Monthly Archives: June 2014

Teaching the Cat to Sit: A Memoir – Michelle Theall (Gallery Books)

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By Guest Reviewer David Pratt

Here in the ever-so-sophisticated northeast, if a gay person speaks of their love for the Catholic Church, mimosas hang suspended a moment over brioche French toast with artisanal lingonberry syrup before someone says, “You’re, like, joking, right?” Followed by, “I mean, you are joking, right?” Peggy Noonan once began a Sunday editorial by suggesting the reader was lazily enjoying brunch as they read. Noonan’s editor reminded her that, in most places of the United States, on Sunday morning, people were in church.

They still are. And Michelle Theall is one of them.

At first, the message of Theall’s memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit, seems to be: hey, look, us gay gals are just like you. The book seems written less for Theall’s queer sisters and brothers than for her straight neighbors in Colorado and the church folk she grew up with in Texas. See—I have a beautiful home, just like you. A wife and son, just like you. Just like a real person. We have our troubles, but get a load of the flagstones in the garden and the new flooring in the family room. Gradually, though, as Theall alternates between the Texas past and the Colorado present, the picture unravels. Let me make this clear: Theall herself is the one who unravels it.

As a kid, Theall suffered in a strict Catholic household with a raging, controlling, but strangely inert mother and an obsequious father. She was molested by a neighbor. She was harassed at school, and the harassment followed her home, a home where the word “lesbian” was unspeakable, yea, unthinkable, yea, inconceivable. Meanwhile, in the present, the author suffers from multiple sclerosis and visits and calls from that same mother, who all but ignores her daughter’s partner, Jill, and who still believes that an offense against the Catholic Church is the greatest offense there can be (except for offenses against motherhood, her own in particular).

Then, after a few chapters, something else unravels. Our patience. “Why doesn’t she tell the Church to fuck off?” rolls easily off non-Catholic tongues, especially in urbane gayborhoods. We find it similarly easy to say, “Just don’t invite your mother anymore.” “Tell her to fuck off, too.” But Theall is teaching cats to sit. We are the cats. Cool and brusque and independent, we do not want to put up with Theall’s agonizing. We will sit when we want to. But to Theall’s great credit, she gets us to sit and listen to a story of how the past is never past, how it is never easily cut loose, and how it should not be cut loose. For all the baggage the past drags behind it, we must welcome it anyway through the door of our fabulously appointed Boulder home. In the end, we have little choice.

Not that Theall doesn’t push back against family and church. Teaching is not a tale of wholesale rejection, but it is not a tale of capitulation, either. It is the story of a struggle—an ongoing one that many of us don’t or don’t have to undertake. But Theall and her partner have a child, so they must deal, to take just one example, with school. Catholic school. A Catholic school not “comfortable” having a student whose parents’ relationship goes against the church. Eventually the women remove their son from this school, but it takes much deliberation, much swallowing of anger, and many attempts to educate a priest who the reader can tell right off is not educable. Still, Theall undertakes the process.

A more difficult process is dealing with and educating Theall’s mother. Walking away from a school or a church may be difficult, but cutting off family, though some gay folk claim to do it blithely and confidently, is wrenching for a married woman with a child. Theall throws herself into the breach, supported by her partner, and gains small victories. But this is not a Lifetime special. Mom is not going to suddenly melt. She is a creature of the Catholic Church right to the bitter(sweet) end. She is another cat who must be taught to sit. Our impulse to tell Theall to toss Mom out must be taught to sit. Everybody, just please sit! Theall tells us. Sit and attend a story of women, of women who are not going to change as decisively as a male reader in particular might wish, who are going to take three steps forward, then two back, who are going to hang on fiercely to what they love, whether the reader understands why they love it or not, who will not break with the past in a way that gives a reader a cheap thrill, but who will work hard to integrate past and present.

If you are tired of hearing that it’s all about process and baby steps, maybe this is not the book for you. According to Michelle Theall, mess and contradiction and process are here to say. They are all that is. The same might be said of family and faith. No jokes this time. You might as well surrender. And engage.

Michelle Theall has written a fine manual for helping you do so.

© 2014 David Pratt

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Best Gay Romance 2014 – Timothy J. Lambert and R.D. Cochrane, eds.

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By Guest Reviewer Gavin Atlas

I tend to shy from universal absolutes like “every fan of gay romance will love this anthology,” but hold on a moment while I ponder that.…Still thinking…Right. I’ve got nothing. Ergo, yes, I think every gay romance fan will want to add this to his or her TBR list.

