Monthly Archives: January 2017

Country – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press)

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Country music isn’t a place I ever expected myself to venture as a fiction reader. Music in general isn’t something I find easily translated to text, and yet two recent books I’ve read have had music intrinsic to their core narratives, and have done so deftly.

But country music? I can’t imagine a genre of popular music less open to a gay experience than country music. Don’t get me wrong, some of the country music stars themselves are definitely fetching (their names I sometimes vaguely know thanks to magazine covers from my bookstore days), but the industry itself—and the fan base—have never struck me as remotely friendly.

Obviously, I know that’s a sweeping generalization, and even this Canuck has heard of Steve Grand, but beyond a few recent blips, my experiences in the rural Canada of my youth has left me with a less than welcoming sense of the country music community, even up here.

All that to say when I was handed Country, Jeff Mann’s novel, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.  From the blurb alone, I knew Country featured a bunch of things I didn’t necessarily connect with: country music, rural culture, and living a closeted life.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Mann brings us Brice Brown, a big name Country star, and introduces us to him at his peak, moments before the tipping point that sets the novel in motion. Brice is overdue for a new record, deeply closeted, and finding company to rent online, and about to be outed by a former lover.

It is that last that sends Brown crashing down from the top, of course, and it’s important to note that the novel is set in the late 90’s. Though in today’s world it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine as hard a fall as Brice Brown takes, setting the novel in the recent past served a double purpose to me: the exploration of the homophobia in play was bang-on perfect, and the impotent rage Brown often feels is mirrored in the reader’s experience. So recent as a few decades ago, it would be unheard of for a public “Good old boy” to be outed. Today might hold a different story—might—but in placing the narrative firmly in a time and place where support would be small and unheard, Mann gives us a reminder of both progress and of the hateful frustrations.

I often speak of how queerfolk have to struggle to pass their narratives onward, as we don’t inherit them like other cultures. Fiction can often pass these narratives on just as well, and there’s no doubt that the fictional Southern and country culture at play in Country is a narrative Mann is passing on. The viciousness of the assault on Brice Brown’s name, music, image, and career is borderline relentless, and as the man watches all things crumble, the pain is present—and realistic—to behold.

That Brice Brown himself is by no means a perfect man—he’s as much a product of his culture as those who throw hate at him from within it— works well to ground the story further into that reality. Brice is just as likely to prejudge others as he himself is judged, and watching his journey unfold was a satisfyingly refreshing take for this kind of story. More, Brice’s struggles with depression and his often self-destructive and self-loathing attempts to tame his “black moods” garner empathy without pity, a balance I’ve rarely found achieved so well.

Lest you think the whole novel is a dark and dismal ride, let me be clear: it is not. As much as Brice’s decent is powerfully written, so is the path forward. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Jeff Mann novel if there weren’t rough-and-tumble country man around to capture Brice Brown’s heart, in this case in the form of a delectable delinquent, Lucas. Fans of Mann are no doubt aware already of his adept erotic prose, and they will not be let down.

As the story moves from the macro “fall of the Country Music Star” and into the micro of a smaller cast of characters who gather around Brown when he finds a place to go into retreat, it’s these characters that bring forth the queer “chosen family” value to the story, and where the healing—not just Brice’s healing—comes into play. There are laugh-out-loud moments in Country born of these characters, which include a gay rural retreat owner who is so much larger than life (and yet so like so many people I’ve met), and a gun-toting lipstick lesbian who delivers some of my favorite lines of the whole book. And for fans of Mann’s other works (especially Cub), there are a few moments included for the reader that are richly rewarding. These light moments don’t steal from the realism, either, but add to it: there’s a kind of “laughter in the face of the bad” tone that pops up throughout Country, and it is a sense I can certainly understand and empathize with. At some point, I think most queer people have faced those moments.

Beat us down? When we get back up, our laughter will be all the louder for our survival.

With “survival” being the often raw and minimal goal from the moment Country begins, the reader is left with no sense that “happily ever after with rainbows” is on the menu, which raises the tension of the book all the higher. In turn, I was angry, frustrated, empathetic, or sad—often aimed at Brice himself—but at no point was I anything less than invested in seeing where Brice’s journey would end.

In fact, like so much of Mann’s work, the strength is in how incredibly evocative it is: it’s lyrical, erotic of course, and full to the brim with the sights, smells, and sheer weight of the country setting.

Oh, and of course: the food. Some day I will learn not to read a Jeff Mann book while remotely hungry, as the food alone is described so enticingly I find my mouth watering and wishing I had the slightest idea how one made “scrapple.”

Country is a love letter to a lover who refused to return the affection, sent by someone who is learning to find something else—or someone else—as worthy of the love.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

 

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Beautiful Gravity – Martin Hyatt (Antibookclub)

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As one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Carole King, once wrote: “So far away/Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” And we don’t. Restless transients that we are, most of us–especially in the queer community–long to escape the places in which we were raised. To start over, to create our own lives even as we carry old traditions into new surroundings. If, for whatever reason, we can’t leave,  we yearn to do so. But those who leave soon find they can never escape, which is the primary lesson in Martin Hyatt’s latest novel, Beautiful Gravity.

Boz Matthews, born and raised in Noxington LA, still works at and lives over his grandfather’s highway diner. Drifting through his days slowly filling salt shakers and waiting on tables when he isn’t beating off to Marcello Mastroianni, he is visited intermittently by his best friend Meg, a seriously manic depressive preacher’s daughter who is as fragile as she is indomitable. When failed country music star Catty Mills and her songwriter/manager, Kyle Thomas, a former Noxington boy himself, come to town, the misfits find themselves in a menage a quatre that results in both birth and death by the end of the book.

The themes in Beautiful Gravity are nothing new, but Hyatt works them as if they are, creating complicated characters whose actions are sometimes as unclear to themselves as they are to us. Catty’s binges, Kyle’s remoteness, Meg’s dependencies, and Boz’s distance are vaguely rooted in their pasts and we get glimpses of those parts of their lives, but they’re less important than how those actions affect the intertwined lives of all four.

For a work so centered on escape and return, the place from which the characters do both is always present, yet rarely described. Hyatt paints the town in broad strokes, providing a few juicy details to hang the image on, then he leaves it brooding in the background, there yet not there. Instead, Boz is the true center of gravity–indeed, the title of the book comes from Kyle referring to Boz’s “beautiful gravity”–but the center around which they all coalesce is dangerously unstable himself. As with the town, Boz is there yet not there. Regardless, he is of a piece with the other three members of the menage. The sum of this relationship is definitely greater than its parts. Yet each part has its function. Kyle provides its masculinity, Meg its fragility (and fecundity), Catty its adventurousness, and Boz its soul.

Hyatt has created a wonderful portrait of four individuals and the relationship they form in combination. Sexually charged and scarred both physically and psychically, their shortcomings and strengths meld into a group dynamic unlike anything most of us will experience. That alone should be reason enough to read this, but then there’s Hyatt’s prose, which is deft and beautiful. It’s stealth prose–you don’t realize how deeply it cuts until it’s too late. Highly readable and highly recommended.

JW

©, 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration – Bryan Borland, ed. (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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As I’ve said before, one of the reasons I reopened Out in Print was because of a changing political landscape and the resulting need to provide a forum for queer voices to be heard. Bryan Borland’s compendium of protest poetry, If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration, dealing with the installation of the T—-reich makes a perfect entry–which is why I rushed to get this review out. But another consequence of reading this book is the realization that the need never went away.

Indeed, one of the takeaways from this excellent volume is that the issues of institutionalized racism and the marginalization of “others” have continued and will continue–only now on a much bolder and more pronounced scale. Though many of these poems do address T—- and his infamous deeds and phraseology directly, not as many do as you’d think. The effect is one of a generalized demoralization and an all-purpose call to arms, which is as it should be. T—- is not the problem. The problem is the systemic rot that has allowed him to rise as close to the top as he has.

He does, however, provide a lightning rod for anger as in Nickole Brown’s “Trump’s Tic-Tacs,” Candice M. Kelsy’s “The Birth of President Trump (after Mary Shelley),” Claire Paniccia’s “Letter Beginning With Two Lines by Donald Trump  (after Matthew Olzmann),” and my favorite of this lot, Karen Head’s “Listening to Michelle Obama Denounce Donald Trump’s Abuse of Women,” which relates her reaction to a chauvinist watching the news in a hotel restaurant:

Something buried deep beneath/my whiteness, maybe ancient marrow/within the Cherokee cheekbones I inherited/from great-great-grandmother, Hester,/begins to leach/out, surface./Jostling his table, his hot coffee,/isn’t hard with my woman’s hips—/revolutions begin this way.

