Vincent Traughber Meis has written six prior novels (one of which, The Mayor of Oak Street, I reviewed last year for Out in Print) and now he has published Far from Home, a collection of twelve short stories. Aptly named, his stories take place in Saudi Arabia, Barcelona, Turkey, Cuba, and Mexico; only two of them are set in the United States. All of the stories but one feature a Gay male character, all of whom are American. The Otherness of being Gay is therefore intensified throughout the collection, as these characters are already othered by being Americans outside of America, but then have to hide their dual otherness in such places as Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Mexico; alienation is a constant theme, as is the fear of violence and loss.
Two of my favorite stories, “Shelter in Place” and “Reunion,” strike me as perhaps being the most autobiographical. (Of course, Meis notes that he has traveled to and/or lived in the places he writes about, so each story, if not autobiographical, is at least informed by his knowledge of these locales.) The former describes the relationship between a young American man living in Barcelona, and the much older British man he meets there. The platonic friendship that develops ends abruptly, and the reconciliation sought by the younger man is hindered by the arrival of the recent pandemic. Meis explicitly states in his acknowledgments that the latter story was inspired by attending his own fifty-year class reunion in his hometown; the protagonist learns how much (and how little) things have changed in the Midwest town that he grew up in and left (Decatur, IL, dubbed the “Soybean Capital of the World”). His life comes full circle when certain events from his youth repeat themselves.
Ostensibly, the men in these stories are searching for others like them, and possibly even love. The trio of stories set in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (“Man in a Shalwar Kameez,” “Market Day in Qatif,” and “Manama Christmas”) in particular show how this search is complicated when it occurs in a foreign country, with barriers of language, custom, and religion. (For example, in the Middle East affection between men is common—they may embrace and touch each other in public—while actual sex between them is outlawed.) “All in the Cuban Family” moreover, depicts how complex homosexual relationships can become when enmeshed with heterosexual relationships, especially pre-existing familial ties, and then further entangled by marriage ties.
With the exception of “Blade of Grass” none of these stories have what might be called a typical happy ending. Some are perfectly ambiguous (“Backlit” is an excellent example). We often tell stories to ourselves to make some sense of our lives, to give it a narrative arc that we can follow; Meis’ stories are more like quick snapshots that give us a brief glimpse of another place or time, with the sense that the characters’ stories continue on. Since four of these stories are inspired by events depicted in his earlier novels, fans are encouraged to seek them out and read further.
A fifteen-year-old boy navigates poverty, gang violence, family dysfunction, and homophobia in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland. Such is the subject of Douglas Stewart’s (Shuggie Bain) latest novel, and it’s an immersive and emotionally gripping story with thematic similarities to the work of James Joyce.
Mungo Hamilton is the youngest son of an alcoholic, often absent mother Maureen (Mo-Maw). He lives in public housing in one of Glasgow’s poorest neighborhoods where the economic policies of the Thatcher administration have created widespread unemployment. The enormity of Mungo’s plight is evident from the first chapter. Mo-Maw has disappeared, again. There’s no food in the apartment, no money to pay the bills, and his older brother Hamish (Ha-Ha) is strong-arming him to help out with his street crime schemes. Mungo, named after the lesser-known Saint Mungo of Medieval Britannia, has not yet succumbed to the bitterness of his older siblings. His sister Jodie rages over their mother’s failings while Hamish tries to grab what scraps he can from an unjust world, no matter who he hurts along the way. Mungo is the peacekeeper, the optimist, and the gentle soul in the family. Both in spite of and because of his nature, one immediately worries about the tragedies that lie ahead of him.
Yet, it’s Mungo’s story, and Stewart brings the reader in to see things from Mungo’s perspective. His mother’s neglect is frightening, but when she’s around, they share an intimate bond that transcends the troubling uncertainty of the world. His sister Jodie likewise provides some maternal comfort and protection. She wants Mungo to get an education and serves as a foil to Hamish, who’s a dropout and a thug. Mungo isn’t ready to decide what kind of man he should be to survive life’s hardships, but with his family dissolving, very soon, he must.
Then he meets an Irish Catholic boy named James, and that decision gets even more complicated.
James is gentle-hearted like Mungo, and he’s handsome and embattled by his own family problems. He raises pigeons in the backyard of his apartment building. Mungo is fascinated by him, and the fascination is reciprocated. They’re set apart by their religious affiliations, and though religious tensions abound in 1980s Glasgow, the boys are too young to have been spoiled by those prejudices.
Homophobia is a different story, however. Mungo recognizes that the feelings he has for James could lead to a lifetime of ridicule if discovered and even his own destruction.
Being the kind spirit he is, he worries more about the consequences for James. Thus their relationship develops tentatively and secretly. A side character, nicknamed Poor-Wee-Chickie, is Mungo’s only reference point for how gay men live, and as they say, it’s complicated. Chickie is unabashed, reviled, the butt of jokes, fearsome and lonely, living by himself. Worried about guilt by association, Mungo is terrified of him at first. But he turns out to be the confidante Mungo desperately needs, and he provides Mungo with some pivotal advice.
Stewart clearly knows 1980s working class Glasgow. Its sights and sounds and smells materialize from the pages, from rundown tenements to the crude vernacular of its denizens to their greasy home cooked meals. Amid the unpleasantness of urban living, Stewart also shows how beauty can be found in unexpected places. The prettiness of a Catholic boy’s face, which Mungo glimpses before the lad jumps him in a street fight. The joy of riding double on a bike with one’s best friend, feeling like the wheels you pedal could take you anywhere. A neighbor who gives Mungo the dignity of eating a much-needed meal in privacy. Stewart masterfully renders the environment that surrounds young Mungo with all its toxicities and its sustaining characteristics, however spare.
A portentous side story is slowly interwoven into the major plotline. It involves Mungo going on a fishing trip with a pair of sketchy men who Mungo’s mother hopes will teach him how to be a man. To describe it more would be giving everything away, but suffice it say, prepare yourself for heartbreaking twists.
An absolute triumph in coming-of-age literature, certain to appeal to readers of gay literary fiction and British historical fiction.
Continuing our Pride month kickoff, we celebrate the life and legacy of one of our founding fathers, Richard Labonté, with rememberances and kind words from a few of the many people he affected. He will be missed.
Michele Karlsberg (writer and publicist):
What do you say about the man that took you under his wing.
What do you say about the man that helped your heart along as it fell in love with San Francisco.
What do you say about the man that made his home yours.
What do you say about the man who can fill a tiny little office with as many writers as one could.
What do you say about a man who mentored many without even knowing it.
What do you say about a man who had absolutely no toxicity.
What do you say about a man that visited NYC in the dead of winter and never ever wore a coat.
What do you say about a man whose walk always stayed the same pace and was never hurried.
What do you say about a man that sits at a friends bedside as they lay dying.
What do you say about a man whose pants were always too big and gathered at the waist.
What do you say about a man who licked each one of his fingers after he indulged in something delicious.
What do you say about a man who loved books but loved writers even more.
What does one say when you lose a gentle man with a kind and caring soul.
You say, be kind, be generous. Open your home. Share your wisdom. Share your laughter. Show what it means to truly love. Be like Richard. I will call your name forever dear Richard.
Katherine V. Forrest (author and editor):
If authors and books are bricks in the foundation in our culture, Richard Labonte was the mortar. It’s no exaggeration to say that there is not an LGBTQ life in this country that reverberations from this one individual man have not impacted. The bi-coastal bookstores he presided over in his quiet, sensitive, unassuming manner were the indispensable life-saving beacons of an era. The wealth of books on the shelves he provided gave us the first intimations of the lives others of us led, and validation of our identity. They instilled pride, led us toward community. In the authors and literary events he spotlighted in his stores, he inspired others to create a nationwide network of bookstores that birthed activism and national community. With his signature plaid shirt that stretched over an imposing stomach, that fulsome beard whitening over the years, those wise, humorous, eyes…gentle, unassuming Richard Labonte became—and will always be—a giant among us.
Greg Wharton (author, editor, former Suspect Thoughts owner):
I had been thinking a lot about Richard Labonte the last month before I heard he had died. We had just moved into a new house and I was able to finally put out all my books that had been boxed up. Among these books are a fair amount of first edition copies of Richard Brautigan novels and collections. These were gifted to me by Richard when he found out how much of a fan I had always been of this wonderful quirky writer that not many folks knew of. As one of my biggest influences to my writing I cherish these books and smile whenever I look over and see them on the shelves. Richard was many things to many people, out gay forerunner, fine smut editor, community bookstore keeper, and for the lucky, friend. Thank you, Richard.
Tony Valenzuela (former executive director, Lambda Literary Foundation):
When I started as executive director of Lambda in 2009, in the devastating aftermath of the Great Recession which had impacted us in dire ways, Richard Labonte was the only other staff person at the time with whom to rebuild the organization. He was in charge of managing Lammy Award submissions (part-time but always contributing whatever it took). I quickly learned no human on this planet was better equipped at facilitating this process of identifying excellence in queer literature. To the job, he brought decades of passion for LGBTQ books as a reader, writer, editor, bookseller, and all around exemplary literary citizen. But what I’ll remember most about Richard as a colleague was how he embodied a rare combination of extraordinary professionalism with a vast capacity for kindness, gentleness, and taking a loving approach to the work and to his community. He was the definition of a class act.
Emanuel Xavier (poet, spoken word artist):
I first met Richard when I worked at A Different Light Bookstore in NYC. I was a sassy queen straight off the piers. He was giving me Santa Claus daddy realness. Richard didn’t have a mean bone in his body, but he loved himself a vicious sense of humor. His sweet demeanor also shrouded the fact he was a master at gay erotica. My first publication was an erotic short story he helped edit and, though I would become a poet, he eventually got me to select finalists for one of his erotica anthologies. Richard brought me to the West Coast for the first time under the guise of the A Different Light employee exchange program to work at the San Francisco store. This was in the 90s, long before social media. It gave me the opportunity to introduce myself to the spoken word poetry scene outside my gay downtown NYC arts bubble. He helped launch the careers of so many young queer writers. Richard was such a great mentor to many in the literary arts community. I truly hope his legacy will never be forgotten.
DL Alvarez (artist, former bookseller):
Richard and I worked in a closet-sized office at A Different Light bookstore several hours a day for ten years. He knew my aspirations, tastes, pet peeves, and even my mom. In the hours following the 1989 earthquake, he and I kept the bookstore open for people to use as a meet-up point and place to leave messages. At sunset that day, he invited me to his house for dinner. He originally hired me to curate store readings because I was coordinating a series on my own time. That would have been enough—getting paid to do what I loved. But because he also knew I was pursuing an art career, he offered a pay raise. He did little things like this for people. He knew we had dreams and would grant time off, give loans, and encourage us with sage but humble advice. For example: even though we were part-time bookstore employees, we had health care coverage. He made things possible in a world where the routine is fraught with obstacles.
Dale Chase (author):
In the modern way, I never actually met Richard Labonte, knowing him only as editor over the years and, of course, facebook friend. But, again, in the modern way, it doesn’t matter that I never shook his hand or gave him a hug or sat and talked with him (how wonderful that would have been). I felt an instant connection to Richard with the first anthology story of mine that he edited. He liked my work, I liked his light editing hand, and we shared the good humored friendship that grows out of working together. I respected him so much, know what a presence he’s been in all our lives. I celebrate how deeply he’s touched so many.
Charlie Vazquez (author and editor):
I “met” Richard during the editing of Best Gay Erotica 2008 (Cleis Books, 2007), which Emanuel Xavier coedited. Richard suggested developmental edits to improve my story’s pacing and climax, advice I heeded. I had only published three stories by then and sensed that I was working with someone who cared about the art of erotic writing, even if I wasn’t good at it. I had met Emanuel the year prior through the author Trebor Healey, so it was an honor to be collaborating with writers with superior craft and publishing experience. The collection was republished by Cleis as Studs: Gay Erotic Fiction (2014) and this reconnected me to Richard for the last time. We never met in person, though what comes to mind when I think of him was his generosity of craft insight, such as the power of contrasts (calm/rage) in riveting storytelling.
Terry DeCrescenzo (former Member, Board of Trustees, Lambda Literary Foundation):
Among my favorite memories of Richard are long, lazy afternoons, sitting outside with him and Betty Berzon, on the deck of the home Betty and I shared in the hills above West Hollywood. It was a privilege and a pleasure to listen to his erudite and wise comments about what was going on in the “gay literary world,” as we would have called it at the time. He was sweet, smart, and thoughtful. The phrase, “gentle giant” might sound cliched, but it really does describe Richard. Though he had plenty to say, he used an economy of words to make his points, quickly getting to the essence of a subject. His death is a huge loss to us all.
Thanks to our participants for helping to celebrate the life of one of our pioneers. Happy Pride, everyone! If you feel so moved and would like to comment, please do so below.
My contract with Richard Labonté was limited to being in a couple of his anthologies (one of the Best Gay Erotica series, and I Like It Like That), but in all our interactions, he was never less than professional and personable; an editor who truly wanted you to be the best writer you could. So, we start this Pride month out by giving many among his circle of friends a chance to say a few words. And you know how much he would have hated that…
Marshall Moore (author and lecturer):
San Francisco, summer 1999. I’d just moved to California from the DC suburbs. I was in A Different Light buying books. The man behind the counter struck up a conversation. When he found out I was a writer and had (gasp!) had a short story published, he asked if I had more work still looking for a home. I did, and that publication led to others, which then led to my first book sales: an amazing cascade of good luck, not something that happens to writers often. Richard’s early support for my work is one of the reasons I now get to call it a career. His graciousness toward so many of us in the queer literary world allowed communities to form and books to be published that otherwise might never have existed. As central a figure as he was, he could have been arrogant; instead, he defaulted always to kindness. It’s hard to think of someone who created so much as being gone. Even if his legacy offsets the loss, he is missed. RIP, Richard.
Jim Provenzano (author and writer at Bay Area Reporter):
Even before I had published my first novel, Richard Labonté was a helpful point of inspiration for me and many other Bay Area writers. When I finally self-published my first novel, PINS, Richard read an early draft of my manuscript and offered kind notes. I still have that copy with a ring of coffee stains on the front page. Richard offered advice on getting my book on shelves, named friendly distributors, and hand-sold my book at A Different Light in San Francisco, displaying it in the window for months. Subsequent reading events at the two stores in Los Angeles and New York City were always well attended, and I appreciated that the trio of enclaves for LGBTQ literary events existed, for a time.
Jim Van Buskirk (writer and editor):
I treasure a tall black mug with white text commemorating “A Different Light’s Readers & Writers Conference, April 19-21, 1996: A San Francisco Bay Area Queer Literary Event.” On the mug’s verso is a l-o-n-g list of the many queer writers who participated in the three-day conference at the Women’s Building. I’m honored that my name appears, a souvenir of a presentation with Susan Stryker celebrating Gay By the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, published that month. For the first time I felt included in the scene. Given his disdain for the limelight, I’m not surprised that the name Richard Labonté, the mastermind behind the event, doesn’t appear. Richard was a calm and quiet mover and shaker, making important, invisible contributions to queer literature. Although I didn’t know Richard well, I always enjoyed being in his presence, his big bear energy exuded a palpable love of and commitment to authors and their audiences. Richard leaves a long and lasting, and largely unacknowledged, legacy.
Larry Duplechan (author, essayist, ukelele player:
Richard Labonte reviewed my first novel (favorably), for “In Touch For Men” magazine, in 1985. In 2014, he passed the editorship of the Best Gay Erotica book series to me – though I only lasted for one issue. For my entire career as a writer (such as it is), Richard Labonte was there, a sort of literary faerie godfather. There’s a snapshot I’ve treasured for well over thirty years: taken on December 14, 1986, at A Different Light Book Store in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles, which store Richard then managed; at the reading-signing-launch party for my second novel, Blackbird. The late writer-historian Stuart Timmons has his back to the camera, his arms encircling me, and Richard. I’m finding it hard to handle the thought of Richard Labonte no longer being there.
