “international thriller” plotting of Eddie’s
Desert Rose
—that often made me sigh with exasperation at its far-fetched
implausibility.  Was I really supposed to
believe that a regular Joe and Jane from the Midwest are capable of the eluding
the CIA and outsmarting wealthy, well-connected Saudis?  Both Tio Jorge and Meis’ first novel
have just one adventure too many: both novels would have been much more
effective if they had ended a chapter or two sooner.  Plus, the final reveal of familial
dysfunction in Eddie’s Desert Rose seems a bit trite, obvious and
well-worn.

The features and moments that work
incredibly well in Eddie’s Desert Rose are honed and buffed in Meis’s
second offering, Tio Jorge.  This
novel opens with the death of Helen, the morning after she has learned of her
husband Miguel’s years-long affair with family friend, George (the titular
“Uncle Jorge”).  The bulk of the novel is
told in the first-person voice of Miguel and Helen’s daughter, Rebecca, as she
tries to piece together her connection to her father, his family in Mexico and
her beloved Uncle of childhood memories. 
As with Eddie’s Desert Rose, however, at important moments, the
novel shifts to George’s first-person perspective.  This shift in voice never feels like a
gimmick, precisely because of Meis’s ability to capture fully and authentically
the mood and tone of different characters’ voices.  Here, we once again have a narrative that
unfolds around finding answers about a loved one’s death, but Meis now
restricts himself to telling a story of family secrets rather than swerving
into the generic trappings of the spy thriller. 
(And the few occasions Tio Jorge does venture into this
territory, it loses much of its energy and interest.)  This allows him to play to his strengths of
building characters, narrating emotional complexity and unraveling—slowly—the
secrets that haunt all relationships. 
Although Tio Jorge is the longer of the two novels, and involves
more characters and a more complex “back story”—unfolded at just the right
pace—it is also a more successful novel because it has a narrower focus on the
“adventure” of trying to live a human life in the midst of loss and love. 

As noted above, gay characters are not the
protagonists of either of these novels, even though they play key roles in both
stories.  The precise role they play,
however, left me a bit puzzled.  In both Eddie’s
Desert Rose
and Tio Jorge, there is a patina of danger and risk that
necessarily attaches itself to gay desire. 
After all, Eddie is dead, in part, because he pursued sex with men.  When his brother, Dave, has to imitate his
brother’s desires to track his killers, he is filled with anxiety and
disgust.  In Tio Jorge, Miguel is
dead and George is incapable of meaningful erotic connection to another
character.  The novel also contains a
predatory lesbian character, about whom the straight female narrator
experiences great discomfort.  At the
same time, Eddie’s journals are almost elegiac in their narration of longing
and desire, and George’s love for Miguel is celebrated and honored.  But there is an uninteresting—because
unthematized, almost unintentional—darkness connected to gay love in both
novels.  Moreover, gay love is very
safe—i.e., antiseptic—because it is part of both novels’ past, rather than
their present.  (There is a similarly
distracting—because unexplored—flirtation with incestuous desire in both
novels.)

The novels’ treatment of ethnic and
national difference is also puzzling. 
Saudi Arabia, in Eddie’s Desert Rose, is—except in the brief
passages comprised by Eddie’s journals—a place of danger, oppression and
violence.  America’s values relating to
gender and sexuality (as well as hygiene and food) are the right values.  (Because, of course, the gender and sexual
politics of 1980s America—the decade in which the novel is inexplicably
set—were completely unassailable.) 
Similarly, in Tio Jorge, Mexico is treated either as a place of
danger and filth, or as a place of primitive, romantic bliss.  (Isn’t it lovely that our Stanford-educated,
BMW-driving protagonist can return to the rustic village of her grandmother to
eat handmade tortillas, and then take her long-lost brother back to the safety
and opportunities of ocean front property while still hating her Anglo
grandparents for trying to buy her love?) 
While the negotiation of racial and class difference is treated with a
much defter hand in Tio Jorge, precisely because there is an
interrogation of various characters’ understanding of ethnic difference, I had
to wonder whether this element of the novel was necessary, or whether
Mexico—like the Muslim—is an easy way for Meis to get at his concerns as a
writer.  Given his ability at crafting
and narrating complex family histories, what would a novel from Meis that
didn’t involve investigation of a death and didn’t involve ethnicity or
sexuality as the source of interpersonal tension look like?