I discovered some new favorite authors and found new facets to authors whose work I’ve enjoyed before. One complaint often lodged against romance anthologies is how each piece resembles the last. Not here, and that nice bonus is accentuated by skilled editorial flow.

The opening story is charming and light. “Strange Propositions” by Eric Gober lives up to its name. With relationship scenarios such as “May I invite you to a movie that I won’t be going to myself?” and “Would you like to go to a protest dressed as a chicken?” Gober has created a tale that will make readers smile while showing the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone.

Speaking of leaving behind what’s comfortable, sometimes the way to risk the utmost vulnerability is to offer a long overdue, heartfelt apology followed by a stammered appeal for a second chance. The job Rob Byrnes does showing the complexity of regret, apprehension, and longing in “Carver Comes Home” is remarkably moving and vivid to the point of being cinematic.

Description is again an incredible strength in “Sight” by Jordan Taylor. Here, the immense, hollow loss that is almost certainly experienced by anyone who has gone blind is tempered by a loving partner’s exceptional ability to verbally paint a picture.

Jameson Currier’s “My Adventures with Tom Sawyer” was another story written so beautifully, I kept thinking “I hope someone sends this to the O’Henry Prize anthology.” The intricate details were phenomenal and the overarching theme—allowing yourself the bliss of the present instead of clouding the moment with the disappointment that it won’t last forever—felt both touching and significant.

Thanks to the story “Hello Aloha” in Foolish Hearts and “Dandelions” in this volume, I’m now a fan of Tony Calvert. If ever a fictional character needed a reality show, it is the busybody mother of Calvert’s main character, Jim. The combination of quirky humor, homespun “wisdom,” and the protagonist’s introspection make this story a joy.

With “True in my Fashion” by Paul Brownsey, I’ve discovered another new favorite writer. Brownsey masterfully shows his character meticulously building and trapping himself in his own web of adorable neurosis. We learn here that sometimes a person’s flaws are what make him most endearing. That and how the main character tries to cover up those flaws are what make “True in My Fashion” one of the most charming stories I’ve read.

Each story deserves its own paragraph, but the equivalent of the Academy Award Orchestra is telling me to wrap it up.  However, I need to mention the smile-inducing characters and adorable dogs from Shawn Anniston and Alex Jeffers, the distilled essence of companionship from Kevin Langson and Georgina Li, new definitions of family and acceptance from Felice Picano and Lewis DeSimone, delightful moments captured in vignettes by James Booth and N.S. Benarek, and the beauty of seeing a long time love with brand new adoration from David Puterbaugh.

The editors, in their commentary, bring up concepts that can make romance work. First, likable protagonists who go out on a limb, taking risks that could leave them crushed. Second, likable “contagonists” or objects of affection readers will know are worthy of that risk. Third, devotion, understanding, or longing that makes the reader understand, on a gut level, that this is right—these guys want more than anything to spend their lifetimes making each other smile. Will you find those elements here in spades? Yes, yes, and yes.

© 2014 Gavin Atlas

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With: New Gay Fiction – Jameson Currier, ed. (Chelsea Station Editions)

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By Guest Reviewer Lloyd A. Meeker

With: New Gay Fiction, edited by Jameson Currier and published by Chelsea Station Editions is a pleasure not to be missed.

As the foreword states, “These stories portray relationships with men: gay men with our friends, lovers, partners, husbands, dates, tricks, boyfriends, hustlers, idols, teachers, mentors, fathers, brothers, family, teams, co-workers, relatives and strangers.”

This is an anthology of sixteen beautifully written short stories from authors with diverse and compelling voices, voices you likely already know and respect. More than that, With is the relatively rare anthology that is emotionally and intellectually more than the sum of its parts. Each story shines a unique light on relationships with humor, depression, grief, adoration, kindness, pride and fear.

How can kindness from an idolized swimming teacher change a boy’s life forever? Why would a man grieving the loss of his partner steal an infant from a shopping mall at Christmas time? How can friendship be witness to rudderless self-indulgence? These and other story questions help make up the rich weave of the anthology, different ways of being with.

From the first story, of a grad student and a hustler who doesn’t know how to make his life better to the last, a triumphant ramble delivered in Jack Fritscher’s signature beat-poet cadences and strewn with period song titles which sort of relate but sound so cool when the line is read aloud, a story of two men proudly together almost fifty years — this collection’s skilled authors bring to focus some quality or insight about relationship that is worth thinking about longer than it takes to read the story. Especially impactful for me was the life-in-reverse-motion of David Pratt’s “What is Real,” a stunning way to experience the grief of a man lost without his dead partner.