Rachel Pepper (author and therapist):
Richard Labonte changed my life. In the fall of 1989, whilst in my early 20s, I wrote him a letter, emphasizing my dream to work alongside gay men in the Castro. Turns out we shared a vision of creating an inclusive, welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ people of all different ages and outlooks, and I was hired! Richard and I were very different in temperament, he a rather saintly and benevolent father figure to the young gay men on staff, and myself a bit of a rebellious dyke firecracker. He mentored me in a different fashion than my colleagues, by tacitly approving my efforts to feature edgier aspects of LGBTQ+ culture at the store, including queer zines and 45s issued by upcoming queer punk and riot grrrl bands. Richard let me shine for who I was, and helped me grow into who I was meant to become. No doubt Richard likely felt my contribution to his own life was of much less significance, except for one amazing fact: I am pleased to say that I introduced him to his husband Asa. And for that, I will always take some pride.
Felice Picano (author and editor):
I’d known Richard for years at A Different Light bookstore in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He was so knowledgeable about books I wondered how a busy bookstore manager found time to do all that reading. I got my answer the year I was asked to join the Wilde-About-Sappho Literary Book Tour through Ontario and Quebec raising money for grad students. After the final, official event in Ottawa, I stayed at friends’ sprawling apartment where Richard was also a guest. Now we’ll get to talk books, I thought, although Richard’s rooms were at one end, mine at the other.My hosts were eager to share the capitol’s attractions with me. Richard remained on a comfy sofa and read, always so rapt I never dared interrupt. Felice-museums; Richard read. Felice-gardens; Richard read. Felice-motor tours; Richard read. Felice-interviews; Richard read. After four days, he’d read a three-foot stack of books next to that sofa. When we parted, Richard said he’d retired. Come visit him on Bowen Island. We’d talk.
Michael Nava (author and editor):
I first met Richard in 1984 at the original location of A Different Light in Silverlake in Los Angeles. The store consisted of two narrow, rectangular rooms in a shabby building at the corner of Sunset and Santa Monica. Richard ran from the store from behind the counter, a benign if inscrutable presence who didn’t miss a thing. I’d stop on my way home from work, still in my suit. Too shy to introduce myself, I learned later Richard had figured out my profession and referred to me as “the lawyer.” When my first book was published in 1986, I had my first ever signing at that store. That began an association with the store and a friendship with Richard that lasted for decades in LA, San Francisco, and New York. As a bookseller, editor, and connector Richard was at the very center of the gay literary scene for more than twenty years. What Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company were to Paris in the 20s, Richard was to us. A monumental figure, a connector, a bibliophile of the highest order and the kindest of men.
Brad Craft (author and bookseller):
Gallantry isn’t a very common adjective in the book trade, but I can’t think of a better for my old boss. I was still young, but I knew him as a writer, bookseller, award-winning editor, already something of an éminence grise. I very much wanted to work at A Different Light Bookstore, and it seemed the decision would be his. The interview was mostly lunch with Richard. He seemed shy. I talked too loud, but I was hired. Our working relationship wasn’t that long, but it would take more space than I have to detail everything he taught me in that time. He was a gallant man. I suspect the word would amuse more than please him. He had no pretentions, at least none that I ever saw. He said more with a glance and a shrug than anyone I ever met. He would look away, brush up his beard with his fingers, and listen always before he spoke. What he said mattered, but you had to get close to hear it. Always worth it. He was an entirely reliable wit, in his quiet way. All these years later and I still hear him, still try to be more like him. Lesson learned? I’m still at it, Richard. I like to think he would applaud the effort, even if he would probably demur at taking any credit. I will miss him.
Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Emanuel Xavier, Charlie Vazquez, Katherine V. Forrest, Michele Karlsberg, and others. Please join us then.