Once again, I leave Out in Print in Duncan’s capable hands so you may marvel as his Chocolate Lab awesomeness while I am at a writer’s retreat at the Easton Mountain Center in upstate New York. Out In Print will return on 8/11 with a review of Christopher DiRaddo’s The Geography of Pluto. Until then, feel free to leave comments lauding our boy for capturing and chewing the Bad Bone.
Monthly Archives: July 2014
Last vacation of the year
Finding the Grain – Wynn Malone (Bywater Books)
Have you ever not trusted the ending of a book? Not to say that it wasn’t credible or not in keeping with the characters as drawn, but rather the opposite. You feel you know the characters so well that as the happy ending washes over you, it’s all you can do not to scream at the half-page that ends the book, “No! Don’t do it! She’ll fuck you over again!!!” That’s what I experienced with Wynn Malone’s richly detailed and absolutely sumptuous debut novel, Finding the Grain.
Orphaned by a tornado a month before her high school graduation, Augusta “Blue” Riley graduates from high school and plans for college with the help of her aunt. But while at university, Blue meets and falls in love with sorority girl Grace Lancaster. Parental pressures, however, puts the screws to their relationship and Grace bails, leaving Blue adrift. Twenty years on, after hopping from town to town, job to job, and bed to bed, Blue finally rediscovers herself and finds a career that makes her happy–building furniture. She settles down and opens up a shop, not quite over Grace but determined to put the past behind her. Until Grace shows up again. Will they fulfill their destinies? You have to wait to the last page to find out.
Well, this is a romance after all, and one of the unbreakable laws of the genre is the Happy Ever After ending. The joy is in the journey, and there’s much joy to be found here. Malone’s greatest strength is her characters. Both Blue and Grace are wonderfully drawn, absolutely believable, and frustratingly lifelike. I say frustrating because they do exactly what real people do instead of characters in books. And just when you think you have their relationship figured out, Malone throws you another curve. But such curves she throws–soft, low, and deadly.
But as true to life and Blue and Grace are, Malone shows her facility with character in other ways. Preacher, the man who mentors Blue in the art of wood carving, is a patient, wise, and talented older black man who could have easily tipped over into an offensive (or worse yet, bland) caricature. Morgan Freeman’s entire career rests on parts like this. We know just how he’ll react to her being a lesbian, how he encourages her talent, how he waits for her to prove herself, and how he comes to love Blue in his own gruff way. However, Malone injects so much detail and so much humanity into Preacher, he transcends the limitations of that stock character and lifts right off the page. Morgan Freeman should be so lucky.
But we are lucky indeed to have the fruits of Wynn Malone’s labors available. Finding the Grain is a terrific read that’s as warm, comforting, and sturdy as a well-carved piece of wood. And I’ll bet you scream at the last half-page too.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler
Little Reef and Other Stories – Michael Carroll (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press)
Buy from University of Wisconsin Press
It used to be, way back in the twentieth century, that a literary author would make a name by first publishing a small collection of short stories, most of them appearing in those tiny circulation quarterlies that dotted the landscape, attached to every Liberal Arts College in the Land. Sometimes, a slender volume of verse would appear first. Some fifty people would review the first book, maybe thirty of them having read it, and unless it was bad, the author was on the way up. That was before the current Age of Over-Information that we (so ambiguously) enjoy. Nowadays a confessional memoir or slam-bang novel is almost de rigeur for that path: something big, bad, and, as Jean Cocteau said, something to astonish us.
So it’s kinda cute that author Michael Carroll starts off his own literary career with a collection of stories, and that a handful of them, from the first half of the book actually, were printed in some of those quarterlies either still generously endowed or barely holding on by their fingernails. This collection is in two parts: “After Dallas,” and “After Memphis,” and these tales are not divided by place or time as much as they are by ambition, scope, style and yes, even by content.
The early six stories are almost what any self respecting Brooklyn, New York authoress might write and savor. They’re a little autobiographical, a little earnest, a little sly and funny, and filled with the required shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude and put-on jaded and/or over-medicated aura that today passes for contemporary fiction. But they’re also well-written, easy to take, sharply observed, and most of the characters–including the narrators–get little sympathy and even take a few well rendered beatings on several levels simultaneously. To our pleasure, I have to admit. Especially the two young male/female couples in “The Biographers” and the crusty old gent, widower of the dead writer they’re nattering on about. The one piece that breaks the mold and ends up being quite moving is “Werewolf,” about a straight childhood friend, and the gay male narrator’s relationship with him over the years. It’s a carefully composed piece, with not a comma out of place and, therefore, an utterly credible and creditable narration.
Then we arrive at Part Two, and it’s altogether something different. Knowing Michael a little and his partner a great deal better (or at least longer) this reviewer couldn’t help but think the aging author being cared for by the callow narrator of the five later, longer pieces are strongly based on them; and so a kind of queasiness or giddiness set in, making this a post Robert Gluck meta-fiction in which who knows what to believe, really. Yet these are by far the more interesting set of fictions: first, because of the easy going, almost rambling style which fingers the reader as surely as did Coleridge telling about that crazed sailor, and second,because you probably think you know who those major and minor characters –the latter mostly sketched in– are or can shrewdly guess who they might be, narrowing it down to one or two. And third because it seems so intimate and confiding, just like well, Pip or Holden or Nick Carraway, that you’re seduced pretty thoroughly.
Seduced but not lobotomized. Is this a memoir in the making? A fake memoir? A novel in several pieces–it takes up three-quarters f the entire volume? Or what exactly? And what story is being told here? That’s often as uncertain as the location of Schrodinger’s cat. Take “Avenging Angel“ as an example. The story begins in one of those standard-as-possible writers’ work/vacation New England towns (he even references Stephen King!) in great, novelistic detail, and suddenly without any transition I’m aware of, switches to Faith Fox, a long time friend of the narrator’s. From there on it moves back and forth between his current life and her life which he sees in enormous, if momentary, chunks of gory detail whenever she reappears. Anyone who’s lived a few decades will recognize this woman–trendoid to the max–she comes in different shapes, sizes and flavors, and to my mind personifies what we mean when we speak of a zombie. But then we’re knocked back into the story with the older writer, who has had a debilitating stroke and who is increasingly presented as a Baron de Charlus type: “The old libertine can barely move” he calls out, not able to get out of the car by himself. “That’s hilarious,” I muttered, though how I cared for him. “Here, grab my hand.”
Is that irony? Is that affection twisted somehow? What gives? His and the narrator’s story takes place alongside that of Faith as though they were meant to play off each other, or make each other resonate, but that didn’t happen for this reviewer. One area is simply more interesting than the other, and because any emotion possible is held over the fire so long, it’s unclear what we are supposed to feel and for whom exactly.
But … having written that, any story or stories that make me actually think about them that much are certainly worth my time. And all of these stories are. I think Carroll has opened out a space if not yet a landscape for himself, and he has done so with believable dialogue, intriguing characters, and situations that feel free to promise future benefits if not exactly future revelations. Give it a try.
Reviewed by Felice Picano
Queerly Beloved: A Love Story Across Genders – Diane and Jacob Anderson-Minshall (Bold Strokes Books)
First an obituary, then a review. Don’t worry, they’re connected.
While I was at Saints and Sinners this year, I learned of the death of my good friend Matt Kailey. Writer, teacher, lecturer, and trans activist, Matt represented much to many people. I was lucky enough to work with him at Out Front Colorado where he was managing editor, and I was even luckier to be invited to join a writer’s critique group he was in. I learned some valuable lessons over pizzas and soft drinks in Matt’s small Capitol Hill apartment in Denver with our friends Peter Clarke, Drew Wilson, Chris Kenry, John Brandstetter, and the late Sean Wolfe among others. Matt was also directly responsible for my first publication and, thus, my entry into gay literature. He was an incredibly unselfish individual who would answer nearly any question about his transition, no matter how boorish, as long as it was well-intentioned. He influenced an enormous number of people through his personal appearances and his autobiography, Just Add Hormones. One of those people Matt reached was Jacob Anderson-Minshall, then doing research preparatory to his own transition. Matt, however, was single. Jacob (then Suzy) was already in a lesbian relationship when he began his process. The story of how Jacob and his wife, Diane, coped with that decision and its aftermath forms the basis for their latest book, Queerly Beloved.
Told in both Diane and Jacob’s voices, their experiences are distinct as well as melded. Diane has her problems with the transition (one of which is her position in the community as a lesbian activist and journalist), and Jacob has his. That they are both able to step back and understand each other’s issues is a testament to their willingness to be together. Queerly Beloved, then, is less a story about Jacob’s transition than it is a tribute to commitment and prolonging a lifelong relationship despite its permutations.
Jacob’s sections do, indeed, deal with his transition, but not so much as you might suppose. Again, he takes a broader view of how he affects and is affected by others during this period. Looking to find out which set of genitalia he has? Look somewhere else. Jacob is detailed where he needs to be and knows how to write lines which can be read between. Diane’s chapters are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but more often she uses her subtle wit and keen observation to make her point. But as with most barbs, their sharpness hides her vulnerability.
Both Diane and Jacob bravely expose parts of themselves and their relationship, but at some point they stop and close the curtain. And rightly so. Putting this much of your life and experience out there for judgment requires both personal and artistic courage, and each author must determine where to draw the line in the sand. I wonder if or how this story would have been different had Diane and Jacob chosen to tell it through fictional characters. Perhaps it would have been too voyeuristic. In the end, they made the right choice. What’s in Queerly Beloved is both frank and informative, as readable as it is important.
And to the authors, I apologize for pairing your review with an obituary–worse, an obituary with another book title in it. However, Matt Kailey’s Just Add Hormones (original title: Tranifesto) is a wonderful book that also mines some of the same territory regarding the joys and difficulties of transitioning. I know it was not intended as Matt’s final word on the subject, and Queerly Beloved adds to and enriches what he’s done. Our stories create community. And the more stories we hear, the more we understand where everyone fits in.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler