Monthly Archives: July 2018

Left, Gay & Green: A Writer’s Life – Allen Young (CreateSpace)

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There have been so many books about LGBT lives cut short, and promising, even flourishing, careers upended by AIDS and other tragic circumstances that when a book like this comes along, it’s kind of a cause for celebration. Here is a life from before birth to the author’s late-70’s. It is a good-looking, apparently healthy, active (he’s in a pool or pond), smiling senior pictured on the cover. Inside are batches of B&W photos going back to the early 1940’s, of families, farms, students in groups, young visitors in foreign lands, etc. This is a volume I would recommend to any millennial wondering where the past she can look to is and searching for a gay person she can admire. Because both are here.

Good luck and connections have to be allied to intelligence, ability, and ambition for one to become successful in life. Young had all of it. His background couldn’t have been more humble—his parents were chicken farmers in the Catskills in rural New York State. His early scholarship got him into the Little Red Schoolhouse, a bastion of communism in the 1950’s. Yet he ended up in an Ivy League college, and his abilities and his interest in Latin America at Columbia University slid him into several graduate programs in the U.S. and abroad leading to important work–appointments in Brazil, and even reporting on the newly communist Cuba. Young describes all the ins and outs of ideological shifts vs. political constancy he both underwent and witnessed in that troubled time, as well as the personal connections he made and the work he eventually got as a journalist in Washington, D.C. It could be said to be a meteoric rise.

Slowly it all shifted for Allen as it did for so many of us. Because even before the Stonewall Riot of 1969, he was grappling with not being heterosexual and that amazing protest brought it all to a head for him, as it did for so many others. Young joined the instantly formed Gay Liberation Front, which he accurately characterized as the “favorite hang-out of the freest of the gay people—those most likely to be labeled fag or drag queen —.” He never regretted it. The GLF was succeeded by the Gay Activist Alliance which had one focus, the abolition of all anti-gay legislation, which eventually succeeded. Within a few years, he and another member of that group, literature scholar Karla Jay, were putting together anthologies collecting the work of LGB authors who’d already written on a variety of subjects. Those books haven’t really been surpassed in their Gay Lib credentials, or in their range. Out of the Closet: Voices of Gay Liberation and After You’re Out became drugstore rack paperbacks that appeared all over the U.S. ensuring their influence for a  generation. Their Lavender Culture followed and each has since published a half dozen books.

While all that was happening, another Sixties movement attracted Young: the commune. Starting in various urban communes—and believe me there were plenty in Manhattan and Boston alone—he and several friends ended up purchasing a large piece of property in central Massachusetts. In order to remain there and continue building what eventually became Butterworth Farm, they had to find local work. Some became realtors in formerly abandoned New England mill towns, and then even politicians in those towns. The visually brilliant Carl Miller became a fabric designer who quickly rose to the top of his field. Young became a reporter for the local paper, The Althol Daily News, and when that work slowed down, he became the publicity arm of the area hospital. Reading about these men and other farms and communes is like reading another entire volume.

More recently, the land of which he is a co-guardian, as well as the lands around those acres have become a prime focus of Young’s activism. The Quabbin Reservoir and its surrounding wetlands have become a crucial locus of his and other ecologists’ concerns. Equally so, is retaining the established nineteenth century character of the mostly rural villages and towns in that area. Attempts by various industrial-commercial complexes to invade and alter that landscape have been staunchly resisted, but threats continue.

His is a full life, including friends, family, work relationships, and a long-time partnership. I met Allen Young at an early Gay Pride March in New York, I’ve stayed at his wonderful “Octagon House” at the farm, swam in those ponds, and pools, hiked those same hills, and shared in some of his great losses and in his successes. Even so, reading this book, I learned so much I didn’t know about his roots, his youth, and those around him, and even the times we shared. Obviously a “reporter” covering so much space in time and place can’t go as deeply as someone writing a more focused text. But there will always be a place on my bookshelf for Left, Gay & Green and I hope on yours too.

Reviewed by Felice Picano

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Now I’m Here – Jim Provenzano (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

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I’ve always marveled at the contradiction of hundred of thousands of mostly straight sports fans stomping their feet and clapping to “We Will Rock You” as done by Queen, probably the gayest rock band in history with the gayest front man ever. Something about that just tickles me–until they slop beer down the back of my neck. But whatever chord Queen struck, it resonates to this day with both fans and authors. In his newest novel for Beautiful Dreamer Press, Now I’m Here, Jim Provenzano uses his knowledge as a fan and his skill as an author to tell the story of two small-town Ohio boys.