In many other places, the world-weary protesters who have gone before lament a society that won’t allow them to rest, Miguel Morales’s excellent “Elders” and Christopher Bakka’s disaffected “Are You the President?” among them. But Mary E. Cronin has the last word on the subject (and in the book) with her wonderfully said “We Know How to Do This”:

We know how to do this—/To breathe in a house with no oxygen/to drive in a township where you run us off the road/to dance in a hall where you leer,/assess,/grab./We know how to do this—/To speak in code/as you blunder and bluster,/smashing all the china/as you try to break us. … We are smoke./We swirl around you/fill your eyes,/your nostrils,/your mouth,/as you flail/in vain.

Others look to the means of protest itself, as does Breana Steele in her poignant “Safety Pin,” or Liz Ahl’s incredible “Others Carried Milk” (which decontaminates pepper spray):

Others carried milk—tactical milk defensive milk mother’s milk of human kindness—/And the milk was spilled, all the milk was spilled upon all the scalded eyes, and oh how we cried over it./And even those milky, non-tactical tears were gathered up. We pressed them into shards, into service. We carried them.

From Bryan Borland’s incendiary title poem, “If You Can Hear This,” to Collin Kelly’s call for unity in “From the Air” to Guy Traiber’s brief yet beautiful “All the Squares Turned to Houses,” and so many more, this book serves as a reminder that nothing is more dangerous than words and those who know how to wield them. Power is useless without someone who buckles under to it, and as we have time and time again, we’ll represent those who stand up and scream at the face of adversity. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

Grab that if you can.

JW

 ©, 2017, Jerry Wheeler

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Equality: What Do You Think About When You Think of Equality? – Paul Alan Fahey, ed. (Vine Leaves Press)

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Paul Alan Fahey’s collection of essays about equality tasks twenty-four other writers with this question. Given the topic of this collection, I wondered how the contributors reflected this concept.  The anthology has roughly an equal number of female and male writers (twelve and thirteen, respectively, since Fahey includes an essay of his own), and a majority of the contributors fall on the LGBT spectrum, but not all aspects of the LGBT rainbow are equally represented.   Most of the authors appear to be American, with one Canadian and two British; and with a couple of exceptions, they also appear to be overwhelmingly of European descent.

All this is to say that equality is an ideal, and thus elusive and rarely encountered (it also is not the same thing as diversity).  It is therefore not at all surprising that most of the contributors do not dwell on what equality is, so much as what it is not.  Few people have experienced equality, but everyone has certainly experienced inequality, whether it is a result of one’s actual (or perceived) race, gender, age, and/or sexual orientation.  Most of the contributors reflect on when they first encountered inequality (usually when directed at themselves, but also when they first noticed it directed at others; and some, even from the height of privilege, realized that there were not as “equal” as they thought, since others were higher than they).  As a result, most of the essays in this volume are deeply personal in nature, and focus on inequality as a result of race (“Lani Silver: A Voice for Equality” by David Congalton), gender (“Give Us Our Birthright: Why the Equal Rights Amendment Needs to Be Revived—and Ratified” by Susan Reynolds), or age (“The Last Acceptable Prejudice” by Barbara Abercrombie; “Inequality” by Felice Picano).  And several essays examine inequality as a result of sexual orientation, especially as it relates to marriage equality (“Limit” by `Nathan Burgoine; “Have You Met My Husband?” by Larry Duplechan; “Ambiguously Ever After” by Jeffrey Ricker; “Two Mountain Weddings” by Jeff Mann), or how it intersects with other inequalities (e.g., “Equality in High Def” by Jewelle Gomez, which examines inequality both via race and sexual orientation).

Although the contributors are all equally adept writers, several essays stand out in this collection.  Christopher Bram’s contribution, “The Magic Words,” a meditation on the beginning of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”), examines the paradoxes inherent in these words (i.e., that the “men” named in this famous quote were strictly defined as only literal men, and moreover white, land-owning men) and how this narrow notion of “equality” gradually grew more encompassing, a point expounded upon by other essays in this collection.

Two thought-provoking essays examine equality through the prism of the Golden Rule.  Barbara Jacksha’s contribution,”Everyday Equality,” examines her own thoughts and attitudes to determine whether she treats people equally; no surprise, she doesn’t.  But then she turns her experiment on herself and then learns that she doesn’t treat herself as equal to others, either.  Similarly, Catherine Ryan Hyde tries to “Imagine a world in which we all applied our beliefs to our own lives and left everybody else the hell alone” in “When I Think of Equality.”  Doing so is especially difficult when it means letting another person make a choice that appears entirely and egregiously wrong.

