Monthly Archives: July 2019

Justify My Sins – Felice Picano (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

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Felice Picano returns to the genre he founded—the great American gay epic, in a decades-spanning, dishy, Hollywood-focused story that brings to life both the thrill of sexual freedom and the trauma of AIDS in the Post-Stonewall era.

Victor Regina is the fictionalized hero who is partially based on Picano’s experience in TV and film per his author’s note. It’s 1977, and Victor’s just been launched into celebrity through the success of his straight romance novel that’s flying off the bookstore shelves. Now a film company wants to buy the rights and hire him to adapt the story for a TV movie of the week. It’s the ’70s, so of course they’re offering to fly him out to Los Angeles from New York City and set him up at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Thus begins Victor’s love affair with “El Lay.” He’s dazzled by the lifestyle of chauffeured sedans, rubbing elbows with movie stars, exclusive restaurants, and the risqué bars and bathhouses filled with gorgeous, horny men. Victor is a guy in his late twenties who has already cultivated a strong sense of self-importance, so he’s well-assured this is the world where he belongs. From the jump, he’s outsmarting the production team, impressing bigger fish in the Hollywood pond over comp’d dinners, and earning propositions from all the hottest men wherever he goes.

Victor is well-drawn as a queer man of a certain era who peppers conversation with witty French expressions and sexual innuendo aplenty while gabbing with his gay male friends. One isn’t especially enchanted to root for him at the outset when everything comes so easy to him. But what moves the dialogue-heavy story along is Picano’s breezy, clever writing and eventually some humanizing events in Victor’s life.

The book is subtitled A Hollywood Novel in Three Acts, and structured around Victor’s three attempts to bring one of his bestsellers to the big screen across three decades. It’s an enjoyably complex mammoth of a story that achieves quite a lot, from commentary on the deep-rooted obstacles to creative freedom in the film industry to an honest portrayal of gay life for the privileged set both pre-AIDS and at the height of the epidemic.

While the title relates to the title of Victor’s unproduceable romance novel, Justify My Sins, doesn’t quite gel or perhaps gets lost a bit in long passages of voyeuristic Hollywood anecdotes. While Victor’s smarminess annoys, there’s nothing sinful about his life choices nor is it a story of a torturous journey to self-acceptance. Victor’s unrepentant attitude toward his sexual escapades is one of his better qualities, and though he’s hardly a warm and fuzzy guy, he shows himself as a caring partner to his one true love who dies from AIDS, and later, most movingly, as a sturdy pal to a lifelong friend whose partner is dying. If his high opinion of himself counts as a fault, Victor redeems himself through loyalty and writing stories that are true to who he is when his platform allows him to do so. Given what’s at stake for him to live his life openly gay, one can’t find any sins to justify.

It’s difficult to not draw comparisons between Justify My Sins and the author’s celebrated Like People in History. Both works are sprawling epics that move from New York City, Los Angeles, and Fire Island with AIDS figuring in as a turning point.

Readers who enjoyed Like People in History are likely to adore Picano’s latest book, which approaches gay life in the 70s, 80s, and 90s with honesty and heart. It doesn’t hit the same emotional high notes, dragged down a bit to a lower register in favor of sexual exploits and celebrity exposé. But it still stands as good reading from a trusty historian of bicoastal gay life.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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In Search of Stonewall – Richard Schneider, Jr., ed. (G&LR Books)

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Just in time for Pride (though the review is a bit late), this collection of essays originally published in The Gay & Lesbian Review looks back at Stonewall through a variety of prisms at the fiftieth anniversary of the riots there. Attempting to place the events of that weekend in context, the pieces here seek to answer some basic questions such as who actually started it and why, of all places, a seedy, Mafia-run clip joint should have struck such a chord when we had fought back–even harder–in other cities. I’m not so sure either of those questions have a definitive answer, but maybe the point is in the discussion.

The first section of the book, “Flashpoint: New York City, June 1969” takes on the iconographic history of Stonewall, focusing on personal accounts of that evening from a number of gay authors such as Edmund White, Felice Picano, Rita Mae Brown, and others who were there at the time. The most interesting commonality most of these reminiscences has is the fact that no one was really aware of how important their brush with this part of history was.

The second part, “Flashback: Roots of the Riot” is very interesting in terms of history (and herstory), with essays by legends Harry Hay, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and John Rechy, among others. I particularly enjoyed the essays on the earliest gay organizations, especially Martha E. Stone’s “Unearthing the ‘Knights of the Clock,'” which is a too-short piece about the interracial gay organization Merton Bird founded in 1951 and Eve Goldberg’s coverage of the Black Cat Riots in L.A. I was disappointed, however, to see nothing by or about Ruth Simpson (“Out of the Closets, Into the Courts”) on her involvement with Daughters of Bilitis.

“Flash Forward: Aftermath and Diffusion” deals with both activism and gay cultural life post-Stonewall, including looks at the Radicalesbians, Andrew Holleran’s summation of the Seventies, and an overlook of San Francisco by Jewelle Gomez. The last section, “Stonewall’s Legacy: Whither the Revolution” attempts to place the riots in some context and has some interesting essays by D. Gilson and Larry Kramer. Honestly, having Larry Kramer’s level of anger must be incredibly wearing. Reading him exhausts me.

My favorite piece, though, has little to do with Stonewall other than its title: “The Birds as a Pre-Stonewall Parable” by the late Bob Smith. This gay revisionist look at the Hitchcock classic has its tongue firmly in cheek–or does it?  The brilliance of this piece is not knowing how serious Smith is and how much he’s sending up both gay historians and film scholars, because his interpretation of the film can be read as both. Every time I read him, I regret we lost him so quickly.

But as with any collection of this nature, you’ll find something that piques your curiosity and sends you down one or two rabbit holes. A valuable and worthwhile compendium, this deserves a place on your TBR pile.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Catch Me When I’m Falling – Cheryl A. Head (Bywater Books)

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I always love being in on the ground floor of a great series. I felt that way about Cari Hunter’s Dark Peak books, J.M. Redmann’s Micky Knight series, and Hank Edwards’s Critter Catchers. Cheryl Head’s Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries gives me the same vibe. Whereas Hunter’s strength is her action sequences, Redmann’s her characters, and Edwards’s his plotting, Cheryl Head makes the procedural part of policework her domain. It’s all about the investigation, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the second Charlie Mack volume, Catch Me When I’m Falling.

Charlie Mack thought her toughest assignment was going to be finally moving in with her new girlfriend Mandy or maybe taking care of her mother, starting to show the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. But that’s not quite it. Three homeless people, one of whom was Charlie’s mother’s friend, have been murdered at the hands of a particularly gruesome serial killer who likes to burn his victims to death. As she goes underground, posing as a homeless woman, she also runs into drug trafficking and problems with a rogue cop.

I know I said it in my review of Bury Me When I’m Dead, but I’m an old Detroit boy myself, and it’s always fun to see landmarks and things you grew up with in books. It really gives me a sense of place. But beyond that, Head does a remarkable job of balancing a large cast of characters. There are her two investigators, Don and Gil, as well as her office gal Judy, and Don and Gil are usually assisted by someone from the police force. Plus, this time there are a number of homeless people, including a trans hooker Gil becomes protective of, not to mention the rogue cop and the drug trafficking elements. But somehow, she makes her introductions at the right time and keeps all the principals in motion.

Part of the reason for this is that Head never stops moving. Her books are precision timepieces, always ticking along. You can almost hear her thinking: first a character bit, then some plot, another bit of character, a clue sown, back to the plot, start some tension between Gil and Don here, hook Judy up managing the girlfriend’s moving schedule and then they’re out of the way, then…  I mean, writing these must be exhausting work because she and her editor have made almost every individual word work, applicable to either mood, character, or plot. And each word has to carry its burden to squeeze all that plot into just over two hundred pages without the reader feeling cramped or cheated. But you won’t.

I’m delighted to see that no matter how hard she and her characters work, they’re always happy to tuck in to a meal, however hastily. In that respect, Cheryl Head and Jeff Mann are culinary cousins. Where Mann’s food descriptions run to the Appalachian home-style variety, Head gets misty eyed over White Castles and deli take-out. Having often waxed poetic about pastrami on dark rye myself, I get it.

So, Catch Me When I’m Falling is a tightly spun mystery that will have you guessing right up until nearly the last page. Perfect for summer reading, this one is a worthy entry to the Charlie Mack series.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Flannelwood – Raymond Luczak (Red Hen Press)

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When cub Bill (a barista and struggling writer) meets daddybear James (a disabled factory worker) at an OctoBear Dance, more than sparks fill the air: conflagration ensues.  The two men immediately embark on a winter-long affair of passionate sex-filled weekends spent in the cabin of James (located, in true Midwest fashion, “up north”) that ends on the vernal equinox, when James phones Bill that it’s not going to work out between them and then hangs up.

Thus begins Raymond Luczak’s novel Flannelwood, which starts not at the beginning of the relationship between Bill and James, but rather at the end; the rest of the novel is Bill examining the arc of his romance with James, in an effort to understand how something that was going so well could end so abruptly, so completely. Along the way, the fortysomething Bill retells his entire life trajectory, compulsively searching for a reason, any reason for the end of their relationship. He revisits his childhood, the slow realization that he was different from his family and the members of the rural community he grew up in, his escape to college, his eventual coming out and the repercussions within his family, his relationship with Craig (who succumbs to AIDS), and the subsequent loneliness that is briefly lifted when he meets James. It is only near the end of the novel that Bill learns a truth about James that causes him to re-evaluate their time together; in this way he finally achieves closure—their ending becomes for him a beginning.

For all that Bill feels that he has failed as a writer, his narration of the novel is profoundly poetic, deeply truthful, and unashamedly erotic. He describes perfectly the intensity of both new-found love (especially after a long absence) and the despair and confusion when a relationship ends. (The endless self-examination and asking What if… and What could I, should I, have done differently?–we have all been there.)

Luczak, not surprisingly, writes about disability directly, without being gratuitous. In the very first scene of the novel Bill recounts an incident whereby he surprises James, who has finished showering, but has not yet reattached his prosthetic shin and foot. Instead of bolting or looking away, Bill approaches James and kisses his shin, a “space far more private than anywhere else on your body.” Although the novel begins with this vivid scene, it does not define the entire novel: yes, one of the main characters is disabled, but the novel is not about his disability.

The jacket copy acknowledges that Flannelwood is Luczak’s homage to Nightwood by Djuna Barnes; a metafictional work published in 1936, it is one of the earliest novels to depict explicit homosexuality between women. Towards the end of Flannelwood, the references to Nightwood become much more explicit; Bill’s housemates quote directly from the novel while helping Bill deal with his loss.  (It is also known that Barnes wrote Nightwood as a roman à clef; one cannot help but wonder if Luczak did the same.) Like many lesbian novels of the time, it ends badly for the protagonists. However, Luczak has done more than use the post-modern structure, swap the genders of the characters, and rewrite the ending: he has written his own work, a beautiful, meaningful, and above all, honest novel.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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