Monthly Archives: December 2021

Let’s Get Back to the Party – Zak Salih (Algonquin Books)

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Algonquin Books

Two gay Millennials, once childhood friends, cross paths at a wedding in D.C.. Their brief, frosty encounter reopens unfinished business from the past and begins an intertwined search for meaning and connection. Firmly grounded in our modern times, Salih’s début novel endeavors to say something about our world. Indeed, its marketing materials proclaim: What does it mean to be a gay man today?

That’s a gutsy endeavor as we’ve come to appreciate the many shades of diversity within diversity and their impact on lived experience and identity. To put it more realistically, Salih’s novel sheds some light on how middle class, cis gender gay male Millennials are doing today. As gay literature has been dominated by Boomers and Gen Xers, a younger perspective is exciting. For me, an ol’ Gen Xer, it was also unexpectedly bleak.

One begins with Salih’s choice of flag-bearers for his generation, which establish a surprisingly uncharitable portrait from the start. Sebastian Mote, perhaps the more sympathetic of the two leads, is frozen in an inner world of insecurities, obsessions and jealousies, such that, while opportunities for emotional connection surround him, he comes across as wallowing and narcissistic. Oscar Burnham enters the story as a bitter, self-involved wedding guest, ducking through the affair, immersed in his cell phone where he’s rifling off texts to potential hook-ups about how dreary it is to have to participate in the celebration of the two grooms.

None of this is positioned with wit or contrasting viewpoint, and Oscar doesn’t get much more likeable from there. Oscar despises everything about the mainstreaming of gayness (vocally, and violently at times), and at thirty-five years old, he idolizes the good ol’ days in the rebellious, liberated 1970s and 80s, which of course he knows nothing about.

Things are not off to a good start for the modern gay man.

Characters need not be likeable to show the reader something true about the world, of course. Funny, reading Salih’s book reminded me of reading the work of Andrew Hollerhan and Alan Hollinghurst from the 1980s, whose characters cast unflattering reflections on gay men of that era, yet one could not deny they were honest, familiar. I think most readers will say the same about Salih’s Sebastian and Oscar. You know these guys as friends, acquaintances, and maybe, if you read on through the cringes, you can even admit you see a bit of yourself. The deft crafting of these flawed young men is an impressive achievement, and, while one wants to grab and shake them at times (“Have you really earned the right to be so jaded and self-loathing in our era of substantial social progress?”), there are moments where one feels for these guys.

Sebastian is hurting from a recent failed relationship with a guy he thought was “the one,” and his defensiveness is forgivable given the challenging landscape of gay dating apps and instant gratification. He’s also a hard-working high school teacher, cultivating student interest in art history, of which he’s passionate and profusely knowledgeable.

Oscar is transparently hurting on the inside as well while he brings down every boys’ night out with his diatribes against heteronormativity and his drunkenness. For anyone who’s had their favorite queer watering hole overtaken by heterosexual bachelorette parties, his outrage resonates. He wants to be “seen” in a world of evaporating queerness: nightclubs closing to make way for high-end real estate development, gay men blending into the suburban scenery. With LGBTQ+ sociopolitical progress, we’ve lost a sense of culture and community, which is particularly important for single gay men like Oscar. He’s also estranged from a homophobic family.

Yet, Salih takes strange turns with Sebastian and Oscar’s stories that don’t quite create compelling character arcs or insight really. Taken as character studies, their stories are exciting, even thrilling at times, but in endeavoring to show character change through complex circumstances, Salih seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. As Sebastian withdraws the world, immersing himself in his work, his need for emotional connection demands to be dealt with and leads to an obsession with a student who’s living an out and proud life. Oscar pursues solutions for himself through an equally intense emotional bond with an author of some repute who chronicled his sexual escapades in the 70s and 80s.

One sees Salih’s purposes with the juxtaposition: one man looking to the future for answers on how to live as a gay and the other looking to the past. But the desperation of their pursuits feels, if not forced, rather shallow, even pathological. In each case, there’s no real empathy for the object of their desire; it’s a narcissistic exercise. Seventeen-year-old Arthur becomes a projection of who Sebastian would have liked to have been, and when that fantasy disintegrates, Sebastian turns coldly away from the boy at a time when Arthur could use his support. The same pattern plays out for Oscar and his hero Sean Stokes. What Sebastian and Oscar have learned from these experiences is unclear, and their stories’ endings are further muddled by the evoking of a national tragedy as a catalytic event for their growth. It’s not quite convincing.

Of note, Salih’s prose is crisp and effective in forward-moving scenes, but some of his stylistic choices are distracting and unpleasant. Dialogue embedded in dense paragraphs. Chapter names taken from classical paintings for Sebastian’s point-of-view.