Despite the fact that equality remains elusive, and the long road to achieving it has no obvious end, this collection chooses to be hopeful, stressing the strides already made along that road.  Released on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2017, before the inauguration of the 45th American president, this collection is especially timely.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Lily – Michael Thomas Ford (Lethe Press)

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The world of fairy tales is not a happy one. Their lessons were cruel and their plots turned on acts as malicious and vengeful as they were physically deforming. In the earliest written versions of Cinderella, for example, the wicked stepsisters hacked off toes and cut away parts of their heels to fit into those glass slippers. Since then, modern parenting and Disney have sanitized them for our protection. In Lily, Michael Thomas Ford takes the fairy tale back to its darker roots.

Lily is a girl who discovers, through her father’s demise, that she can see how anyone who touches her will die. Needless to say, this seems less a gift than a curse and once her mother takes her away from home, Lily tries to rid herself of the ability. This brings her to the Reverend Silas Everyman’s traveling tent revival show. Dangling that promise in front of Lily, Everyman uses her to enhance his own reputation—despite the presence of Baba Yaga, who follows Lily on her quest. Can her love for Star, the tattooed girl, cure her? Telling would be churlish.

Ford draws this wonderfully dreamt and detailed story together from familiar strands and foreign threads, weaving a deeply contrasted tapestry of myth and harsh reality. Lily is an innocent who yearns for the truth she also fears. She knows deep down that nothing will rid her of the gift she possesses, but she achieves a delicate peace with it once she sees how her own end is tied to someone she touches.

An innocent young girl, however, has no place in a fairy tale without delicious evil to balance out the story. Reverend Silas Everyman is the quintessential American huckster. Backed by an army of evil clowns and his own quasi-religious fervor, he’s a perfect foil to Lily’s goodness. But the star turn on the dark side belongs to BabaYaga, used as a sort of Greek chorus to follow and comment on Lily’s adventures. A foul, mean-spirited, child-eating crone with bad breath and a worse attitude, she’s absolutely terrific.

What struck me most about Lily was how familiar it all felt. Ford taps in to some mighty well-used archetypes but mashes them up to create a story unique in its own right. Take a bit of Old Scratch, some P.T. Barnum, a dash of evangelical hypocrisy, stir it all up in a cauldron by the light of a midnight moon, and you have a hearty fairytale stew. Discomfort food. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible interior and exterior artwork by Staven Andersen, which adds to the otherworldly mood while it comments on the story itself.

It’s great to have you back, Mr. Ford. What’s next?

JW

©, 2017, Jerry Wheeler

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The Liberators of Willow Run – Marianne K. Martin (Bywater Books)

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One of the reasons I brought this blog back to life is the political climate in our country these days. Queer writing of any sort has always been a rebellious act. Make it romantic, make it raunchy, make it strident, make it sweet, make it so beautiful that even our most vile enemies can’t hold back their tears. But make it count. And the more voices we can muster, the louder our collective cry will be. Marianne K. Martin’s latest, The Liberators of Willow Run, shouts freedom from the rooftops for the disenfranchised of all stripes.

Audrey works at the Willow Run Bomber Plant near Detroit, making B-24 bomber planes essential for victory in WWII. Rose works at a nearby restaurant, having gotten the job after a stay at the Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. Nona is a young black woman also employed at the plant, but she has a plan for her education and a career in mind. Together, they conspire to prevent Amelia, also a Crittenton resident, from returning to a less-than-desireable home situation as Audrey and Rose fall in love.

Martin draws all these plot elements together with a sure, steady hand, creating characters that live and breathe on the page. Moreover, they fight. They fight for respect at work, they fight for love, they fight for the right to do as they please with their bodies and their lives. But most importantly, they fight for each other as they risk bucking the whole white patriarchial system. They are more than cute, scrappy fighters, too. Their struggles are real in ways we are about to become all too well-acquainted with again.

But there is little, if any, polemic here. Instead, Martin serves us people—strong and indomitable, yes, but as fragile as we all can be. Audrey, in an attempt to lay bare her life to Rose, takes her to meet her former lover, Velma, confined to a nursing home as the result of a so-called “cure” for her “condition.” If I take anything away from this book, it will be this scene between these three women. It brought tears to my eyes then and does now as I write about it.

Martin also shows a mastery of suspense as Audrey and Rose concoct and carry out an improbable scheme to rescue Amelia, putting a delicious spin on the title of the book. The event and subsequent investigation by the police is taut and well-spun. And when the plant closes, and the women are again relegated to secondary roles in society, Martin has plans for them. Just as it should be.

The Liberators of Willow Run isn’t just a good read. It’s essential. It’s a primer for struggle, a reminder of what was, and a cautionary tale of what may be around the corner. Highly recommended.

JW

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