Monthly Archives: October 2022

I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing: A Memoir – Marshall Moore (Rebel Satori Press)

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Not long ago, I reviewed Simon Smalley’s memoir That Boy of Yours Wants Looking At, which I enjoyed despite the lack of conflict with his family over coming out. Their enthusiasm was refreshing yet jarring considering the experiences of most gay men I know, whose lives hew closer to that of Marshall Moore as detailed in his new release, I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing. This is a family to which I can relate, however graphically.

Novelist Moore, known for such portrayals of urban life and angst as Inhospitable and Bitter Orange turns a critical lens on his own life, beginning with his childhood in Greenville, North Carolina–not exactly a metropolitan area. Helping him steer blindly through the waters of adolescence are his mother, Laura, who has a penchant for white wine and pills as well as an unhealthy preoccupation with her son’s body, his eternally angry and abusive father, the Marine, and his sister, Janelle, who bumps her way into substance abuse.

Autobiographies are always interesting to me not so much for what they say but how they say it. Everyone has trauma, that being a pretty elastic term. However, not everyone can process and relate it with enough detachment to make it universal to the reader. Moore has enough intellectual and emotional distance to find those commonalities, so his prose is factual and unsentimental. Moore’s very first chapter, “The Trouble With Dick,” is about his penile surgery as a toddler among other things, and the chapters get more intimate from there. But Moore never loses his cool or his standpoint.

As a victim of child abuse myself, although not quite at the level of crazy Moore’s experienced, I know all too well the preternatural sensitivity you have to develop to survive. You have to be able to sense the mood the second you walk in the door, if not on the bus down the block. Dad’s car’s home? Oh, shit. And once you determine the mood, you have to be able to switch in a second if your entrance alters it. Childhood is precarious for us, and Moore portrays that balance of comfort and unease with unerring accuracy.

Moore’s gallows humor is also on display here. His fiction has always worn a dark, mordant grin, and his non-fiction follows through with that–except the grin is a little darker and a bit wider. He’s able to find the humor, often ironic, in the most embarrassing of situations. Yet another survival technique, but it makes for fine reading.

I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing is a compulsively readable account of a somewhat compulsive life. If you’ve enjoyed Moore’s fiction, this should be next on your list.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The New Life – Tom Crewe (Simon & Schuster)

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The subject of Tom Crewe’s début novel will likely be obscure to many readers, beyond those, like myself, who are gay history geeks. Many decades before Alfred Kinsey brought attention to the natural range of human sexuality, and eighty years prior to the psychiatric community decategorizing homosexuality as a mental disorder, two British academics John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis published a medical textbook, Sexual Inversion, that presented homosexual men as well-adjusted, healthy, and unjustly persecuted individuals. The year was 1897, and while the book faced skepticism and scandal at the time, it planted the seeds for a movement to depathologize and decriminalize gay sex. Crewe doesn’t seek to state all the facts about the authors’ lives and motivations, but in crafting his historical fiction, he drew heavily from the men’s biographies and changed their names just slightly. What results is an imagining of the events that led to Symonds and Ellis’s scholarship, grounded in what is known of the social and political climate of the time.

John Addington is a respected member of London’s intellectual class. He writes poetry and literary criticism and has a special interest in homoromanticism in ancient Greece. A gentleman of a certain age, he has a wife, two grown daughters and a daughter headed to Oxford University. He also has long been painfully aware of his attraction to men and kept that part of himself hidden from the world with the exception of a few clandestine sexual encounters.

Henry Ellis is a thirty-one-year-old newly married doctor. He and his wife Edith are proponents of an enlightened philosophy known as “the New Life.” The gist of the New Life is that society can be bettered by prizing intellectual inquiry over cultural convention, and with its egalitarian principles, it attracted socialists, suffragettes, and “sexual radicals,” as they were known at the time. Henry and Edith are well-matched in terms of values and academic passions, and they are both looking for a marriage that isn’t tethered by traditional roles and responsibilities. Edith is in a discreet affair with another woman. For Henry, his interest in marrying is a bit more complicated than seeking cover for homosexuality. He can only be aroused by a fetish, which he fears will render him unlovable.