I’m very glad I had the opportunity to
read these novels together, because I don’t think I would have sufficiently
appreciated either of them in isolation. 
My dissatisfaction with the espionage plot of Eddie’s Desert Rose would
have lingered much longer if Tio Jorge hadn’t highlighted Meis’s genuine
gift for painting the history of familial and romantic relationships in all
their pleasure and pathos, which is certainly present in his first novel.  At the same time, the understated melodrama
of Tio Jorge would have likely seemed more present had I not had Meis’s
first novel as a comparative example.  If
Meis makes the same adjustment between his third novel and his second that he
made between his second and his first, then his readers will undoubtedly be in
for something very special.  Meis is a
gifted story-teller who knows how and when to reveal information, who knows how
to convey emotion, who knows how to craft complex, multi-dimensional believable
characters that we can care about, who knows how to spin relatable narratives
of sorrow and joy.  As he grows more deft
at stripping away elements that interfere with his most captivating talents, he
will undoubtedly produce work even more entertaining than the strong offerings
he has already produced.

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

 

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The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst (Alfred A. Knopf)

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Buy it now from Left Bank Books or TLA.

This is the third big British
novel I’ve read so far this year. The others were Charles Dickens’ last
completed book, Our Mutual Friend
(1865) and Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives
Tales
(1908). The Dickens is wildly uneven: some of the best writing he
ever did, really quite forward-looking, is interlarded with some of the most
sentimental twaddle ever put on paper. One wonders how ill he was when he wrote
the book that he couldn’t see its all too apparent schizoid flow. Four decades
later, Bennett’s novel was written in reaction to Dickens and other fluffy,
mixed-message, Victorian triple-deckers. By then, Bennett had also read and
absorbed Flaubert. So his novel is an immensely readable amalgam, original, yet
somehow combining say, Vanity Fair
and Une Education Sentimental. One
scene in a Parisian suburb, when the heroine unwillingly witnesses a
public-spectacle execution, could have been penned by Balzac or Zola, but the
wind-up and conclusion are utterly of Bennett’s sun-never-sets- on-the British
Empire place and time.

To my surprise, I found that
Hollinghurst’s fifth published novel easily follows those big books, easily
fits into what F.R. Leavis called “the great tradition” of the English Novel,
and can stand alongside the best of them. I write “my surprise”, because while
I think his first novel, The
Swimming-Pool Library
is brilliant and his second, The Folding Star, wonderful and impressive, I was less impressed by
his country-house tale, The Spell. Frankly,
I found most of his Man Booker award winning The Line of Beauty, a bit too British-political. With his fifth
book, Hollinghurst seems to found the exact alchemical combination, despite the
fact that it too is very, very English.  

We go to the English novel for
very different reasons than we read, say, Tolstoy or Simenon or even F. Scott
Fitzgerald. Our expectations hover around not deep psychology as with
Dostoevsky or infused symbolism as with Mann, or the strikingly new side path,
as with Melville. Instead we go to it for the familiar, richly laid out in
terms of character, place, tone, and yes, even action. We’ll accept surprises,
yes; but not shocks. Rebecca Winterbourne, definitely: Eula Mae Snopes, nope,
afraid not. And all that familiarity is set against a larger texture of society
that has come to have a familiar, even comforting feel, one almost
unconsciously absorbed after years of novels, and stories, plays and movies
from “across-the-pond.” It is why, for example, good, far out British TV like Dr. Who and Torchwood work as well as Iain M. Banks, China Mielville and Neal
Stephenson do in print. Call it our shared Anglo-Saxon heritage—or even our
attitude. No matter how utterly mad everything else may become, there will be
tea on time in heritage porcelain alongside the dissection of alien corpses,
and lending libraries, well organized and up to date, where railroad schedules
may be found to help save the universe. Henry James and Joseph Conrad
understood this, foreigners that they were, and they benefitted. So do
Commonwealth outliers today like Amitav Ghose, Rohinton Mistry, and that
greatest of post-Empire chameleons, V.S. Naipaul.

The
Stranger’s Child
is not only virtually about those familiar expectations, but as it questions them in splendid
oppositional postmodern fashion, it also reformulates and solidifies their
familiar existence. The narrative, fractured over five different periods of
time, and further re-distributed into a dozen different Jamesian “centres of
conciousness” is, despite that, easy to read, fascinating page by page,
compelling in its greater arc, and its urge forward. Above all, while new it is
comforting – quite a feat to pull off.

The book is allegedly about a
striking and heedless young Georgian aristo poet, Cecil Valance who we meet
early on. He has sex with a Cambridge colleague, flirts with the lad’s sister,
and pens a few poems, including one that becomes famous to its World War One
generation. He cleverly enough perishes in that war and thus enters the literature
and the language. Accepted, lauded, the poems — especially one — alters the
lives of everyone who influenced them or, and here’s the beautiful turn, they
become influenced by the poem(s)’ existence. In particular, one middle class
family, the Sawles whose lives and whose satellites the author then follows for
the next century.