Joshua Lee Evans had a musical gift from the beginning, and was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged him to use those talents. David Koenig lived on a pumpkin farm and had a hateful, alcoholic father whose wife left him because of his temper and bad habits. It was love at first fight. But the maturation of those feelings was a long road, punctuated by music lessons and farm work. When it finally came together, however, the boys knew what magic it was. A stupid school streaking stunt (popular during the mid-Seventies, when this takes place) puts David in a “rehabilitation” camp for wayward youth courtesy of his father as Joshua leaves town for the big time after graduation, a cover version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in his back pocket. They will come together again, rest assured, but even reunions are fraught with frailty in this sweeping, epic romance.

This story will confound your expectations. If this were a standard M/M book, Joshua would be a tremendous success. But he’s sent back to Serene, OH with his tail between his legs, having not lived up to his promise in Los Angeles. David fares better with life on the farm, but it all seems hollow after Joshua. You keep waiting for their reunion, and you’re giddy with relief when it happens–as it would in M/M. But Provenzano has one last slap in the face for you, which I won’t reveal since I’d rather not indulge in spoilers. If you’re looking for a HEA, however, forget it. And that’s fine with me. Life does not always have happy endings, and sometimes we have to work to find meaning when our characters are given a less-than-optimal finish.

All this would mean nothing in the hands of a lesser writer, but Provenzano has honed his craft and takes you on this dizzying ride with the able assurance of a pro. His rendering of the mid-Seventies is deadly accurate (and I should know, I was there too) and will bring a smile of remembrance to your face if you were coming of age then. He never missteps or falls short of the mark emotionally, either. The characters are all organic, built and embroidered on with well-chosen detail, and this never once feels false or contrived as many romances do.

So, even if you’re not exactly a Queen fan (and why not, I wonder?), you’ll enjoy this supremely well-plotted and populated romance. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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The Monkey Cages – Casey Charles (Lethe Press)

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Sixteen-year-old Tommy Cadigan is caught in the throes of desire—not for his girlfriend Pam, but rather for Kurt McKellar, the linebacker of his high school football team, as it turns out. With no one to confide in but his best friend Freddie Udall—an effete bookworm, who is even more picked on than Tommy—he sneaks out one evening to the Julia Davis Park in downtown Boise, Idaho, to the “Monkey Cages,” a pathetic “zoo” that serves as a cruising spot, especially for older men trying to pick up teenage boys. And it is there that Tommy runs into (literally) his best friend’s father, an elder in the local Mormon church and pillar of the community.

If that were not enough, into this maelstrom of adolescent hormones, unexpected knowledge, and moral complexity enters Tommy’s football coach and history teacher Martin Williams, a young, hot, twentysomething Korean War veteran, recently discharged from the military on a “blue ticket” for being a homosexual.  Tommy soon becomes infatuated with Coach Williams, and initiates a liaison that Coach Williams resists at first, but to which he inevitably succumbs.  Unfortunately for them both the 1950s “Pink Scare” has reached the American heartland, and they both become enmeshed in a scandal that soon overwhelms Boise.

Casey Charles’ The Monkey Cages takes us to this earlier, more “innocent” time.  Set during the Boise homosexuality scandal of 1955 (which made the cover of Time magazine, as noted by Charles), The Monkey Cages is only part fictionalized oral history; the greater parts are coming out story, romance, and courtroom drama.  Actual historical figures from the scandal make cameos, or are referenced to (if Wikipedia is to be trusted), but the main narrative focuses upon Tommy and Coach Williams.  Given the time period, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the story will not end well for the principal characters:  Tommy escapes relatively unscathed (as the obvious victim in this scenario, despite his clear agency), but Coach Williams suffers serious consequences, despite (perhaps because of) Tommy’s impassioned plea in court that their love is among the best things that has ever happened to him.

And, to be honest, this lies at the crux of my own ambivalence with this novel:  beautifully written, a gripping story with a sympathetic, attractive protagonist—who is engaged in a romantic relationship with an underage teenager, who moreover is his student.  Yes, the age difference is not that great between them (just a few years), yes, they were caught in the momentum of the larger witch hunt, yes, times were so much different then, with so many men forced to live closeted lives, if only they could have lived more honestly….but this essential fact remains, and I for one cannot simply elide over it.

To Charles’ credit, both of his protagonists at least are aware of the ethical quicksand they are standing on, however much they may disagree with the moral stance taken against them.  And Coach Williams, having already lived through a military court marshal, knows full well the ramifications of another court case.  Despite this knowledge, both choose to be honest about their relationship.  Of course, Tommy’s relationship to Coach Williams encapsules the major tension exposed by the scandal:  on the one hand, homosexuality was perceived as a mental illness needing treatment; on the other hand it was a criminal act leading to juvenile delinquency (with older homosexuals preying on younger, more vulnerable boys) and therefore must be punished.

Despite my reservations concerning this novel, there is no doubt that the “Pink Scare” ruined the lives and reputations of many men, even those who engaged in sexual acts with consenting adults; and that there is always a high price to be paid for honesty.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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