Monthly Archives: October 2014

Death on Delancey – Joseph R.G. DeMarco (Lethe Press)

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I haven’t tried DeMarco’s Vampire Inquisitor series, but I’m definitely a fan of his Marco Fontana stuff, so I was anxious to read Death on Delancey. The only thing that could be more exciting is if DeMarco has his next volume of queered Sherlock Holmes stories ready. But (he sighed), I’ll wait. In the meantime, Death on Delancey is a rip-snorter–maybe the best yet in the series.

Two of Philly’s most popular gay bartenders are found dead following a contest in which they were both entered. One won. Was it jealousy culminating in murder-suicide, or were other forces at work? That’s what Jonny Tate, local entrepreneur and rich sleazebag whose bar the winner worked at, hires Fontana to find out. Unbeknownst to Fontana, to make sure he comes to the correct conclusion, Tate agrees covertly to finance a restaurant Fontana’s brother wants to open up. The results surprise everyone involved, including the reader.

DeMarco, like many mystery writers, has discovered the secret to a successful series. Create an interesting, complex detective, surround him with colorful minor characters (in this case, Fontana’s Russian secretary Olga and information specialist Nina), kill one or two people off, and let them all do their jobs. Okay, it’s probably more complicated than that. But DeMarco makes it look easy. Effortless, in fact. His plotlines are sturdy and eminently believable, and he leaves no loose end untied.

And let’s talk about DeMarco’s action scenes–the climax here is definitely worthy of mention, involving a not-so-innocent bystander who is not used to all this private eye business. The tension in this scene is absolutely delicious, and it’s the perfect capper. If there was a fault, it’s the mysterious red-headed woman who appears, is explained, and then disappears again without being involved in the plot as much as the reader is led to believe she will be. But the dinner at Marco’s mother’s house to celebrate his brother’s entrance into the restaurant business more than makes up for it. Mama Fontana is so much like other Italian women of that generation that I don’t need a description to see her. Her wit and charm is as abundant as the spread she puts out for the party.

But, really, there’s nothing about Death on Delancey that isn’t fun–and DeMarco also puts Philadelphia up front and center, displaying a knowledge of the city only a local would have, and that translates beautifully. So, if you’ve not read one of the Marco Fontana series before, this is a great place to start. If you have, you’ll know how involving they can be, so set aside some time and let Joe DeMarco take you to Philly.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Fall Poetry Roundup

Th9781937627218_cov_200e Letter I – Dennis Rhodes (Chelsea Station Editions)

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I missed Rhodes’s first two volumes of poetry, but I’m delighted to say I’ve now found this Provincetown bard. The structure of his pieces is as simple as his language, but that doesn’t equal simplistic. These poems are as complex and full of meaning as any overburdened with effete and obscure metaphors. He has a fine sense of irony coupled with a keen eye for detail, and his eye roams everywhere–post WWII musings, living with HIV, cruise ships, seasons, love, sex, faith, and the joys and agonies of being gay. But as observant as Rhodes is, he’s most successful when turning that eye inward. Whether it’s his personal history (“On the #1”), his aging process (“Old”), or his fondness for Vivian Vance (“Ethel”), he’s always winking at the reader, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Take, for example, his rumination on his own place in poetry, “Pretend I’m dead”: Pretend I’m dead and read this poem/as if the world has truly lost/an important, vital voice. Prepare/to assess my work in a fresh light/and try your best to put aside/those death-engendered sympathies/which have made poetic mountains/out of molehills. Some poets would rather die than undercut their inflated self-importance like that. Rhodes is cheeky and clever. What else do you need?


jpegBlushing Aspen – Kieran York (CreateSpace)

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Kieran York is a hopeless romantic, but that is not perjorative in any way. If our society needs anything right now, it’s woman (and men) whose souls are centered on romance rather than snark. As readers can discern by the cover, some of this volume consists of nature poetry, sincere and achingly heartfelt (“As Nature Moves Us Through Life,” “Rocky Mountain Utopia,” “Etiquette of Morning”) but York sucessfully blends these metaphors with other life lessons of beginning romance (“Touring With My Wilding”). She also reminds us of those pre- and immediately post-Stonewall days when things were rockier between us and straight society (“Waiting for a Good Man,” “Kissing at the CherryBomb Grill”). However, I picture York as a 60’s lesbian troubadour, a remnant of the era when this country had a conscience instead of merely a consciousness. And she fesses up to that image in pieces like “Lesbos After Dark,” “Do Not Disturb,” and, my favorite of the lot, “Confessions of a Retired Hippie”: I’m not warrior material/Roz, however, was a three-beer mercenary/A snoutful of brew, and she’d swing at anybody/We were too pompous and too tortured/to take the shape of a shadow./In the scheme of life,/we were smoother than a sharpened bayonet./After soaking up a second beer,/she was the butch of all chivalry./That made me the jovial sidekick./Saving a woman’s honor – that’s what Roz was doing. Rock on, Kieran. Rock on.