Sexually provocative chapter names for Oscar’s, somehow tied to Sean’s book-within-the-book. Alternating scenes from past and present that choke the narrative flow. There’s just a bit too much going on.

Ambitious, provocative, textured, overly complicated and overreaching at times, it’s exactly what a good début novel should be. So, what does it mean to be a gay man today? You won’t find all the answers, but Let’s Get Back to the Party is certainly a good conversation-starter among friends.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Don’t Cry For Me – Daniel Black (Hanover Square Press)

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Hanover Square Press

A Black gay man imagines family histories and confessions from his dying father in an epistolary novel that excavates the generational meanings of Blackness, masculinity, fatherhood, and more. Insightful and emotionally moving, Don’t Cry for Me is a story that is immensely accessible and powerfully healing for scores of readers who have struggled with the pain of parental rejection.

In his final days of dying from cancer, Jacob, a sixty-something man bequeaths to his son Isaac a series of letters to express the many things he never had the courage or the ability to say face-to-face. Born in the 1940s in rural Arkansas, Jacob recounts his memories coming into the world in a family that was only a few generations removed from slavery and shaped by scarcity, segregation, and the psychic damage of human subjugation. Due to tragic circumstances that are gradually revealed, Jacob was raised by his grandfather, who worked a farm year-round, seven days a week.

Boys like Jacob attended school when they were not needed to help with farming, thus education was a luxury. Most of what Jacob learned about living in the world came from his grandparents, neighbors, and other boys his age. The prerogative was survival. There was no time for notions that children needed emotional nurturance or that anyone had a right to personal fulfillment. Such conditions produced hardened people. Jacob’s grandfather only took a half day off from work for his wife’s funeral, for example. Now an older man, Jacob is circumspect about the environment in which he was raised, but he was inevitably a product of the times for Black people, and fathers of that era generally.

Jacob’s “voice” makes his storytelling unexpectedly compelling and sympathetic. Even when he confesses participating in a horrific act of violence against an effeminate boy at his school, one cannot help seeing events from his perspective and feeling his shame and horror. Black men of his generation were taught to be strong, decisive, and unemotional, and however harshly they treated “weaker” men, it was meant to correct a deficit and bring them back to their essential nature. His story illuminates that deeply imbedded role in Black communities where gender transgressions hit men personally, threatening their place in a world that has stripped away their power. As Jacob writes to his son, he couldn’t understand why a man would want to give up his manhood when so much has already been taken away from them.

Later, when Jacob married Isaac’s mother and Isaac came along, Jacob wanted more than anything to be a good father. He used what tools he knew, setting paychecks aside to give his son more than he’d been given, encouraging his education and taking him to baseball games. But he was unequipped to provide gentleness and love, particularly as Isaac’s gayness became evident.

Through his letters, Jacob ponders many issues, from race relations, feminism, the Black Power movement, and the disintegration of Black communities through flight to urban areas. It’s a coherent narrative however, as all these things figure in to his central aim: to explain to his now estranged adult son that he loves him and he deeply regrets that he couldn’t be the father Isaac needed. Isaac appears in the story through Jacob’s eyes, and through that, he’s well-developed. From a young age, he was a sensitive boy, clinging to his mother and with interests in music and arts. As he grew, he became moody and brooding, and he rejected his father’s attempts to spend time with him.

Jacob lays bare the injuries he inflicted on his son, destroying his action figures when Isaac used them to act out love stories, walking out of Isaac’s school theater performances, and striking his son when Isaac turned to his parents for understanding of his gayness. It’s a familiar story for gay men of Isaac’s generation, and like many, he left his hometown at the earliest opportunity to distance himself from the traumas of his childhood. His relationship with his father was permanently broken.

Yet, Jacob’s struggle to understand his son is a heartbreaking story of its own, and in that, Don’t Cry for Me offers a powerful lesson in redemption and reconciliation. The mistakes he made are his to bear, now dying alone after a life spent trying to be the man he thought he was supposed to be. While necessarily tragic, Black has written a novel that will resonate for countless readers and activate our better instincts to forgive.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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I, Gloria Grahame – Sky Gilbert (Dundurn Press)

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Dundurn Press

Although I always enjoy a good genre novel, I also love to find something I haven’t read before. If you’re as jaded as I am, that’s not easy, but occasionally, I’ll run across something like I, Gloria Grahame, by Sky Gilbert, whose unconventional plot line takes me some interesting directions before I wind up someplace totally different than I expected to be.

