Monthly Archives: October 2017

Best Gay Stories 2017 – Joe Okonkwo, ed. (Lethe Press)

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New series editor Joe Okonkwo hits the right notes in his introduction: diversity, eclecticism, and a wide cross-section of the gay experience. The volume delivers on that vow from the front cover down to the last story even as its larger underlying themes–running the gamut from dark comedy to bleak tragedy–underscore its universality. And we need to be reminded of that now and again.

I don’t always read anthology entries in their listed order. Some authors I’ll read immediately, and George Seaton is one. His voice is always compelling to me, and “One More Day” is no exception. Older rancher Earl hires a young drifter named Tom to do some work around the place, sharing his experience as well as the story of his brief life with his late partner, Bill. Seaton fulfills the bittersweet promise of the story, but this tale is also a perfect illustration of what he does so well–he fills his glass to the exact halfway point, leaving you to decide if the end is optimistic or pessimistic. But the eldergay well runs deep, and Seaton is not the only one here using that voice. Troy Ernest Hill also gives it a somewhat ironic spin in “Whatever Makes You Happy” as Pupa attends the wedding of his granddaughter, negotiating the minefield of assumptions and mistakes about poly relationships and gender netural prounouning but keeping his worldview intact. Mostly.

An unexpected delight was Rich Barnett’s “Cooking Lard and Candle Wax,” a brilliant piece which finds young gay Billy, who does all his friends’ and relatives’ hair, hiding backstage in James Brown’s dressing room on one of his mid-Sixties chitlin’ circuit tours. Brown’s hairdresser is gone, leaving the GFOS without anyone to do his conk. Billy improvises with some homemade pomade and saves the day. The story is simple, elegant, and memorably told with great dialogue. Billy’s empowerment is evident as he watches JB and the Famous Flames drive away after the show. You know he’s not going to stick around his hick town much longer. Edgar Gomez’s “Dancing in the Dark” is as empowering but in a far different way. This story of an Orlando Pulse patron who had friends in the bar during the shooting starts out simply: The headlight fell off again. The narrative that spins out from that prosaic beginning waltzes effortlessly between first person memoir and queer theory:

Friends of mine have joked about how the catch-all slogan of late — OrlandoStrong — sounds like a 5K marathon, disguising the unquestionable homophobia motivating the shooting with a baffling motto that sounds like a quote from The Incredible Hulk … Erased is the queerness essential to the LGBTQ lives lost, replaced with generic calls to action to be McOrlando McUnited as if acknowledging our varying sexualities, genders, or authentic stories would make our lives any less worthy of reverence.

Gomez never, however, loses his balance or his voice.

“Logging in Old Algonquin,” by M Arbon, was another standout for me. Arbon also authored “Ship in a Bottle,” which appeared in Steve Berman’s recent His Seed, and has officially entered the list of names I search for first in anthologies. This story of spirit release features a medium of sorts assisting souls at an archeological dig at an old logging camp in a local park to pass over. Like the spirits it portrays, it fades in and out of reality, blurring that line so beautifully it doesn’t matter. The tale emerges from the mist, makes itself clear, then recedes. It’s a ghostly piece of work.

This first volume of Joe Okonkwo’s shows terrific taste and a keen eye, and I’m anxiously awaiting next year’s.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

 

 

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Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary – Jonathan Lerner (OR Books)

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“These are scary times. But now I understand that there has never been a time that wasn’t.” So ends Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary, Jonathan Lerner’s memoirs as an avowed underground revolutionary. In 1967, when he was nineteen, he dropped out of college and joined the Students for a Democratic Society; in 1969 (his watershed year) he helped destroy the SDS and went underground as part of the Weathermen (later Weather Underground), until 1976, when it too imploded. At its height, the Weather Underground comprised several hundred members, all committed to violent change, and was responsible for bombings at the Pentagon, the Capitol Building, and the US State Department, among other places.

This book is actually three different stories: the first, and largest, narrative thread is Lerner’s recollection of the events from 1967 to 1976; the second is his commentary on the events unfolding during July-November 2016 while he is writing down the first narrative; and the third is his own personal journey as a gay man. The first story provides the larger context for both of the others: in particular he draws connections between the events he participated in during his twenties and how they foreshadow the subsequent escalation of violence we currently experience. The third story often takes a back seat to the first two—it is not until Lerner has left the Weather Underground and living in Europe as a hustler that it begins to take center stage.

Although Lerner focuses largely on the years 1968-76, he begins with his political awakening in 1961, the summer he turned 13: he joined a picket line as part of a campaign to desegregate McLean Gardens, an apartment complex in Washington, DC, near where his family lived in Chevy Chase. Lerner admits that his “original impulse had been innocent and idealistic. I wanted to humanize the world.” But as he documents his journey to becoming a revolutionary, his unflinching honesty exposes how corrupt, even cult-like, the Weather Underground was. (He is just as quick to acknowledge how his male white privilege often shielded him from the worst consequences of his actions, especially when those actions became more and more violent.) Lerner also forthrightly acknowledges the ironies of his life: for example, as someone who declared in 1968 that “elections don’t mean shit” he has voted in every one since 1972, including the most recent.

As interesting as Lerner’s recollections of the turbulent Sixties and Seventies are, his subsequent life-journey as a journalist and novelist provides insight into his continuing evolution as an activist: he still works for change, but it is now at the micro- instead of the macro-level. Both he and his husband Peter are involved in politics, but “at the hyperlocal scale of our very small city, where 6,500 people live in 2.5 square miles.” Lerner is currently on the Conservation Advisory Council, while Peter is working to equalize the city’s voting districts; Lerner wryly notes that “while I am now a sworn official of the city, working within the system, my husband likes to joke that he is busy overthrowing the government.”

As a piece of oral history, as an explanation for the current state of affairs, and as a personal story, Swords in the Hands of Children makes compelling reading.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Insatiable – Jeff Mann (Unzipped/Lethe Press)

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I have a special relationship with Jeff Mann’s Scots vampire, Derek Maclaine, as I took a story Derek appeared in for my Bears of Winter anthology (plug, plug), “Snow on Scrabble Creek.” His origin story appears in Mann’s Desire and Devourwhich is entirely devoted to this multi-faceted character. However, I’ve been one of the fans telling Jeff his wampyr deserves a longer, more complete narrative, and that’s exactly what he delivers in Insatiable.

Derek’s latest haunt is the hills of West Virginia, where he lives with his mortal mountain cub, Matt Taylor. Matt’s brother, a staunch opponent of Alpha Coal, a ruthless mining operation, is found dead of a suspicious heart attack, and Matt goes on in his stead. Derek and his coterie of delicious cubs come along for the ride, taking on the Man with the help of Derek’s oldest and dearest friends. They encounter a strong foe in Alpha Coal, made even stronger by their employment of a demonic presence, a “Lovecraftian blob.”

If you’ve read Jeff Mann’s work before, this hits all the required notes: food, sex, magic, and love of nature. He has carved out a comfortable corner of the gay literary world, and his fireside tales–for I can’t imagine them being told any other way than by a hearth with the hearty scent of beef stew and biscuits on the air–never fail to entertain.

In Peter Jackson’s “Fellowship of the Ring,” Samwise Gamgee has a marvelous speech in which he talks about the “great stories, the ones that really mattered.” Mann writes those sort of stories: elemental, full of lust and evil and good and wonder. Big emotions writ even larger. And it’s a marvelous feeling to throw yourself at stories like that, smiling with the impact as you crash against those big feelings. But for all that immensity, the characters retain their humanity (well, they’re vampires and werewolves and witches, but you know what I mean) and have the good of their fellow man at heart as they pursue their goals. And in these dark days when our rights and regulations are in danger of being rolled back by a government no longer in control of itself, we need stories of success in which we can take comfort so we can get up and fight again tomorrow.

I can’t think of a more perfect way to enjoy Halloween than with a cup of steaming pumpkin spice something-or-other, a dog at my feet, and this tale of bravery and heroics in my hand. Well met, sir. Well met indeed.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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