Affects them how? Much like
some Balzacian asses-skin or Hoffmanesque elixir, transforming each person and
casting each into some utterly different position than he or she seemed
destined for. Thus, as the years go by, it also lands each of them within an
unexpected, often false, identity – or does it actually shape their destiny? That’s the bigger question Hollinghurst is
working on here. So, for example, the young girl surprised to receive the poem,
becomes something of a Twenties celebrity, moving dissatisfied from one trendy,
improbable husband to the next, yet somehow sought after even in her shabby old
age.

The beloved Cambridge lad
either didn’t much care for Cecil in the first place, or so misses Cecil that
he appears to abjure love, settling for a dull existence as a historian and an
even duller wife. He only comes to life when very old, liberated in his
senility by disinhibition. The following generation of Sawles and Valances
cannot escape the poet’s—sometimes actually fatal – dead-handed reach. Even the
poet’s single weekend valet, “Handsome Jonah” Trickett who would seem to be the
most obliquely touched, is six decades later found hiding secrets of an inner
life, and more Jamesian yet, early drafts of the most famous Valance poem. 

It’s a gorgeous idea and it’s
gorgeously done. The writing is so rich, full, imaginative and modulated line
by line that it makes me want to thoroughly shake all those adherents of the “perfect
sentence” like Amy Bloom, (forget flat-liners like Auster or Cooper) and get
them to look at what the English language really can do. Hollinghurst is so in
command of it all that he can: 1) go into the mind of a very small child
believably and movingly, 2) clearly yet unpedantically delineate the British
class system in full flower over the decades via changing mores, language and
slang, 3) effortlessly make infradig jokes on literature, music, society and
even at the expense of the Times Literary
Supplement,
where he was editor for years, (is Dudley Valance really
Kingsley Amis, and if not then who is portrayed so acidly?) and 4) give us a
bank clerk turned literary sleuth we completely believe in. Hollinghurst
manages the tricky high-wire act wherein an author must convey huge amounts of
information and opinion, often quite quickly, while remaining true to his
sometimes near-daft character’s minds and lives.

Above all he has fun—and thus
you too will have fun—literary fun. Go for it.

©,
2012, Felice Picano 



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New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families – Colm Toibin (Scribner)

Buy it now through Amazon.com

If Hell exists, there is a
special place there for critics and reviewers who write that a collection of
essays or stories or in fact of anything is “uneven.” Clearly the author or
editor or compiler believed there was
an overriding, cohering theme, or concept to the book and I bet that she/he
actually took a great deal longer to think about and arrange the works exactly
so in a particular sequence. A lot longer than the lazy reviewer apparently did
to bother to figure out what that sequence was and why it was important. Colm
Toibim’s collection of essays about writers sidesteps that by making its
concept immediately available in its subtitle just so no one can miss it:
“Writers and Their Families;” it is against this idea, among other things, that
the critic ought to judge its contents.

It’s not the tightest of
concepts, and Toibin doesn’t always work it out that well. Furthermore, his
editor and publisher did him no favor with that title, which smacks of the
trendiest Boerum Hill authorettes. It’s false advertising. There are no new
ways to kill your mother inside this book—sorry. Nor old ones made new and
prosecution-proof either. None of the writers herein actually did kill their
mothers although many would have liked to. Actually, fathers are more often
targeted than mothers, and reading some of these essays, believe me, you will
be, as I was, rooting for the son for to get out the axe.     

John Butler Yeats, father of
poet William Butler and artist Jack Yeats looms high on the list. A man of
Cyclopean ego, he became a painter when one son succeeded in that field, and
then switched to being a poet and playwright when son Willy succeeded in that
area. Worse yet, he insisted that his famous son read, comment upon, correct
and then agent his plays around Ireland, while he lazed about in New York City
saloons being semi-famous. Homicidally annoying! No wonder Yeats eventually
gave up on the Irish and married an Englishwoman named George. I might have
myself.

 Then there’s Thomas Mann who was known inside
the family as “Z,” short for “Die Zauberer,” i.e. the Magician. I suppose
because he turned what many considered dross into literary gold over and over
again. Alas for his alchemically challenged children, especially the two older
and pushier ones, Klaus and Katia, who spent the rest of their lives having to
deal with various ideological rabbits Papa Thom pulled out of his copious hat.
Both children became writers: Klaus’s late ‘Thirties novel, Mephisto became a good film a few years
back, while Katia became an anti-Nazi alarmist in the US with a best selling
book long before F.D.R. decided the SS was a real political problem and not
merely a fashion atrocity. Toibin gives us enough details about the sibilant
sibs that I have to admit I began cheering for the father. I mean, after all
these years, I still read him with involvement and of course ironic amusement—The Confessions of Felix Krull was my
most recent experience. Whereas the children, despite decades of acting out
across two continents, marrying inappropriately (she wed Auden—of all queens!),
and having dramatic breakdowns and or suicides, have fallen
into—ho-hum!—history.