John writes to Henry with praise for an article Henry wrote about the poems of Walt Whitman, and through their correspondence, the two men agree to collaborate on a book of case studies illuminating same-sex male relations. The story of how they bring their book to life (semi-fictionalized, Symonds and Ellis never actually met, and Symonds died before the book was published) is an immersive journey that has much to say about what it might have been like to be gay in the 1890s. Their subjects are terrified of being socially condemned and jailed, yet they manage to fulfill their needs for sex and companionship through coded signals, cruising grounds, and carefully curated social networks.

John and Henry risk a lot in publishing their work, and the question of how their daring endeavor will turn out is a surprisingly suspenseful hook. Oscar Wilde’s first trial for sodomy erupts in the midst of it all. Despite social liberality inching forward among the educated elite, a plague of injustices remain for gay men, from discriminatory penal codes to religious bigotry to blackmail.

Crewe delves deeply into each man’s struggles to come to terms with who they are. John enters a relationship with a working class man, Frank, who is substantially his junior, and with whom a long-term companionship is possible based on Frank’s desire to make a life together and John’s relative freedom now that his children are grown. He must adjudicate his deception to his wife and daughters while increasingly being aware of how society has deprived men like him the chance for self-acceptance and personal fulfillment.

Henry’s situation adds complexity to the sexual liberation theme. He feels a kinship to the men he interviews, as well as the subversive romanticism of Whitman, but his path is lonelier in some ways. His attachment to his wife is heartfelt, even desperate at times, but Edith will only be happy with a woman, and what man or woman would accept his sexual secret? Crewe is bold in portraying each man’s sexuality with sensuous detail, which gives his characters an appealing humanity.

The New Life is a well-realized novel that works both as a dramatization of gay history and a more personal story of two men searching for ways to live outside social convention.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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The Feast of Panthers – Sean Eads (Queer Space/Rebel Satori Press)

I thought Sean Eads’s debut novel, The Survivors, was one of the best books I’d read that year, turning an often hilarious yet one-note joke into a treatise on the human capacity for violence in such a subtle, masterful manner that I had to read it again. I inexplicably lost track of his work for a couple of years, but I’m glad to say I’ve reconnected with his unique vision and faultless execution in The Feast of Panthers, a killer historical fantasy.

Opening, naturally, in a tavern/opium den, the narrative recasts Oscar Wilde, his wife Constance, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), the Marquis of Queensberry, and William Butler Yeats into time and dream travelers. Along with new characters such as amateur pugilist Charlie, with whom Wilde falls madly in love, this team is the only hope mankind has of defeating ancient Eqyptian queen Bast in her bid to take over the world by capturing her with a spell cleverly disguised as a Wilde-penned play.

There are spells and magic and rings and glass spheres that shatter and embed their shards in an enemy, dragging him away as they reunify in another dimension. People appear and disappear, friends become enemies and enemies comrades, all within the overarching irony of Bast’s attempt to colonize the Ultimate Colonizer of the Victorian Age. Both an excellent example of steampunk and a comment on its absurdity, this book has many layers–all delicious.

Eads finds the warrior within Wilde, accentuating his bravery but never forgetting his misdeeds as he agonizes over his previous treatment of Constance and determines not to make the same mistakes with Charlie as he did with Bosie. But above all, Eads is having such tremendous fun upsetting the apple cart and playing against history, his joy can’t help but shine through his narrative. And it’s palpable to the reader.

The Feast of Panthers is a terrific read–rich in detail, bold in concept, and perfect in execution, it’s an enviable achievement. Highly, highly recommended.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Army of Lovers – K.M. Soehnlein (Amble Press)

Army of Lovers is an evocative title that might first bring to mind the tantalizing story of the Sacred Band of Thebes with its pairs of battle-hardened warriors in thigh-length kilts. K.M. Soehnlein’s latest novel is a much more recent work of historical fiction, but that title works well for his memoirish account of AIDS activism in New York City in the late 80s and early 90s. It also brings to mind the Swedish pop group of the same name whose campy hits were playing in gay bars far and wide at the time. Soehnlein’s principal reference is the men and women who fought against AIDS apathy and hatred side-by-side, as friends, lovers and caretakers at the height of the pandemic.

The storyline chronicles the early years of ACT UP from an engaging on-the-ground perspective. Soehnlein brings the reader right inside the passionate and sometimes contentious meetings of the fledgling organization and demonstrates how such gatherings served multiple, vital purposes, including and beyond AIDS advocacy. For some gay men, attending a meeting was a first foray seeking connection with others of their kind and overcoming shame. For others, ACT UP was practically the only place where AIDS information could be found while a public health response wallowed in opposing political tides. The men and women of Soehnlein’s novel find lifelong friendships through their participation in the organization, bonded together not only by shared anger and fear, but also humor and bravery and creativity. Some find partners, others cruise for sex, and most movingly, they create a caretaking network for men who have been shunned by their families and society.

Meetings get messy at times from conflicting priorities and the exhaustion of fighting for a government response while friends are dying every day. The political actions, several of which will be familiar to readers, are depicted with all the triumph, frustration and personal danger one would expect. Demonstrations halt Manhattan traffic, draw media attention, and gradually succeed in accelerating the distribution of life-saving drugs. Seen through the eyes of the people who led them, they were also precarious and at times chaotic and often ended with activists, including those in very poor health, getting beaten by police batons. It’s hard to read at times, but stirring in its complexity.

While the novel is the story of a political movement, it’s also quite a personal story about love. The narrator Paul is a recent college graduate who is part of ACT UP’s core leadership along with his lover Derek. Paul and Derek have an open relationship that is struggling to stay within the bounds of trust and honesty. Derek begins to spend more time with a handsome, spiritual man from the South, Michael, and Paul is drawn to a young, biracial artist Zack. One sees how this would be a sticky situation in any circumstances, and Paul and Derek are also figuring out how to be with men of different serostatuses and dealing with a friend group that’s in constant crisis, from declining health to depression and suicide to gay bashings on the supposedly safe streets of the West Village. The author captures brilliantly the many moods of gay living in NYC post-Stonewall and pre-anti-retroviral therapies: the thrill of sexual rebellion, private jealousies, and the ceaseless fear of death.

This is a novel with incredibly high stakes, so while it’s lengthy, it’s difficult to turn away from the pages, and by the end, difficult to forget. On a broad level, it raises questions like “who will survive an unmitigated epidemic?” and later: “how did anyone of that generation survive the constant trauma?” The personal stakes are equally profound and gripping. Will Paul test positive like so many of his peers? Will he ever find inner peace and the sense of home he desperately wants? Or will he succumb to self-destruction like so many of his friends? Soehnlein reminds us of the brutality of an era many years before the availability of effective HIV treatments and the (partial) realization of LGBTQ+ civil rights. He also teaches us how hope and community are possible even at our most powerless moments.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Gordon Merrick and the Great Gay American Novel – Joseph M. Ortiz (Lexington Books)

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Gay men of a certain age have had the shared experience of spying a Gordon Merrick paperback in a bookstore or library and several thousand sexual awakenings were sparked. And those Avon covers were throbbing pulpy post-modern baroque masterpieces; for the then-contemporary viewer each cover was as packed and vivid as Raphael’s The School of Athens, I kid you not. We’re talking best-seller status. Gay books that were simultaneously everywhere paperbacks were sold throughout the 70s, with covers featuring hot hunks, page turners filled with complex relationships, yachts, European locales, cocktails at every turn, and torrid affairs with men and woman. All sustained by powerful erotic writing. Yet the very triumph of these novels doomed them: their accessibility goaded more serious and strident gay writers (and readers) to dismiss Merrick and, in some cases, outright attack him. That and literary tastes shift. Some material has aged badly, and his publishing success means the ongoing reappraisal and appreciation of pulp books initiated with Michael Bronski’s 2003 Pulp Friction pushed Merrick farther aside. But one of those boys in the bookshop became a professor. Joseph M. Ortiz not only recognizes this oversight, he has written the long-overdue biography of Gordon Merrick.

