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.