Professor Denton Moulton is a bit of a schlub. He’s gotten his tenure, his teaching schedule is ideal, and his life really isn’t much of a challenge. However, his one desire is to see his beloved stage treatment of Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis come to life–with the cutest boy he can find playing Venus. Oh, and he thinks he’s Gloria Grahame, the Oscar-winning Fifties actress who married not only director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) but Ray’s son as well.

Okay, he’s not delusional enough to actually think he’s Grahame, but he identifies with her closely and uses getting into her head and writing her story as a retreat for when his own existence threatens to overwhelm him. And as he moves through the interviews for a grant to bring his show to the stage, the forces line up to do just that, dealing him one bureaucratic blow after another. If it’s not his unsophistication with pronouns, it’s his racial identity being up for grabs. These dialogues are among the funniest, most frustrating in the whole book.

Not that Grahame’s life is all that rosy. Her husband, brilliant director Nicholas Ray, is also an abusive alcoholic who needs to kick open his closet door. But his career won’t allow that. Instead, he takes his frustrations out on Grahame and Tony, his son from his first marriage. The scene where he catches them together (it’s not a spoiler; it’s Hollywood legend) is genuinely terrifying because you don’t know what Ray will do. And author Gilbert has crafted an excellent voice for his legendary actress, which sounds altogether different from that of Professor Moulton. You don’t have to depend on chapter headings to tell you whose head we’re in.

Gilbert’s alternating storylines work well for him. The heaviness of Grahame’s life gets a nice balance with the equally-desperate-even-if-he-doesn’t-know-it actions of the professor. Grahame and Moulton are both seekers trying to find their way against a repressive society, and in that way their stories are similar even if their circumstances are not.

More than the sum of its parts, I, Gloria Grahame comes at you from a number of different directions, weaving the plotlines together beautifully until it transcends genre and becomes a creature of its own. I really enjoyed this and hope you will as well.


© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Vamp Until Ready – James Magruder (Rattling Good Yarns Press)

If you didn’t know I was gay, you certainly would have looking at my Facebook feed over the Thanksgiving weekend, as it was jampacked with Sondheim tributes on the occasion of his demise. I’ve often wondered what it is about the stage that attracts a disproportionate number of gay men, and although James Magruder’s Vamp Until Ready doesn’t provide much explanation of that phenomenon, it certainly proves the point.

Vamp Until Ready tracks the exploits of the cast and crew of the Hangar Summer Theatre, a summer stock outfit based in Ithaca, NY, over several seasons. Its five parts span this time period through the eyes of five characters: gay Cary Dunkler, adopted along with his gay brother Dave, Kristy Schroyer and Isa Vass, who both love Kristy’s husband, Judy Gabelson, who goes to Ethopia to put on a show, and straight guy Mark Shinner, who dates Kristy post-divorce. They all weave in and out through each others’ stories, their relationships changing as they come together, split apart, and reconnect through the years.

Cary’s first story details his affair with Larry Brownstein, a Hangar bigwig, as he’s being cast in the chorus of the Hangar’s presentation of Damn Yankees, directed by Gavin Steeg, who also happens to be Cary’s brother Dave’s boyfriend. Cary splits his time between Ithaca and NYC, sometimes working at the Army/Navy store in Ithaca with his friend and manager Kristy Schroyer. She and her Greek nanny/housekeeper/Hangar actress Isa are the focus of the second part, where Isa has an affair with Kristy’s husband, Wayne, as Kristy drops him and starts dating Mark Shinner. Isa also starts Kristy’s daughter, Darcie, on the stage. Then we go from Ithaca to Ethopia as we follow Cary’s friend Judy Gabelson and her attempt to stage, produce, and write songs for an Ethiopian student’s play, Mango Roses. Then, back to Ithaca as Mark Shinner tells his side of the Kristy Schroyer debacle, and we pick up the story of her daughter, Darcie, who’s now a big star thanks to a well-timed soap opera part. There’s also a death (no spoilers), then we circle back to Cary for the finale.

Magruder’s plot and prose are so engaging and the stories so intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish a favorite, but because of the flavor and color of its locale, I had to choose Judy Gabelson’s trip to Ethiopia as a high point. She doesn’t begin as a strong character, but she certainly develops strength living there and courting her muse at the same time she’s trying to get used to a totally new (to her) culture.

That’s not to short the domestic side of things. The goings-on at the Hangar are always interesting, both in terms of people and of art. I’ve seen Damn Yankees, but not a stage adaptation of Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. This is probably as close as I’ll get to those, not to mention Mango Roses. But no matter if your taste runs to the mundane or the absurd, you’ll find plenty to love in Vamp Until Ready.


© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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