I was a regular attendee of the marvelous queer lit conference, Saints & Sinners, for a good fifteen years. I took a short break, but then the pandemic came along and my break was far longer than I’d intended it to be. This year, however, marked my return to New Orleans, and it was a delight to see faces old and new and feel the energy once again. And one of the features of S&S is their fiction contest, judged each year by a different queer author. This year it was Martin Hyatt (author of A Scarecrow’s Bible and Beautiful Gravity among others), who chose some magnificent pieces.
Even the best short story anthology, however, won’t connect with every reader all the time, and there are some pieces here which didn’t do anything for me. Other readers might find them brilliant, of course. That’s just the nature of collections, and I’ll say that the stories range all over the place, from heavily plotted to fleshed-out character sketches.
The collection starts off strong with an interesting piece by Colin Lacy, “An Ephemeral Eye,” which has easily the most bizarre premise in the book. A lifelong fan of a rock star named Adam Sterling buys Sterling’s eye, which the rocker has removed and saved for the fan. As the fan consumes the organ, he has flashbacks of Sterling’s life with each piece of the eye he eats. That he does so in front of the retired and now one-eyed singer does not lessen the creepiness, but once you get beyond that, the story turns into a fascinating rumination on celebrity, those who chase it, and those who attain it.
The only difficulty in starting out with a story this oddly powerful is following it. Despite the title of the next story, Kat Lewis’s “Eat You Whole,” it’s positively prosaic alongside its predecessor. The effect of Lacy’s story really doesn’t wear off until J.R. Greenwell’s “Bucktooth Becky,” a charming tale of a girl and her gay best friend and what happens when a Catholic grade school teacher comes to a largely Baptist smalltown.
Once the taste of the eye is out of your mouth, there’s much here to occupy your attention. The winner of the contest, J Duncan Davidson’s “My Elijah” is an atmospheric story set in a logging camp and deals with the accidental death of the lead character’s saw partner, Elijah, who was also his romantic interest. I also liked Gar McVey-Russell’s “The Necklace,” set in 1990s East Oakland, a tale of preacher sin and boyhood redemption as slim, slight protagonist AJ must cope with Pastor Blade’s advances while taking comfort in the memory of his first love and protector, Kenny, killed by gang gunfire. As heartbreaking as it is uplifting, Russell’s story has indelible characters who speak in dialogue that fairly crackles. And William Christy Smith’s “Free Pizza for Life,” the story of a New Orleans drag queen who wins a pizzeria’s promotional contest, has extraordinary heart and wit and maybe my favorite line in the whole damn book: “I don’t know why anyone would ever think twice about Marilyn Monroe as long as Dusty Springfield is around.”
But most on the money for me (your mileage may vary) is Eric Peterson’s “Little Boy Blue,” an emotional story about a man going back to Savannah for the funeral of his aunt, Willa Jean, who took him in when his father threw him out for being gay. As he negotiates the tricky pathways of family and grief, the latter is ameliorated by the overflow crowd at the funeral home, mostly gay men his aunt had also taken in and nurtured when their families abandoned them. Though that’s a bit of a spoiler, I can guarantee a tear will still come to your eye by the end. I actually read this twice (and cried both times).
So, there you have it. As with most anthologies, this has high and low points, but the best stories are memorable indeed. I can hardly wait for the next volume.
© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler