Monthly Archives: June 2021

Doubting Thomas – Matthew Clark Davison (Amble Press)

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What happens when an openly gay, forty-something teacher with an exemplary record is falsely accused of touching a student inappropriately? Davison’s début novel proposes a believably devastating outcome as the subconscious prejudices of a proudly “progressive” community become weaponized. More broadly, Doubting Thomas is well-crafted meditation on the damage done to the gay male psyche by lifelong shaming.

Thomas McGurrin is a good guy. He became an educator to inspire young people, following the path of a favorite high school teacher who had a huge impact on his life. He initially chose a career in public education, but he was beguiled by an elite private school called Country Day in suburban Portland. With the school’s plentiful resources, he thought he could truly make a difference growing the minds of students. And so he did for a decade, beloved by his grade school students, their parents, and fellow teachers alike.

Thomas is also a good son to his aging parents, a good brother to his younger brother, who struggles with drug addiction, and a favorite uncle to his nephews and nieces. He spends his time off attending the crises and celebrations of his brothers’ families and helping his school principal fundraise and make improvements to the school.

Then, the mother of one of Thomas’s ten-year-old students turns on him for reasons that are not entirely clear. She launches a flimsy allegation. Having been somewhat cocooned from the realities of homophobia, Thomas initially can’t believe anything will come of it. Yet in days, he becomes a sexual predator in the heads of nearly everyone around him. 

It’s a brave subject to explore and made braver by Davison’s unqualified and visceral portrayal of Thomas’s journey through disbelief, rationalization, terror, rage, and despair. Many life events induce a crisis of identity and that frightening feeling of not understanding the world. Few are as lonely however as Thomas’s situation. The students, teachers, and parents he’s come to love shun him for an unspeakable crime he didn’t commit. Thomas tries to grapple with how that transformation is possible. Was the school community’s embrace of him all a lie? Did he somehow step across an invisible line that separates an acceptable homosexual from an unacceptable one? Was he set up for failure from the beginning?

Being rejected by Country Day is profound for Thomas as his identity was so wrapped up in the school. Like many gay men, particularly those who are single, his work became the primary source of his personal fulfillment. He’s something of an everyman for gay Gen Xers, coming of age in terror of the AIDS pandemic and carefully measuring how “gay” he can afford to be in order to survive psychologically. Thomas’s internal journey has him critically examining how he ended up in such a place, and Davison shines his brightest in passages that unpack his hero’s personal crisis. How many signs of his inevitable disaster did he deny or rationalize as things that only happen to less careful, less conforming gay people? Did he sacrifice his own happiness in the impossible pursuit of being acceptable to his heterosexual family and friends?

As he seeks answers, Thomas is haunted by childhood messages about the impropriety of same-sex affection, memories of a gay classmates who was brutalized while Thomas stood silent, and the many microaggressions and boundary violations he tolerated from the parents of his students and his brothers while seeking heterosexual approval. That exploration provides some of Davison’s best writing. Similarly, Thomas’s story achieves its greatest impact as we follow him in the aftermath of his removal. Choosing reinvention over self-destruction, Thomas seeks to renegotiate his family relationships and to revisit with greater effort his friendships with the few gay men with whom he allowed himself to be emotionally vulnerable.

On the subject of writing, Neil Gaiman invokes an unattributed but familiar saying that a novel can be best defined as a long piece of prose with something wrong with it. With this important work, Davison achieves something of an anthem for white, gay Gen Xers as Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst do a similar service for baby boomers, and in that Doubting Thomas feels like it has a place of permanence in LGBTQ+ literature. The storytelling meanders a bit, particularly in the first and last third, which will likely frustrate some readers. For those who stick with it, Davison’s novel offers striking observations on the struggle of gay men of a certain age to reclaim a “spoiled identity.”

A good selection for fans of gay literary fiction in the vein of the aforementioned White and Hollinghurst and authors of Davison’s generation like Rahul Mehta and Matthew Todd.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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The Root of Everything & Lightning: Two Novellas – Scott Alexander Hess (Rebel Satori Press)

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Rebel Satori Press

One of the perks of this gig is the ability to track an author’s career. I’ve been reading Scott Alexander Hess since Skyscraper (2017) and River Runs Red (2019), so I’m well acquainted with his output and was delighted to receive this release of two of his novellas from Rebel Satori Press. One of the two pieces is in his River Runs Red vein, having some similarities with that book, but both are engaging and highly enjoyable.

“The Root of Everything” is the longest and the closest to River Runs Red. Alternating time periods, this piece of historical fiction follows a German immigrant family through three generations, beginning with Richard and his brother, Rolf, and their journey to America. The second generation is represented by Richard’s son, Cal, and Cal’s wife, Josie, the daughter of a prominent lumber merchant who brings Cal into the family business. The third generation segments explore the life of Cal’s son, Stanford, and his relationship with his friend and sometimes lover, Bo, as well as his husband, Sam.

“Lightning” is far shorter but no less involving. It’s set in Arkansas in 1918, and deals with a twelve-year-old boy named Bud, who falls in love with a horse named Lightning. Lightning sees Bud through good times with his best friend, Jerky, for whom Bud has some feelings he doesn’t yet understand, as well as the bad times, such as the death of his father. That event throws the whole family into disarray, but Bud’s aunt Gert comes to the rescue, taking the boy under her wing as she offers him a job with her breeding race horses.

Both novellas are well done, conjuring far different moods and creating excellent characters, and both of them simultaneously stand on their own yet leave you wanting more of the story. The latter is especially true of “Lightning,” which features an interesting and unique voice in Bud. I really wanted to find out what happened to him when he moved up to the city with Gert, and perhaps Hess intends to write that eventually. For now, it ends where it should.

I got a similar sense from “The Root of Everything,” but since all three stories are closely intertwined and feature some of the same characters, Hess provides more of a sense of closure at the switch of a generation. For example, when we encounter Stanford, we understand that not only has Cal inherited his father-in-law’s business, but he’s made quite a success of it, which resolves some issues brought up in Cal’s storyline.

Closure and resolution notwithstanding, these are fine novellas in their own right–full of sumptuous writing, lively characters, and a deep-rooted sense of family and connection to the land. If you haven’t read Hess yet, these provide great examples of his work and are a wonderful starting point.


© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Before Stonewall – Edward Cohen (Awst Press)

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Awst Press

Edward M. Cohen, author of the novel $250,000 and other non-fiction books about theater, as well as several plays that have been directed off-Broadway, has collected fourteen of his short stories, all previously published, just in time for Pride Month, in a volume aptly titled Before Stonewall. For the most part, the title is accurate—the stories assembled in this collection span most of the twentieth century, starting shortly after WWII, with only a couple (“Peeling an Egg” and the prologue “After Stonewall”) clearly set after the Stonewall Riots. Besides being arranged chronologically, the stories appear across the entire lifespan of their characters, beginning in the latency of a dimly-remembered childhood (“A Story of Early Love”), continuing through the uncertainty of adolescence (“Golden Boys and Girls”), and encompassing the entirety of adulthood.

Cohen’s characters inhabit a world that has largely disappeared: a world of secrets, code words and behaviors, hiding in plain sight. Before “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a policy, it was the way to survive, especially mid-century, when McCarthyism soon began hunting homosexuals as a way to root out communism. More than one story chronicles the toll of living in such a world: “Cream of Mushroom Soup” and “This Treacherous Life,” in particular, depict the often brutal results of living such duplicitous existences, where private lives do not match public personas.

Most of the stories are set in New York City, and show a clear insider’s view of the world of New York Theater. The characters include not just aspiring actors, but also theaters’ supporting casts: playwrights, choreographers, set builders, etc. (Hardly surprising that these men are drawn to the theater; even when they’re not acting on stage, they’re living a role, trying to “pass” as cishet males.) Cohen explores throughout his collection the inherent paradox of theater, whereby truths are expressed through the process of assuming a role. No where is this paradox better expressed than in “Birth of a Revolution,” where Elliott, a closeted ROTC member taking a college acting class, assumes the persona of a fellow ROTC member he is hot for, in order to perform the role of Val Xavier in Tennessee Williams’ Battle of Angels. As a result, he uncovers and accepts his own true nature.

The theme of family—always a fraught one, when gay men are concerned—also runs throughout the collection. Many of the protagonists are second- or third-generation immigrants, and the habit not to stick out, to assimilate, is quickly ingrained in childhood, and is often at odds with their desires. A trio of stories near the end of the collection explore the complicated relationships between gay men and their fathers, and do so with insight and nuance. These relationships are depicted as difficult, and for the first two (“Cheez Doodles,” “Shiva”), closure is not a given, even when life has literally ended. Still, the third story (“Choreographer”) in this trio shows that resolution (of a sorts) is not impossible.

Like all good anthologies and collections, this volume has a little bit of everything: theater gossip; sexual tension; clear, sharp writing; and a window into a lost world. I’m not old enough to remember pre-Stonewall times, so I cannot empathize with Al’s nostalgia in “After Stonewall.” But Cohen has provided us a testament of the not-so-distant past, one we should always endeavor to honor and remember.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Parade – Michael Graves (Storgy Books)

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Storgy Books

How in the world did I miss this when it originally came out in 2015? I see in the archives I read his collection of short fiction, Dirty Ones, and I remember enjoying it immensely. No matter. Parade is as sharply observed and pointedly absurd as that book, but the long form of a novel allows Graves to really dig in and create some very layered and wholly believable characters he puts through the wringer in a number of ways.

Reggie Lauderdale and Elmer Mott are cousins, but their temperments are entirely unrelated. Reggie is a conflicted, rigid, gay, church-going hypochondriac, and Elmer is a straight, somewhat dissolute bum who falls in love with unattainable women he can’t quite get over. Together, they burn down the aforementioned church, win the lottery, move into a relative’s ritzy Florida (of course it’s Florida) mansion next door to a former televangelist, and start a religion that seems to be based on hedonism and aphorisms, not to mention glitzy parties.

Rather than rely on lengthy expositon, Graves wisely chooses to tell their story in short hits–vignettes of events or splashes of dialogue that illuminate or illustrate a point, then move on. This approach is totally in character as neither Reggie nor Elmer dwell anywhere but the moment. They may return to that moment again and again to the point of obsession, but they don’t think long about something before thinking about something else. While this sounds distracting, Graves fashions all these moments into a whole that works splendidly, alternating viewpoints in sort an ADD ballet.

Even the religion Reggie founds expresses itself in short bursts. Instead of any overtly religious title, like The Word or The Way, it’s called The Cookbook, and its verses are numbered recipes. Some of these are simple, others are more complicated, but all are good, nondemoninational advice, such as:

Stop lying. Lies are hideouts.
If you fouled up, caused a fender bender, come clean. If you gossiped
unkindly, tell those involved. If you piddled on the toilet seat, admit it.
When you have secrets stashed away? They will only press on your heart.
And don’t believe in little lies either. It’s silly. What’s the point?
Remember, if you are honest, you are FREE

Reggie lives by these homilies, and when he comes out, his metamorphosis is striking. He even stops wearing clothes, confining his fashion choices to briefs, high heels, and sometimes a cape. This is a figurative and literal coming out, but it’s more of a purpose than Reggie has had before. Elmer also finds a purpose, even though he comes to it in an effort to win yet another woman who doesn’t really respond him at first.

What I loved most about this book, however, was Reggie and Elmer’s journey and how it transforms them yet retains their personalities. They’re truly marvelous characters in Graves’s shock-pop world, highly stylized yet still very earthy. Parade is a wonderfully engaging book that has many surprises around the bend, leading up to a nicely satisfying ending. Highly recommended.


© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Black Boy Out Of Time: A Memoir – Hari Ziyad (Little A)

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As a frequent essayist in national media and the editor of RaceBaitr, Hari Ziyad is an important voice in the United States’ ongoing racial reckoning. With their début long-form work, Ziyad merges memoir, political commentary, and spiritual meditation.

A semi-linear narrative takes the reader from Ziyad’s childhood to adulthood, and it fades in and out of Ziyad’s recollection of going on a last walk with their grandmother Mother Bhumi who was a cornerstone of spiritual tradition and Black persistence in Ziyad’s family.

Ziyad was raised by a Hindu Hari Krisna mother and a Black, Muslim father, first in a lower income, racially segregated section of Cleveland, Ohio and later in the more racially mixed, middle class neighborhood of Cleveland Heights. Religiosity surrounded Ziyad while growing up. They describe a house filled with neighbors and strangers, welcomed by Mata, their mother, for weekly Krisna prayers and rituals. While Ziyad never became a devout practitioner, the faiths of their mother and their father strongly influenced Ziyad’s beliefs, both spiritually and politically.

Ziyad switches from autobiography to socio-political commentary frequently, and early on, introduces a new lexicon to describe anti-black racism. Their experience as Black and queer provides a unique vantage point for observing the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and toxic masculinity. Ziyad uses the term misafropedia to describe a powerful weapon of white supremacy: the aversion to and stereotyped treatment of Black children. The author’s observations about a boy from their childhood neighborhood bring the concept into crisp focus. Roberto was a big boy with a high energy level, who was labelled as a “troublemaker” by adults solely because of his appearance and rough-and-tumble temperament. Ziyah reflects on a memory of Roberto “suddenly” no longer being part of neighborhood games, and digging deeper, they illuminate the subtle ways such boys become alienated, excluded, and told who they should be. The connection to poor school outcomes, anti-social activity and incarceration rings painfully true.

In contrast, Ziyad was a likeable enough, high achieving student who benefitted from adult and peer encouragement and went on to college, graduate school and a notable academic career. They tell their story via inflection points that shaped their understanding of what it means to be Black and queer in America. On the death of Mother Bhumi, listed as of natural causes: “When Black folks die, it is never so simple. When Black folks die, it can always be traced to the myriad ways the state has perfected killing us over the last five centuries of colonization.” On drifting away from Mata due to her religious condemnation of Ziyad’s first gay relationship: “My inability to find faith a world where both Michael and my mother could coexist helped spur a perfect storm of avoidance and substance abuse and self-destructive tendencies…that have plagued me ever since.”

This is a book that makes the reader pause, self-reflect, and at times work through one’s own defenses around race and racism. Ziyad facilitates that process by laying bare their own missteps in navigating racism, sexism, and homophobia as well as by acknowledging the essential truth we don’t have all the answers. It’s an important book elucidating the complex manifestations of anti-black racism and its impacts on queer people specifically.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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