Monthly Archives: April 2018

Minnesota Boy: A Memoir – Mark Abramson (CreateSpace)

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2017 was another great year for gay male memoirs and journals, some by well-known writers like Daniel Mendelssohn, David Sedaris, and Armistead Maupin. Other, even better, books by unexpected writers like poet Kenny Fries memoir, In the Province of the Gods, and octogenarian British dramatist Alan Bennett (of The History Boys fame). First books by Chike Frankie Edozien, Parvez Sharma, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Victor Corona, and Peter Gadjics show that gay writing is now global and historically significant in its concerns and also in its reach. In such a year, quieter books tend to get lost but that must not happen to Mark Abramson’s third memoir, Minnesota Boy.

I first heard of Abramson through San Francisco pals who were enchanted by his series of “Beach Reading” books, light, sexy novels.  With his memoir Sex, Drugs and Disco, and especially with For My Brothers, Abramson took on more authorial and historic weight, writing with what one reader called a “you-were-there” quality, about one young gay man’s coming of age in San Francisco in the 1970s, documenting his life and experiences through the subsequent decades. These books were fascinating because handsome young Abramson found himself at the center of Baghdad By the Bay’s night life scene, first as a bartender and then as producer of fund raisers for AIDS and other causes. I spent enough time there then to know that his details are correct, his judgements balanced, and his take on people and events really quite measured.

This is crucial in memoirs if they are to have any use beyond the author’s ego-gratification. Abramson was able to do it because he had been a fresh-faced kid from the sticks, and pretty much everyone he encountered in that city was going out of their way to be extraordinary in a time and place when that required serious effort. His take on it all was to be appreciative rather than critical and so we got a pretty accurate picture of those heady days of the 1970’s of which many people believe, “if you can remember anything, you weren’t really there.” That wasn’t so for me and it’s not true for Abramson. We enjoyed and we remembered.

What sets Abramson apart from even my memoirs of the period is that he is utterly comfortable with being ordinary and with having fairly ordinary experiences — some of which do go haywire and unexpectedly stymie but ultimately delight him and his reader. This is more difficult to pull off than writing about the terrific and weird and wondrous. We come to trust Abramson’s voice and his instincts and his factual information in a way that I found difficult with some of the more literary writers mentioned in this review.

Minnesota Boy grew out of a request by his fatally ill mother, who said, “I think you should write a book about that trip you took to Europe when you were right out of high school, playing your saxophone with that band, you know?” Abramson adds, “It started out with that phone call from my mother on her death bed, or so she thought. It turned into a longer story about college, being different, trying to fit in, and slowly coming out, in more ways than one. Then it turned into a story about love and longing and finally leaving Minnesota for San Francisco.” He also admits, “This didn’t exactly turn out to be the book my mother wanted me to write. If she were here to read it, she would say she was embarrassed because it was so dirty. I would tell her she was not the target audience and we would both have a laugh.”

This is exactly what I would expect from a farm boy, who is a good student, and who is comfortable with his life, but who knows he has to expand it, first by going to Washington, D.C. and then to Europe. Surprise, surprise, he doesn’t fit in. But he doesn’t kvetch, he doesn’t kvell, and especially he doesn’t exaggerate. He intuits that experience is useful and his phone calls home to his parents confirm that. Meanwhile we get fascinating, yet trustworthy portraits of a world that is changing almost too quickly. This important because it is our history and although gay millennials seem as dim about the past as their straight coevals, it’s important that it be on record. It helps a lot that Abramson is always entertaining: I mean when is the last time you read about someone in a marching brass band?

Reviewed by Felice Picano

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Read By Strangers – Philip Dean Walker (Lethe Press)

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Although I didn’t review Walker’s first collection, At Danceteria and Other Stories, I was mightily impressed with Keith John Glaeske’s thoughts and vowed to put aside my TBR pile long enough to check it out. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. So, when Lethe Press came out with his second volume of short fiction, it went to the top of my review stack. This time, it did happen, and I must say the read was quite rewarding.

More and more these days, the short story collections I see by gay men seem to have straight characters as well. I don’t know what to think about this in terms of society and inclusion, but the justification, I think, is in the stories themselves. And in that, Walker hits the mark mostly every time. His portraits of straight relationships are as telling and poignant as those of his gay men and women, so while they may not all be our stories, they are stories for all of us.

One of the themes running through both the gay and straight stories deals with the line between reality and artifice. One of the most brilliant examples of this is “Why Burden a Baby With a Body?” which deals with Hiromi and her husband Takahito, who have real lives but spend most of their time inhabiting a virtual reality video game realm, where Hiromi has “won” a baby so much easier to deal with than the flesh and blood baby she’s just given birth to:

Something clenched the pit of her stomach at the thought of touching the thing, Kimi, this whining sack of flesh, who, if she thought long and hard enough about, neither looked nor sounded like her. Kimi smelled foul even though Hiromi was sure Takahiko must’ve changed her before he’d headed back to the cafe. Anima wasn’t like that; she didn’t need to be fed and changed on a constant schedule.

You just know such loathing for her own child can’t end up well. It doesn’t. But Walker’s gay men also practice the art of deception, particularly in the short yet punchy story about hustling, “Three-Sink Sink”:

First, pick a fake name. Something totally different from your own, but one you’ll remember to answer to. Nothing too porn-like. Buck, Ryder, Storm, Dick, Apollo: These are names to stay away from. Choose something single and boyish. Like Jake or Chip or Hunter. Dylan is popular. The fake name will come in handy later on when you want to pretend it’s not you who’s doing this.

Dysfunctional families are also staples of Walker’s work, including the long-lost sister who turns up in “Revolution” and the mother who sleeps with her daughter’s English teacher in “Hester Prynne Got an A,” but from the one-story-writer in “Verisimilitude” to the corporate ex-pat living in Singapore in “A Cup of Fur,” Walker’s characters are adept at snatching failure from the jaws of success. The one-page stories are less focused and don’t really work for me, but that said, the final story in the book is one of the shortest and one of the most powerful. “Caravan” is a simple little tale of a bunch of gay men headed back home after a drunken night on the town, but the ending belies its simplicity and evokes a dreadful sense of danger. It accomplishes a great deal in a few words.

Although any collection of short fiction will be hit or miss, Walker’s finely drawn characters and unusual insights make him a short fiction writer worth watching for. I may even have to go back and read Danceteria! Highly recommended.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Badge of Loyalty – Jude Tresswell (Rowanvale Books, Ltd)

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The protagonist of Jude Tresswell’s Badge of Loyalty is Mike Angells, a Gay CID (Criminal Investigation Department) inspector, (in America a plainclothes detective), based in northeast England. Mike’s life is rather ordinary (if you can call police work that): investigating Part I crimes; dealing with homophobic and/or just plain clueless straights in his department; and all the extra challenges of loving three different men simultaneously instead of just one. Although openly gay, he is not as open about the three men involved in his life: Ross Whitburn-Howe, gallery owner; Phil Roberts, doctor; and Raith Balan, artist. As indicated by the title, Mike’s byword is loyalty, and he is as loyal to his co-workers as he is to each of his lovers (including his first one, now deceased). And the red heart with a blue lemniscate tattooed on all four men’s arms is as important to Mike as his police badge.

Most of the time Mike can keep his life neatly compartmentalized, but all of that changes while investigating the suspicious death of a footballer in a gay club: the father of the primary suspect threatens blackmail, by exposing a years-old crime committed by Ross, unless Mike withholds incriminating evidence against his son. Mike’s vows of loyalty are suddenly in conflict, and his decision ultimately leads to a lot of soul-searching and a serious life change, but also to a brutal conclusion when two men (an ex-con and Raith’s former lover Peri), each bearing different grudges against Mike, team up to exact revenge.

Most of the narrative centers on Mike, and is delivered by an omniscient narrator, in the third person voice; but interspersed throughout are first-person asides by Ross, Phil, and Raith. These asides are just as interesting (perhaps more so) as the main action, for they flesh out the main story by explaining such things as each man’s individual back story, and the genesis of their relationships with Mike; for this reason, Raith, the last man to join their quad, has the fewest asides (although his are the longest). They also discuss each character’s perception of the nature of their relationships with Mike and each other; Ross, for example, considers himself monogamous since he has sex only with Mike, and never with the other two. Ross’s comment underscores a most interesting observation: everything is not perfectly equal between all four men, all the time; their relationship is a constantly shifting polygon, not a perfect square—or perhaps tetrahedron would be a more apt metaphor for an outsider’s expectation. In any event, this novel provides an example of polyamory and how it does and doesn’t work—at least for the four men involved (in this, as in most things, your mileage may vary).

Too erotic to be a pure police procedural, and too brutal for most erotica, this novel, like its protagonist, defies easy categorization; but readers who enjoy fast-paced stories will also enjoy this multi-faceted story, and the four men at the heart of it.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Death’s Echoes – Penny Mickelbury (Bywater Books)

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Being the chronologically-obsessed, anally-retentive kinda guy I am, I hate exploring a new series from the middle. I’d rather work from the beginning out, but sometimes that isn’t possible and I have to start with the volume at hand. So, I’m new to Penny Mickelbury’s Gianna Maglione/Mimi Patterson mystery series, but if this entry is representative, it’s definitely worth exploring.

Five Muslim women are gunned down as they are heading to worship at a Washington D.C. mosque, one of them being a D.C. cop. This horrible incident brings in Gianna Maglione, head of the Hate Crimes Unit and a friend to the slain cop. Along for the bumpy ride is Maglione’s partner, Mimi Patterson, lead investigative reporter for one of D.C.’s top newspapers. Together, they face not only the aftermath of their friend’s death but a sex-trafficking case as well as the possibility of dirty cops infiltrating and terrorizing an apartment complex full of vulnerable women.

This is a lot of plot, but Mickelbury starts the book off with some strong action as we see the Muslim women murdered by a bunch of Trump supporters (more on that later) and a lot of shock and grief from the dead cop’s friends and allies. The apprehension of the murderers left me wondering where things were going, but as soon as she solves that case, Mickelbury smoothly lays the groundwork for the two unrelated cases that form the meat of the book. Considering Maglione and her Hate Crimes Unit are working on two cases simultaneously, and Patterson has her own set of problems, you’d think there are a lot of loose ends that need to be tied up in the space of less than 250 pages. You’d be right. But Mickelbury manages to do so, plus nearly getting Maglione killed right after the cases are (mostly) solved. That, in particular, was a nice touch. Just when you think the action is over–BAM. We have yet another hospital vigil to sit.

Although the plot flowed well and everything unfolded nicely, I felt confused by some of the choices both Maglione and Patterson made, but I suspect that’s the fault of my coming into the middle of the series. Yes, this book can stand alone plot-wise, but as the author, you can only set up so much before you have to expect the reader to bring in something from the previous books. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that information. However, I was able to glean most of it from context.

Death’s Echoes, then, is a rip-snorter of a procedural that hits the ground running and doesn’t let up. It’s a finely-wrought package sure to please current fans of the series and bring new ones into the fold.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Pennsylvania Station – Patrick E. Horrigan (Lethe Press)

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I like nothing better than when an author puts a different spin or finds a new wrinkle in an old story. It always puts a smile on my face when I close the book and think about how the character or the plot has unfolded and how involved I’ve become in the ending. In his new novel, Pennsylvania Station, an homage of sorts to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Patrick E. Horrigan does just that.

Staid, middle-aged architect Frederick Bailey isn’t really crazy about New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, at least architecturally, but it represents an urban continuity of the mid-1960s Manhattan he’d rather maintain for a number of reasons. When he goes to the theatre to see My Fair Lady, he meets Curt, a cute blonde boy with few inhibitions and fewer options. Frederick is unwillingly drawn to Curt but helpless to disregard his feelings for the flighty young upstart. Curt gives Frederick a badly-needed sense of play, and Frederick gives Curt stability–or at least as much stability as the boy will tolerate. Their relationship sputters along but lasts. Until Venice, of course.

As with most, if not all, modern re-tellings of Mann’s classic story, Curt/Tadzio is fleshed out and we get some relief from Frederick/Aschenbach’s point of view. Horrigan takes us inside Curt’s head so that we have a better understanding of his motivations and what drives him both to and away from Frederick. Thus, the focus is different from the original. It becomes less a study in worship and more an examination of a relationship. Whether this is to the work’s detriment or not, I’ll leave up to the reader. I suppose it depends on how attached you are to the original. While I enjoy the portrayal of obsession inherent in Mann’s story, I have to say I prefer the two points of view of the modern versions. And Horrigan’s novel is no exception to this.

Curt interests me because even though he is (as the book’s blurb says) mercurial, he has an innate sense of justice and fairness about being queer. He’s an activist who seeks out the Mattachine Society as he rejects their suit-wearing normalization. He sees nothing wrong with himself and has a positivity about his sexuality that most boys his age simply did not have then. Nor did most men Frederick’s age. This schism is the biggest difference between them, one that can’t be bridged by either sex or love. Or both. No matter how freely Frederick loves/is obsessed with Curt, he feels it’s fundamentally wrong and is, beneath it all, ashamed of it.

Not that this causes Frederick much grief. He’s happy hating himself. He’s come to that decision long ago and simply no longer has to think about it. No matter how much Curt tries to argue or persuade him otherwise, he won’t be moved. Is it any wonder this relationship is headed for disaster from the very beginning?

Horrigan throws these two polar opposites together but somehow makes them work and, especially when Frederick brings Curt along to Frederick’s father’s funeral, thrive. His family is mystified (well, not really, but no one talks about it). Curt actually seems happy playing the spousal role, even though he insists he won’t be monogamous or tied down.

Pennsylvania Station, then, is a detailed and totally believable examination of a mid-Sixties gay relationship. Its characters are real and its attitudes are wholly in line with the sentiments of the time. Well-written and accessible, it’s a classic in the making. It may only be March, but I know this one will show up on my ten best list in December. Count on it.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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