9781550718492_largeUnder My Skin – Orville Lloyd Douglas (Guernica Editions, Inc.) 

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And speaking of firebrands, if Orville Lloyd Douglas isn’t one, he’ll do until the real thing comes along. Many Americans have this idealized, utopic view of Canada, but Douglas explodes that myth to give us a glimpse of a country that has faults as real as our own. Racial hatred and injustice are as rife in “Alberta” and “Africville” as they are in Ferguson. Douglas’s rage is real and palpable, but its articulate nature gainsays any Us Vs. Them scenario and puts you squarely in his corner. If gay men and women understand anything at all, it’s rage. Rage at religion (“Choir Boy”), rage at homophobia (“Passion”), rage at the closet (“Crimes of Passion”) and rage at rage (“The Rage Within Me”). Powerful and muscular, these pieces are not to be consumed all at once. One or two bites are all you need to digest before you go back, but Under My Skin is a harsh meal that deserves to be finished because its lessons are so vital for everyone, as in “You Know Everything”: You know what it’s like on the subway or the bus/People standing clear or inching away, making a fuss/an old white lady clutching her purse/Being different is a curse/Yeah, you’re really black/You are so down my brother/But you don’t want to live in my section of town. Harsh poetry, harsh words, and harsh truths–but their harshness enhances their meaning. Even if this isn’t the kind of poetry you usually like, you need to read it.


cache_240_240_4_100_100_16777215_McQuainFinalCoverVelvet Rodeo – Kelly McQuain (Bloom Chapbooks)

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Kelly McQuain is not as harsh or angry, but he is every bit as observant and personal in his latest chapbook from Bloom, Velvet Rodeo. This volume is dedicated to his mother and partner, so as expected, the work concentrates on family but not necessarily domesticity. Titles like “Southern Heat,” “Creation Myth,” and ‘Lent” are important to McQuain’s personal mythology, but they’re universal enough that we can all relate to them. And who can’t recall the liquors of their youth, as in his “A Man in the Station Bar Makes Me Miss My Train?” Liquor is also important in “The Absinthe Drinker,” but not as important as the narrator forgiving the callowness and shallow superiority of the youth he drinks with. But of all the memories recalled here, perhaps the strongest is portrayed in “Uncle,” which sees an older brother requesting a sperm donation from his younger. McQuain takes this opportunity to muse on not only life’s inception, but what happens to brothers once they enter the arena together. The last stanza is particularly poignant: My brother doesn’t need me/after all. We can keep on ghosting/through each other’s lives. Ten years slip by./My brother doesn’t phone to ask any favors./He had a boy our father never got to hold./Our hellos and how-are-yous are occasional tithes/offered at birthdays and funerals/followed by awkward goodbyes./Sometimes I see children—/other brothers. The way they wrestle,/bodies sweaty, getting knotted,/steeped in tension and smells/—armpits, peanut butter, sour milk—/until, with a twist, one gets the upper hand:/stronger pins weaker, makes him cry uncle. Involving and deceptively honest, McQuain’s voice is as true as it is edged.


Calderwood_FRONTThe God of Longing – Brent Calderwood (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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Brent Calderwood’s debut collection from Sibling Rivalry is an impressive volume speaking to possibilities–the potential of the narrators to become any number of men, from the “different boys” in “Ballad of the Kind Young Men” to the ones who seek absolute perfection of “Anal Bleaching is All the Rage.” Such journeys begin in childhood, a base Calderwood covers well (“Stay Little Valentine Stay,” “Abecedarius”) but he doesn’t become stuck reminiscing. He also deals with the very real adult concepts of impermenence and its consequences, both in a portentious way (“Evolution,” “Goat Rock”) and with lighthearted metaphor (“Dog Villanelle”). That he does both with equal facility shows the breadth of his voice. And he has a particular talent for repurposing popular culture references, tossing off a beautiful restatement of The Eurythmics in “Rain” as well as a fascinating use of Norma Desmond’s famous line in Sunset Boulevard, “We had faces then” in “Headless Men”:  “We had faces.”/A line from a movie no one sees./They are all headless men./We used to read books in a leather den,/then head to the tearoom on our knees./We had faces./Now we’re online till god-knows-when/for a knight with a horse in his BVDs,/but they are all headless men,/either chopped at the neck like a free-range hen/or cropped at the crotch like limbless trees. This is poetic voice at its finest, and it’s only his beginning. I look forward to hearing more.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler


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Tumbledown – Cari Hunter (Bold Strokes Books)

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You never know what you’re going to get with sequels. The best ones continue the story, deepen the characters, and allow you to come away with a sense of growth. The worst ones reek of imitation and make you forget why you liked the first one so much. And then there are a whole range of in-betweenies that start off great but lose steam quickly, as if the author forgot what the point was. Not so with Cari Hunter’s excellent Tumbledown, which takes the main characters from Desolation Point and puts them back in danger.