Other writers with greater or
lesser parent issues that Toibin writes about are Samuel Beckett, John
Millington Synge, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Hart Crane and Jorge Luis
Borges. But the better of these pieces are luckily more literary than
psycho-familial –especially the ones on Baldwin and Borges. In other essays, he
takes on Irish authors Brian Moore, Sebastian Barry and Robby Doyle, and my own
interest waned. The lead off essay on Jane Austen and Henry James and the
“death of the mother” is a strictly more about those authors very tangled relations
with various other members of their families.

Anyway, with Austen’s books I
always think first of pajama party sisters, (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice), then of fathers (Emma, Pride and Prejudice), and only
then of how mothers are either silly or replaced by strong Aunt figures—Lady
Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and
Prejudice
and Lady Betram in Mansifeld
Park
. And what of Austen’s brother, who figures so crucially in her last
and my personal pick of her novels, Persuasion?
Also there are volumes of correspondence among the gabby kin, including
Austen’s many nieces and nephews. Whereas the James family—the rich do-nothing
father Henry, the novelist Henry Jr., the psychologist brother William, and the
official-victim sister Alice—get and stay in each other’s hair, in one
deleterious way or another for decades. Even the vast, intervening Atlantic is
little barrier to their incessant, crisscross letter writing and one-upmanship.
No wonder their youngest brother fled, trying to die in various local wars, and
when that failed, took jobs more like suicide missions in the Wild West,
becoming a sort of demented Bret Harte character. You might have done something
similar.  

But the real corker here is
Toibin’s essay on the very-closeted John Cheever and his coming. Now there was
what we used to call a head-case! And in fact, Cheever makes a spectacular case
for why Gay Liberation was necessary at all. Earlier, he’d written in his diary
“Every comely young man, every bank clerk and delivery boy is aimed at my life
like a loaded pistol” Sheesh! Talk about internalized homophobia! Cheever was
self-hating, publicly and privately homophobic, snobby and elitist although he
lied about his ahem! fabulous heritage, and according to his wife a “hater of
women.” Cheever’s  children—including
writers Susan and Ben—found him to be always underfoot, boring, drunk,
judgmental and interfering. In fact, he seemed to never really do anything
right until he began teaching writing at Ossining prison and came to understand
Whitman’s “adhesive love” between two cons. The result, in Toibin’s and my
estimation, is his only successful novel, Falconer,
with a gay love story at its prison setting center. Eventually Cheever admitted
to anyone he could get to listen that he was gay and paraded young men past a
family who by then viewed him with extremely glazed and exhausted eyes. He may
have died of acute alcoholism but at least he died happy—i.e., gay.

The bulk of these articles were
written for several literary reviews and are of that quality but also in that
blandly annoying New York Review
tenor. In some cases—Borges  Borges and
Baldwin especially—Toibin really loves the work and it shows. He calls Baldwin
“the best prose stylist of his generation.” I would place him second, after Truman
Capote, but Toibin makes a real case for his man. He is clearly an avid reader,
and that makes such a difference in essays like these. I suppose all the Irish
guys here were to be expected from a writer who spells his name with Celtic
diacritical marks. But aside from Yeats and a little Joyce, I think their work
is aging badly, especially Beckett and Brian Moore. No one outside of County
Clare does Synge’s plays anymore, do they? Has anyone under ninety seen one
produced in the U.S.?

One oddity for me is that the
man Colm Toibin is seldom revealed here; although this is something I learned
to expect early from my brief friendship with W.H. Auden. Wystan was funny, and
brilliant and dishy and chatty in company: a real doll. Then there was the
public Auden—for groups larger than three—and he was kind of a drag: Oh so
British and formal. Some years ago I had drinks with Toibin in a fancy Dublin
watering hole and he too was funny, and brilliant and dishy and chatty. That
personal aspect never comes through here, as it does in almost every American
writer of any substance when writing prose, from Papa Hemingway on down to
Andrew Holleran. Too bad. I would have loved to hear what Toibin really thought
of Happy Days—not to mention what he
could possibly make of Beckett’s Bride of
Frankenstein
haircut!

   ©2012, Felice Picano

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