Monthly Archives: January 2019

That Was Something – Dan Callahan (Squares & Rebels)

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As someone who cut his teeth on Poe and Hawthorne and Tolkien, my heart is always with the massive, epic story. Some kids craved thick, juicy steaks. I wanted thick, juicy books. That hasn’t changed as I’ve grown up, but I’ve come to balance them out with shorter stories. That doesn’t mean the shorter works aren’t just as complex, however. Sometimes, the briefest books can have multiple layers, and so it is with Dan Callahan’s That Was Something.

Bobby Quinn has done just about the most futile thing a gay man can do, and that’s fall for a straight guy. In this case, it’s one Ben Morrisey, a photographer in late 1990s Manhattan. Bonded by the nightlife, films, love of the outrageous, and the madness of New York City, Bobby and Ben also encounter a mysterious and beautiful silent film fan named Monika Lilac at one of the many screenings they attend, folding her into their sphere as they stay up late, philosophize, and obsess.

Obsession, both for cinema and romance, is the hallmark of That Was Something, so plot is secondary to character. Not much happens except ordinary everyday–for them–events: movies, sex, late night diner excursions, movies, longing for sex. The characters, though, are interesting and multi-faceted enough so you don’t notice any sameness the narrative might have had with less complex figures propelling it.

The back cover blurb portrays both Ben and Monika as the quirkier characters, but the big mystery for me in this very short book was the narrator himself. Bobby floats through his own life like a ghost. Ben controls his heart, Monika his mind, and a series of dominating, rough boyfriends (Arthur first, then Heinz) abuse his body. Which part of Bobby Quinn is uniquely Bobby? As I was reading this, my central question eventually became whether or not Bobby ever found out who Bobby was, and when I finished it, I still wasn’t sure. He becomes more confident as he steps out of their influence (not really a spoiler–the book’s also about growing up and away), but his true self remains elusive.

Callahan’s writing is clear and concise, and his characters’ insights are dead on. Cinema is obviously his metier, but he never sounds pompous about it. And he’s certainly steeped in late Nineties Manhattan, which suffuses every page of this book. A short, punchy character study and treatise on obsession, That Was Something gives you a lot to think about.


© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Polyamory on Trial – Jude Tresswell (Rowanvale Books)

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Jude Tresswell’s Polyamory on Trial presents an intriguing blend of modern themes. In a small town in Northern England, a committed foursome of gay men uncovers a human trafficking operation that preys on Syrian refugees. The men face questions of moral obligation while figuring out how to live together as a quad.

I’d call Tresswell’s novel a poly romance (or M/M/M/M) with mystery/crime elements. Regarding those elements, a compelling hook is the four guys tackle the investigation together, contributing in fairly equal ways. It’s a story that aims to illuminate two social issues that are prone to misunderstanding and stereotyping.

The four men are likeable and authentic fellows: Mike, a retired policeman; Phil, a trauma physician specializing in anal reconstruction; Raith, an artist, reformed from a criminal past; and Ross, another artist. At the start of the story, they’ve just completed renovations to create a bigger house where they can live together, and as the narrative moves around from their points-of-view, they make clear their relationship is based on more than sex.

That first-person story-telling is effective in creating a convincing portrait of four men in love. Their quad is something they fell into as two gay couples who struck up a friendship: Mike and Ross and Phil and Raith. They’re each emotionally committed to one another and committed to the sum of them being greater than their parts. But as one might expect, there are subtle distinctions in how they share affection and interact sexually.

They don’t share one bed. The original couples do. Mike, Phil and Raith are physically intimate, and Ross chooses to only have sex with Mike. They’re mainly intimate as pairs, not a threesome, and never a foursome because of Ross. Mike tells most of their story, and he expounds on how sex is different for him with each of his mates: exhilarating and experimental with Raith, and more loving and sensuous with Ross for instance. But most of their time is spent sharing the daily tasks of keeping up a household, and they want the world to know they’re ‘regular’ guys.

The title of the book suggests a struggle to legitimize their relationship in the outside world, but the “trial” takes place more so in the men’s heads. They worry about the consequences of coming out as a quad, such as damaging Phil’s career. For practical purposes, they wish their relationship could be legally recognized, and they bargain to have two marriages, which in some ways invalidates and threatens their foursome. They bemoan the prejudices of others, but as products of their culturally conservative community, they frequently point out they’re not the sort to shove their sex life down others’ throats and seem to live their quad unbeknownst to anyone around them.

One criticism with that depiction, which comes through long passages of internal rumination and dialogue among the four, is that we don’t see the external conflict. Some interaction with family, friends and neighbors would have helped round out what it’s like to be a quad in their world.

The mystery storyline emerges when a Syrian teenager with anal trauma shows up at the hospital where Phil works. His patient Khaled can’t communicate what happened to him, though Phil suspects he was raped. Through Mike’s contacts in law enforcement, the quad tracks down an abandoned house that appears to be a holding place for refugees being trafficked for sexual exploitation.

The men’s call to action proceeds with an attempt to help Khaled establish himself safely in the country. They’re stand-up guys, and with Mike’s background, they’re soon on the trail of a refugee smuggling operation from Romania to the UK and mired in the complexity of immigration laws.

Tresswell rightfully does not steer away from the heartbreaking and violent realities faced by victims of trafficking, and she resists easy solutions. A pitfall of taking the subject matter almost entirely from the foursome’s point-of-view –there are brief passages from the perspectives of two Syrian men – is the refugee characters lack dimension, which I’m sure was not the author’s intention based on the care she takes to humanize their plight. But considering they’re the ones who have the most at stake in finding safety, it would have uplifted their humanity even more to hear their voices.

A well-intentioned contemporary tale, Polyamory on Trial is a good read for folks interested in the subjects of poly lifestyles and the Syrian refugee crisis.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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The Spellbinders – Aleardo Zanghellini (Lethe Press)

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The Spellbinders by Aleardo Zanghellini is an alternate historical epic about the loves and life of who has come down to us as one of England’s most notorious kings, Edward II. It begins in late February, 1299: Zanghellini imagines a fateful meeting between Edward of Caernarvon, heir to Edward I, and Piers Gaveston, son of a retainer of Edward I, outside Canterbury Cathedral. Immediately smitten, Edward tries to put the darkly handsome Gascon out of his mind; when that proves futile, he instead begins stalking Piers—eventually he realizes that his feelings for Piers are matched by Piers’ feeling for him (and not only because he is heir to the throne of England), and the two consummate their love while on campaign. Five years later, still on campaign, their youthful infatuation has grown into a bond more powerful than any attempt to keep them apart: the two swear a vow of sworn brotherhood (before a priest, in a ceremony not unlike a wedding). Edward grants Piers titles, land, even an advantageous marriage to Edward’s own niece; but Gaveston’s political power as Edward’s favorite causes great discontent among Edward’s barons, and led to several exiles and his eventual death in 1312.

Most literary treatments of Edward II focus solely on his relationship with Piers, but Zanghellini does not end Edward’s story with Gaveston’s demise: initially bereft after Gaveston’s death, Edward comes to terms with his grief, and in time has other favorites, platonic and otherwise, including Hugh Despencer the Younger. Predictably, Edward’s power-hungry nobility resent the exclusive royal favor that he shows to his favorites, and Hugh is likewise executed. (It is all of these favorites who are the eponymous “spellbinders” in the novel’s title.) In a creative twist of accepted belief, Zanghellini suggests that it is Edward’s “betrayal” of Gaveston’s memory when he takes up with Hugh that leads Isabella, his wife, to turn against him and invade England with Roger Mortimer. Moreover, he goes so far as to imagine that Edward avoids execution at Berkeley Castle after he is deposed in 1327, and escapes to the Continent (a theory that has adherents among some current popular historians).

Edward’s relationship with Piers has inspired a number of plays, novels, and even films, beginning with Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play Edward II. Recent novels about Edward and Piers include The Gascon and Gaveston, by John Penford (1984) and Chris Hunt (1992), respectively. As I noted above, they focus almost solely on the relationship between Edward and Piers. All three novels depict their relationship on the order of a once in a lifetime love match between soulmates, but Zanghellini, in addition to depicting the intense (and surely hormonally-induced) frenzy of an adolescent love, which developed into an indissoluble adult bond, also shows that one may survive the end of such a love, and that it is even possible to find love again.

Readers who are familiar with the “accepted” version of Edward’s life and death (as portrayed, for example, in the movie Braveheart) will be surprised and intrigued by Zanghellini’s re-imagining of this often maligned monarch. In his afterword, he explains exactly what in his narrative is verifiable historical fact, and what is conjecture, what is plausible, and what is purely imaginary. He carefully sifts through the contemporary sources, as well as subsequent historiography, to produce a story that is not only historically credible, but emotionally believable, and completely engaging.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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The Long-Awaited Poetry Roundup

Happy New Year! Although I didn’t make any resolutions, I did manage to get the backlog of poetry down. My apologies to those poets and publishers who have been waiting patiently–and some who haven’t. Due to the bottleneck, all of these chapbooks are from varying times last year. That does not, however, lessen their value. So, on with the poets!

Valley Blues – Cher Guevara (Writing Knights Press)

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Cher Guevara has made more than one appearance in Out in Print, but Valley Blues represents a longer work which proves to be a summation of sorts. All the basic Guevara touchstones are here–Bukowski, The Doors, HST, Camp Krietenstein, Rocky Horror–but the alienation and separation from mainstream society, Guevara’s strongest suit, shows through in each stanza.

In this hierarchy/I was nothing/But the office boy./Dunkin Munchkins,/Java Monster,/Traffic cigarettes,/The Breakfast of Champions/I almost had to check/to see/If my beautiful silver earrings/Were back on.

This is hallowed ground for Guevara, but it’s also well-trodden territory. As Valley Blues explores every corner of this property in its almost fifty pages (with performance photos of Guevara), those of us who have been following him from the beginning hope he’ll turn his scrutiny toward horizons he’s yet to explore. His viewpoint would be welcome.

Safe Danger – Stephen Zerance (Indolent Books)

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Contradiction in terms being the connection between many of the pieces in Zerance’s full-length debut Safe Danger, he juxtaposes opposites in poems such as the neatly rendered “The Night Watch,” which combines a childhood memory and a ritualistic evening body search for evidence of seroconversion:

…checking…for tenderness in the neck, armpits and groin/a colorful blotch on the back of my thigh,/on my feet, between the toes. The lint/from a black sock shocks me.

Had he ended the poem with this image, as stark as it is, he might have broken the contemplative nature of the piece. But he softens the blow by ending with a childhood anecdote that resolves with rescue. Zerance understands poetry is sometimes more about the order than the words. His “Scary Movie Marathon” series pops, but for my money, he shines on the longish prose poem, “Another Exploitation in Which I Glamorize the Murder of JonBenet Ramsey, a Child of Six.” Well-versed in the facts of the case, he provides a narrative for the crime while commenting on it (as a personal aside, I knew “Santa” Bill McReynolds).

Zerance’s work is focused and intense, and will have you thinking about the connections and contradictions long after you’ve figured out why the cover photo seems to be upside down.

Circumference – Mark Ward (Finishing Line Press) 

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In just a hair over twenty-five pages, Irish poet Mark Ward presents fourteen pieces which form a clear, concise narrative with an emotional ending yet still retain their individuality. In concert, these poems tell the story of a gay man coming home again to comfort his mother at his homophobic father’s deathbed, but he’s also looking for something the old man stole from him. Something vital. The connection between the pieces is always clear, but it never binds them in place. From the shy and charming first date flashback of “Monsters in the Closet” to the four part title poem examining his father’s death, the emotion is always front and center but not always about his father. His mother was as complicit.

…I wonder what story she told/the town when they whispered what happened/to us that night all those years ago./Did she marry me off to some heiress,/some lovely, lonely dowager/in an unspecified state with her own estate/too far away to travel to,/too far to visit?

Ward keeps his images sharp and his meanings clear, whether observing death or remembering how he came to live. This is work that scars as indelibly as the map etched on the skin of the cover model (a beautiful package credited to Inkspiral Designs). Highly recommended.

A Babble of Objects – Raymond Luczak (Fomite Press)

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I had to admit, I raised an eyebrow when I received this book of poetry about household objects. And truth be told, if Luczak’s name wasn’t on the cover, I probably would have passed it by. But my faith was rewarded, as these are delightfully skewed poems. Some are as whimsical as you’d expect, formatted to look like the object of the poem. Others, however, take a different tack, as in “First Dictionary: The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition” where the narrator confesses:

You’ve never left my side through eight moves/in three cities. You helped me/define the loss of friendship and/the many permutations of love./Those assholes made me cry. You made me a poet.

And pieces such as “Garbage Bag” are downright menacing, especially the last stanza:

It will take more than a landfill/to suffocate my toxic rage./I will outlive you and erase your stories.

A Babble of Objects, then, is the olio of oddities Luczak intends, cute one minute and fraught with danger the next. Never less than interesting reading.

Her – Natascha Woolf (independently published) 

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I’ve loved too many epic poems to say that brevity is the soul of poetry. However, poems of only a few lines have their advantages and their charms. As Natashca Woolf suggests in the intro to her privately published chapbook, these poems are to be scrawled on notes and left in your significant other’s lunchbox, and she means for readers to use them. Though Woolf expresses herself succinctly, her thoughts on love and its effects are big, indeed. From one of her longer pieces, “After She Had Gone”:

It seems life only begins/When you are here with me./Between those moments reality fades,/The branches of the trees punch holes/In my head,/And imagination creeps back in/Snapping,/And snarling,/Like wolves/From the dark corners of a candlelit room.

She hasn’t forgotten her sense of humor, either, as in “Would you like some wine with your Epiphany?” Some of her longer poems deal with other issues, but this is clearly the work of someone in love. Her joy and enthusiasm is infectious, and you just might find something here to brighten the day of someone you love.

Unfinished Sketches of a Revolution – Brane Mozetic (Talisman House)

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Today, when our over-amped political climate threatens to overwhelm and impact all our lives, Slovenian author Brane Mozetic ends our roundup with an absolutely fearless chapbook called “Unfinished Sketches of a Revolution,” which covers all bases–political, personal, sexual, and philosophical. Last featured in Out in Print back in April, 2001 for his chapbook, “Banalities,” Mozetic’s latest is anything but banal. These untitled, uncapitalized stanzas are vivid and vital, and have much to say to us. Let’s hope they’re not prophetic:

in june 2001 i wasn’t allowed to enter a cafe because i’m a/faggot. i felt like a dog, a dirty one. they were dragging/me through the papers and tvs and were letting me know/I deserved it. they were power, and the mayoralty/put up warnings against obscene faggots everywhere./the illusion of a country in the middle of europe finally/shattered…

Mozetic’s images are sharp and powerful, no matter whether his immediate subject is his relationship with his father, his lovers, his ex-wife, or his country. All are marked by strife, yet his work also inspires a resigned hope that while things might not be better by the morning, surely they will some morning.

And that is our Long-Awaited Poetry Roundup! I hope you’ve found something here to start your year off with a bang.


© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler



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