Alex Pascal and Sarah Kent have healed, physically at least, from their last encounter with the Church of Aryan Resistance, during which Sarah killed the organization’s founder. That leaves his son–as dangerous as he is angry–hungry for revenge. Alex and Sarah have relocated to a small town in Maine, living their lives as best they can with one eye over their shoulders. A newspaper article about a birth Sarah assisted with, however, draws the attention of their pursuers, and the game is on again. The game turns out deadly for one of Sarah’s co-workers, who is killed as a warning. Things go even worse when Sarah is arrested for the crime, putting the burden on Alex to find the killer before he finds them.

Even though this is a continuation of the Desolation Point plot, this is an entirely different sort of thriller with elements of a police procedural. The first was grittier and had more of an Us v. Them feel due to the fact that it was just two women being hunted in the forest. In this installment, ancillary characters are brought in, but Hunter is able to maintain the reference points of isolation, deprivation, and danger in ways that depart from the first one. Sarah’s incarceration is told with an incredible eye for detail matched only by Alex’s efforts to get her released so they can track down the culprit. And Hunter’s heroines are very well-drawn here, richer and deeper than the last time around because of the experiences we’ve shared with them.

But the characters and the elements wouldn’t mean a thing without the tension of Hunter’s action scenes, which are flawless. Other thriller authors (yes, I’m looking at you Patterson and Grisham) could take lessons from Hunter when it comes to writing these babies. Twists and turns and forgotten or unconventional weaponry along with pluck and spirit keep me breathless and reading way past my bedtime. I can almost imagine Hunter as sweating and out of breath as her heroines once she writes her way out of the set-ups she conjures.

But can she do it again? Will there be a third installment featuring these characters? My gut says she should stop now and not go to this particular well too often. Still, a third book would be welcome if it didn’t stretch the reader’s credulity. While not exactly left open-ended, there are directions she could go that make perfect sense. And Hunter’s not afraid to change it up. Let’s wait and see. In the meantime, enjoy this fine thrill ride. But don’t start it at bedtime.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler


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For My Brothers – Mark Abramson (Wilde City Press)/San Francisco’s Native “Sissy” Son – Ron Williams (Blurb Books)

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Whatever the losses recently felt by publishers, bookstores, and established authors as a result of the internet revolution in book making and book selling (a.k.a “the crash”), one thing is certain: it has also opened wide the gates for many who seldom if ever thought of themselves as writers to produce books and get them out there.

One result is that LGBT books, especially memoirs and autobiographies, have now proliferated as never before. They were distinctly minor also-rans in more heady and established times. Among these new authors and their books, unquestionably the most intriguing have been by people who were not writers but instead grocery store owners, venture fund capitalists, appellate court judges, sailors, mobsters, ballerinas, and social workers.

Mark Abramson and Ron Williams are typical of this new kind of author. Williams spent most of his life as a printer, often for gay magazines and newspapers in San Francisco. He has since become a talented photographer and has turned writer for this, his first book. As his title tells us, he was born in the city, and he spent his earliest years, his youth, his gay coming out years and most of his gay life there. Abramson arrived in his early twenties from rural Minnesota and rapidly found work in Guerneville, S.F.’s gay resort area. After some time, he returned to San Francisco and spent most of his time either working in gay bars or putting on various fundraisers, parties, shows, and street fairs all arising from his bartending work. In the past few years, he has put out seven novels, so he too is a newish author.

The two men are about a decade apart, so we get almost a half century picture of gay life in San Francisco beginning in the late fifties when Williams first began haunting what the teenager figured out were gay venues, parks, bars, alleyways, streets, etc. Abramson’s book overlaps in the 70’s and 80’s and goes right up to 1996.

Their backgrounds are also quite different and could almost be said to represent two basic ways of growing up gay in the second half of the twentieth century. Williams, as this title also tells us, was a “sissy.” He came from an Anglo-Saxon/Irish family which had lived several generations in the West, and he visited relatives including his mother’s gay uncle in Montana. His parents and especially his mother were deeply homophobic, but besides that, they were physically, mentally, and verbally abusive to the boy. Like many of us, Williams sought and found an easier, more loving and tolerant gay family away from home. He never really looked back, until now, for the book.

Abramson grew up on a farm and had a solid, well knit, apparently loving family who supported his coming out despite how early it was. They seem to have been helpful and loving toward him throughout his many ups and, when they eventually arrived, through his downs too. Both men are good looking, intelligent and sociable. Life being exactly what it is, that means that the two men have had rich, full, and, for the most part, pretty good gay lives.