Kudos to Jameson Currier for arriving at such an intellectually and emotionally flexible, powerful theme, and kudos to each author for adding his unique and polished facet to the exploration. After finishing With, I found myself in that reflective, inspired, satisfied space that is a gift of every good book. I think you’ll have the same experience.

© 2014 Lloyd A. Meeker

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Fire Year – Jason K. Friedman (Sarabande Books)

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By Guest Reviewer David Pratt

A sexually insecure teen drifting through his failing bar mitzvah party. A good ol’ boy who needs to make sure he’s not gay. A financially squeezed cantor who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. A young museum worker who thinks he’s spied something no one else ever has in the work of an obscure Renaissance painter. In Fire Year, his debut short story collection, Jason K. Friedman skillfully explicates the secrets, lies and unresolved shame in each of his characters’ histories. In service of their desires, the characters are determined to keep their secrets and make their lies work (or simply not matter), but they all pass a point of no return. They are forced to do things they might have thought they wouldn’t or see things they did not want to see. But they can’t stop the machinery or keep the knowledge from coming. Fate haunts Friedman’s characters as surely as it haunts the shtetl of the title story, whose periodic fires the inhabitants try to parse, predict and prevent through ritual and superstition. In the modern world we call this “magical thinking.” It blinds Friedman’s characters and so precedes their fall.

I have not found Fire Year to be on the radar of many gay authors or reviewers. In spite of the presence of male homosexuality in nearly every story, Friedman’s greater theme is those who are dislocated, squeezed to the margins, struggling to survive, pushed toward desperate measures. Gay people happen to fit this description. Jews and Jewish culture fit it superbly well. Friedman links the two oppressed groups in a quick moment in “The Golem,” in which Blaustein, a dealer in used auto parts, calls his assistant, Artie, a “fageleh.” It is not seem meant to address Artie’s actual sexuality. Blaustein instead seems to speak of Artie’s all-encompassing, intractable traits: bad luck, social awkwardness, isolation, and, yes, a kind of defeated sexlessness that must unnerve and repel the cunning, determined Blaustein. The story’s ending implies that Artie may have his triumph, but it may be a triumph in defeat. Even if you aren’t trammeled by shame, lies and desire, you never best the Blausteins of this world, just as the fires don’t stop (though the hapless hero of that story, too young to be sexually active but a bit of a fageleh in the Blaustein sense, reaches a private state of resolution), just as a young art history major will not best his oppressive curator boss, no matter the boss’s ridiculousness.

I loved “The Golem” and was on the edge of my seat for the art museum story, “There’s Hope for Us All,” but I find I have less to say about my three stories favorite stories from Fire Year: “Blue,” “All the World’s A Field,” and “The Cantor’s Miracles.” In these three, Friedman hits on something ineffable. One has no wish to take these stories apart to see what makes them work. One almost can’t. They are superbly detailed yet mysterious pieces of experience that fit the patterns and themes I have identified, but that pass through us, resisting too close an analytic look.

Like the fires of the title story, Friedman’s best stories surprise and haunt us with truths that are frightening and intractable but hard to name. Like the villagers trying to understand those fires, we try to understand the heat generated when characters’ egos press relentlessly against their sins, ignorance and limitations. But we don’t wish to stop the spark the author strikes nor the flickering mystery that springs to life. On the contrary, we welcome it. And we welcome the debut of a wonderful new writer – gay and Jewish, yes, but most of all human.

© 2014 David Pratt

 

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Looking After Joey – David Pratt (Wilde City Press)

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By Guest Reviewer ‘Nathan Burgoine

I love to laugh. I think laughing is pretty much the best way we learn – especially when we laugh at ourselves. So when I had the chance to pick up Looking After Joey, the latest from David Pratt, I didn’t hesitate.

If you’ve never read Pratt before, then I should mention  I’ve learned to expect a genuinely enjoyable sense of revelation in his work.  Bob the Book was such a unique and witty ride and the moments of laugh-out-loud were balanced with surprising instances of introspection. My Movie – his collection of short fiction – had such range and breadth of tone that I parceled them out to myself like a Forrest Gump chocolate box, knowing that I’d enjoy whichever flavor I ended up getting.

All that to say I walked into Looking After Joey pretty aware there was going to be more to the experience than the fun synopsis suggested, and Joey delivered.