 To read Merrick is to somewhat know him. His more popular work is so biographical, fans of his writing will recognize characters and events, and Dr. Ortiz connects the dots throughout, all while successfully piecing together the story of a life both thrilling and privileged. Born well-off, preternaturally good looking, a Princeton boy who dropped out before his senior year to give Broadway a go, Merrick’s early years have a Gatsby-esque quality. The excitement and danger of 30s and 40s queer New York City comes alive here, as well as Merrick’s lifelong ambivalence to the gay scene. While his jetsetter life is likely known to his readers, the fact that he served as a spy in World War II will come as a surprise to many, and adds more than a dash of thrill to this eminently readable biography. Ortiz makes each chapter its own sustainable bit of gay literary history with enticement to read on, so while fans of the Peter and Charlie series might be surprised we don’t get to The Lord Won’t Mind until halfway through the book, there they can look back with wonder at a journey well-told.

Of particular interest are Merrick’s often overlooked early books with which he established himself as a serious novelist. His long-term relationship with the younger Charles Hulse unfolds across their decades together, from the Grecian Island of Hydra, where they befriended a young Leonard Cohen, to the latter years in Sri Lanka where Arthur C. Clarke was a neighbor, and Hulse’s love and support play an integral role in Merrick’s evolution as an artist. (Hulse published his own gay novel, In Tall Cotton, in 1987 and helped finish Merrick’s posthumous and wildly phallocentric true crime novel The Good Life.)

Middle-age, rejected manuscripts and dry spells coupled with seismic changes in gay culture gave us the creative breakthrough that is The Lord Won’t Mind. Famous for what many readers at the time considered the first gay happy ending (prior gay characters in literature ended in suicide or some sort of abject destruction), the sensation that was The Lord Won’t Mind quickly birthed the Peter and Charlie trilogy, with One for the Gods (1971) and Forth Into Light (1974). Ortiz, in reviewing the original manuscripts at the Princeton archives, reveals that Merrick took his sex scenes seriously, and documents multiple revisions. Merrick understood what he was writing and how he was putting it on the page was an original, historically important endeavor. The accounting of the agent-writer-publisher relationship that follows is surprisingly captivating. This is something not seen in most literary biographies but significant here as the publisher’s ability to promote Merrick’s book and the utilization of the same cover artist, Victor Gadino, throughout the series and beyond, are as much a contributing factor to the success of Merrick’s work as the stories themselves.

Still, I would vote that the most valuable discovery in Ortiz’s research comes with the trove of fan letters to Merrick. An entire chapter is dedicated to this phenomenon, and does more than anything else to re-assert Merrick’s special place in gay letters. (I need to pull the Mary Renault biography off the bookshelf. I vaguely recall similar experiences of epistolary appreciation, and I am comfortable linking the two seemingly disparate writers here as their originality and output are equally singular and forceful.)  Gordon Merrick and the Great Gay American Novel not only exculpates Merrick from the crime of not being a serious artist, but the summations and explorations herein mirror the subject: the journey in these pages as in Merrick’s books are deliberate and joyful. Wasn’t that the point of his Aegean love stories –and what critics couldn’t fully grasp due to their own internalized subjugation –that we deserve to be at the helm, under the stars, setting our own course?

Reviewed by Tom Cardamone, editor of Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, and the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb as well as the erotic fantasy The Lurid Sea and other works of fiction, including two short story collections. Additionally, he has edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered and co-edited Fever Spores: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs.

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