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

Buy from Lethe Press

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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