The greater narrative might seem a little out-there: this is, in a way, a kind of reverse-Pleasantville except the characters are traveling to and from gay porn rather than a 1950’s feel-good family drama. That conceit is played to full humorous effect. Calvin, Pratt’s protagonist, has socially retreated from even attempting to find a love life after his most recent split, and counts the minutes to when he can enjoy some solo satisfaction while watching his beloved porn movies. It’s Calvin who first stumbles into the porn world and finds himself adrift in this fantasy,  which amuses right off the bat.

In the porn world, it’s never night. The pool always needs cleaning, the pizza is always being delivered, and no one has anything other than a hundred dollar bill, which – of course – the delivery boy can’t break and could they come up with some other kind of barter? Even better, Calvin realizes at a glance that his real-world physique has gotten an upgrade, and he can enjoy every position and play out every scene he’s ever watched to satisfaction…

Except, of course, that every man he meets has a girlfriend who’s “away for the weekend” and certainly there’s no cuddling going to happen afterwards. In fact, it’s hard to even get a moment to nap, what with it never being night and every single person wanting to have sex the moment they meet Calvin. The reality of just how awkward porn dialog is – especially, y’know, during – is both funny and painful, and Calvin’s escape from the porn world leaves him all the more confused about life and what he wants.

Then Joey pops out after him. Joey, Calvin’s favorite porn star. Joey, who has only the porn world as his knowledge base. Joey, who is completely and utterly unequipped to deal with the reality of, well… reality. To Calvin’s best friend Peachy, however, Joey is a perfect convenience – they can use Joey as a kind of revenge-by-proxy, bringing the flawless young man to one of the biggest gay social parties coming up. Joey will steal all the attention, and finally allow Peachy and Calvin to feel vindicated in their hatred of some of the major players in the gay social scene who’ve done them wrong.

It’s here that Pratt’s novel really begins to shine and takes the reader in a direction they might not expect. Joey is a perfect foil for Calvin and Peachy, and he turns what could almost have devolved into a straightforward comedic revenge tale into something much better. Calvin’s hopes for partnering off with Joey and having his fantasy relationship come to life are quickly complicated by Joey’s inability to understand he’s even gay (after all, he has a girlfriend but she’s away for the weekend) and his sudden and complete faith in Jesus (a local priest tells Joey that Jesus would forgive him of anything, which is just what Joey thinks he needs to get back to his ‘real’ world). Joey has never seen a world with sickness, or aging, or average length penises. The culture shock through Joey’s commentary is hysterical, as are the actions of Calvin and Peachy as they desperately try to turn Joey into a mainstream gay socialite capable of turning heads and delivering their revenge.

The humor isn’t lost throughout the book, but gradually, the tone does shift. I found myself smiling and nodding at the dawning realizations of Calvin (and to a lesser degree, Peachy) as they start to clue in that what they think they want isn’t necessarily what they should want – and potentially, they don’t want it at all. Joey’s evolution, as well, never loses its charm even as you see his innocence tested time and time again by the stark realities of a world where perfect looking guys just don’t have the freedom to stop and have sex with other perfect looking guys every twenty minutes or so.

As more and more of Pratt’s gay socialites are brought into the tale (most of which are fun almost-spoofs of one extreme of gay culture or another), the plans to get Joey invited to the big party become more and more tangled. Favors are traded, new alliances are made and broken, and the boys start to realize that a serial kidnapper might be more important than making sure Joey knows the difference between Sondheim and Stravinsky, though only just. What if it takes connecting a self-involved jackass to a publisher so he can publish the worst autobiographical-fantasy revisionist history of his youth (as an erotic venture, of course)?  Peachy and Calvin take it in stride. These things happen.

Ultimately, it’s these conniving strands that start to form the real joy of Looking After Joey – Calvin grows as much as Joey, and while nothing turns out the way Calvin (or the reader) would expect, there’s a heartwarming touch to this funny book that left me smiling as I turned the final pages. No one is as simple as they seem – even the one-dimensional porn stars who have no idea how to interact with the real world. Calvin begins as a man desperate for even a shallow connection – a place it’s not hard for anyone to imagine being – and Peachy comes across as superficial and jaded; both men are in new places by the end of the tale. You can – and should – read Looking After Joey with the expectation of laughing throughout, but there’s more to it than that. Though characters are madcap in their execution, the social commentary is razor sharp. And though every stumble on the way to the big party (and the big reveal) grows more over-the-top than the last, the ultimate destination is surprisingly moving, and worth a few unexpected sniffles.

Looking After Joey is a book I’m happy to recommend.

© 2014 ‘Nathan Burgoine

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