This is an important point to be made, because while mainstream publishers love books about LGBT people with insuperable problems and almost insurmountable difficulties because they supposedly make for great reading, younger people who pick up these two books will learn how wonderful life can be for rather ordinary people, people like themselves. So Abramson gets it just right in his book title: For My Brothers. He’s not only addressing his many past and mostly lost gay “brothers,” but also his current and future brothers.

Also keep in mind that neither Ron Williams or Mark Abramson were ever particularly rich, famous, beautiful, or celebrated. Their faces were never on magazine covers, and they made no appearances on television shows. Contrarily, neither were they ever infamous criminals or notorious douchebags. However, for gay history, they are better than academicians because they lived the life and now they have written about it.

Because he was there when gay was just really getting going in San Francisco and because of his trade, Ron Williams came to know, work with, love, hate and otherwise interact with some of the city’s and, indeed, the country’s earliest successful gay movers and shakers. For the most part, these were entrepreneurs who early on identified and sought to fulfill needs in LGBT life in print, porn, bars, restaurants, and clubs.

Because of his “secondary” work of putting on “Men Behind Bars” and other money-raising parties and shows two decades later, Abramson also came into contact with many such entrepreneurs as well as various celebrities. He even became friends with some of them, but they are of the Sylvester and Edie the Egg Lady variety, not the Donald Trump, Angelina Jolie kind. This is refreshing and fun to read about and besides consolidating identity, it provides an undeniable stamp of authenticity on these books that money can’t buy.

4511809-c5735dc47ccf339868415f995552f91a-fp-1363921307Williams’s book is structured as two halves. The first is the autobiographical one from the time he is a child throughout his middle teen years. It moves from some early forays into neighborhood parks like S.F.‘s Golden Gate, where he had his first glimpse of two men masturbating, on through his years as a not-quite runaway working as a waiter among gay men and living with two older guys and checking out the gay scene around the old Embarcadero. His visits to his middle-aged gay relative at his ranch in the west also has its moments–just before familial religion and homophobia destructively enter into the equation. One of the great ironies of Williams’s life as a “sissy” is that he refused to “check the box” declaring his homosexuality when he was drafted into the Armed Forces. He wanted to prove to himself and everyone else that he wasn’t a sissy. But from Basic Training on to his assignment in Germany, he was surrounded by gay guys, and he and his army buddies indulged in German and Dutch gay life with every weekend pass they got. And then, when Williams returned to the States and had to find some task to do for the few months to the end of his enlistment, he found work for the U.S.O. theatre–putting on musicals. The Army de-sissyfied him all right.

The second half of San Francisco’s Native “Sissy” Son consists of essays about people and places in early gay life: the early years and the homophobic reactions to gays at Russian River, for example, or the intricate and sometimes hilarious cops versus cruising guys games at Land’s End Park, or his brief stint as a porn model and much longer guise as a printer for the Bob Mizer model mags and then for the B.A.R. and S.F. Sentinel. Probably my favorite moment is when he and his hippie boyfriend decide to publish a little newsletter titled, The Organic Morning Glory Seed Message: A magazine for natural living. That goes so well, it then becomes a sort of precursor to the Whole Earth Catalogue. It is fascinating reading and the fun, love, and good times he had as a young man almost compensates for his rough, unloving, earlier life.

Abramson’s book is more or less chronological and twice as long. The author covers a wide span of some of the best gay years that I recall visiting San Francisco, when it seemed the party would never end. A modest man with few apparent ambitions, Mark’s looks, smarts, and charm got him involved in co-producing some of the coolest, funniest, and biggest parties and shows of the time–Men Behind Bars, to begin with, Mr. San Francisco Leather, the Folsom Street Fair, and it also connected him up to Leather Daddies, the Imperial Court, etc.

He details the people he worked for and worked with, the singers and comedians, his boyfriends and lovers, his sometimes fleeting connections to the nascent gay media– all in colorful anecdotes and moments. Everyone he knew was important to him, and he seldom has bad things to say about anyone, although he doesn’t mince words when he does. If some, like Jane Dornacker and Al Parker get more space, it’s because he was closer to them. Toward the end of the book, he questions why he is a survivor. But his book is the answer. A good gay life is its own, and now our, reward.

Abramson concludes with a long list of people he knew who died between 1982 and 1995. It takes up thirty-one pages. I knew many of those same people, but somehow it wasn’t at all depressing to read their names: Bob McQueen, Crawford Barton, Robert Pruzan, Mike Muletta, etc. It feels like the mixed emotion of the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. or an Honor Roll.

If you were around then and in S.F. even on visits, these books are required reading. If you are younger and want to know what it was really like, forget the novels because again these historical memoirs are required reading.

Reviewed by Felice Picano

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