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