Monthly Archives: February 2023

First Born Sons – Vincent Traughber Meis (Spectrum Books)

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Stories don’t get much more modern than Vincent Traughber Meis’s First Born Sons. Set against the COVID pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and its violent backlash, and the California wildfires, Meis’s latest novel had me marveling at how it was possible for him to chronicle such recent history and get the book through production in short order until it hit me that all happened three years ago. Somehow, 2020 feels more recent. I guess it was the lingering impact of what was probably the most tumultuous year in modern memory. Meis takes us back there with all the familiar uncertainty, fear, heartbreak, anger, and even moments of absurdity. A diverse cast of queer and non-queer characters also provides readers the opportunity to see something of themselves on a more personal level.

First Born Sons has the feel of a sweeping family saga, in part because that year encompassed so much. Each chapter takes place in the recent past, but point of view characters span three generations and some are products of historical traumas such as Black persecution in the 1960s South and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. It’s a uniquely American story that speaks to repeated cultural patterns, from queer suppression and the country’s long standing problem with racism to worsening natural disasters.

As suggested by its title, Meis’s novel focuses on the eldest sons of an extended family, and those characters were carefully chosen to reflect the evolving meanings of manhood. Many of the male characters are queer, including M, who is transitioning from female to male. Others are young adults who are feeling out their identities. Devlin, a twenty-year-old with mixed race parents, is happily enchanted by the sexual attention he receives from both women and men. Jason, a fifteen-year-old, is leaning into white male self-righteousness and militancy. Those characters alternate with mothers, sisters, and younger siblings who are each, at times, point of view characters with important stories to tell. The result is a loose web of storylines that gradually intersect at a portentous family birthday party.

Lamar, a young, Black, free-spirited, blind gay man is introduced first, escaping from a cabin in the Northern California forest beset by wildfire. He has collected the equipment for his livelihood as a deejay but is stopped by patrolling policemen who presume that he’s a looter. His older friend and the owner of the cabin, Byron, arrives and tries to defend Lamar, but it takes the intervention of a neighbor, George, to persuade the policemen to release both Lamar and Byron. From there, we learn of Byron and Lamar’s interconnected families and tragedies in New Orleans, both men having left behind a bitter past. For Lamar, he traded out the homophobia of his Louisiana hometown for the subtle and overt racism of the Bay Area along with the ableist tendencies of its gay community.

Interracial situations permeate the lives of many of the characters. Augie and Ruben, an upper-middle-class white/Latino gay couple are raising a thirteen-year-old Black son, Colton, who has recently decided he wants to have a relationship with his Black surrogate mother. AJ is in the midst of a custody battle with the father of her two sons, who is drawing their eldest, Jason, into white supremacist ideology. Meanwhile, she’s having an affair with an undocumented Mexican man, Chato, who is trying to reform from a criminal past.

M, who was born Augie and AJ’s older sister, is finally ready to do something about a long-deferred dream to live as a man and must break the news to her husband of twenty-five years. As 2020 would have it, M faces that conversation while stuck on a cruise ship in which COVID has broken out and forced everyone into lockdown in their cabins.

The dilemmas faced by these characters ring true for our times, touching upon the increasing freedom to love who we want, identify how we want, and create the families that we want, while posing necessary questions. How do two gay fathers prepare a Black teenager for survival in a racist world when neither of them have experienced anti-Black racism? What can a divorced woman do to mitigate her ex-husband’s white nationalist influence on her son when that son is badly in need of a relationship with his father? Are gay men beholden to a conventional moral code when it comes to pursuing sex and love with men who are partnered, however ambivalently?

There’s much more plot to the book, but given its surprises, I recommend discovering it with fresh eyes. Meis has created an enjoyably provocative story about contemporary queer families that’s a tribute to all of us who made it through the past three years as well as the ones we’ve lost.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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A Transcendental Habit – James Callan (Queer Space/Rebel Satori Press)

As I’ve often said, one of my favorite things about doing this blog is running into new books, especially the odd one I can’t classify or stick into a convenient box for labeling. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s sublime when it does. Such is the case with James Callan’s A Transcendental Habit, which is part quest, part buddy/caper novel, part romance, and part urban fantasy. But its congealed whole is a fascinating, wild ride you’ll heartily enjoy.

Our POV character, Jarred, lives in Nyvyn–known to the locals as Palindrome or Drome–making a living flipping chicken at Taco Nirvana and cruising the mean streets of nastytown. Until he runs into Bee, that is. Bee is a powerfully attractive stranger Jarred meets during one of his street sojourns, bearing a bionic eye and leg. They have a drink at the Bee and Lily, named after Bee and his sister, Lily, who runs the bar. Jarred finds out Bee is the ex of a guy named Avid Argyle, who discovered a drug called Squidge, a miracle psychedelic curative made from caterpillar larvae. Argyle, however, took too much and became a demigod who parted with Bee on bad terms. Bee wants to stop Argyle but needs help and so turns to Jarred as well as his sister and her significant other, a shapeshifter named Ren. Together, they fight enemies underground in the sewers and on a debris-laden landscape to achieve Bee’s goal.

If this sounds convoluted, it only does so in summary. The story unfolds rapidly and logically, hooking the reader with Jarred’s incredibly tasty voice. It’s just world weary and cynical enough to be interesting without sounding harsh or judgemental. The world he and the others inhabit is also fascinating–properly dystopian but not alien. Callan’s world building is subtle yet distinctive, with a polished finesse guaranteed to take you out of your everyday life and drop you somewhere very, very different.

What I really liked here is that the narrative defies your expectations. Take, for example, the relationship between Jarred and Bee. Jarred, at more than a few points, thinks he might have found The One (hence the part romance I referenced above), but after the denouement, that doesn’t happen–any further, and I’d have to give a plot point away. What appear to be answers only lead to more questions, especially where relationships are involved. The one between Lily and Ren is more stable, but you get the feeling they’ve been together longer and have a lot of history.

Callan’s battle/action scenes run with clockwork precision, well mapped out and executed with speed and tension. However, that leads me to my only caveat. The final battle feels anticlimactic at first. On reflection, though, you’ll find that it’s the only way it could have ended considering what had gone before. And if this leads you to suspect you’ll think about this book for a while after you’ve finished it, you’d be right.

A Transcendental Habit, then, is a terrific read. It’s funny, it’s fast, it’s unusual, and it’s totally absorbing. I finished it in a couple of sittings and found myself wanting more. Highly recommended!


© 2023 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Something Inside: Conversations with Gay Writers – Philip Gambone (ReQueered Tales)

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ReQueered Tales

My initial approach to Something Inside: Conversations with Gay Fiction Writers, another astounding ReQueered Tales reprint, this time from 1999, was to read one author interview a day. This seemed like a great way to digest a big book and start my morning; I quickly realized that any other tactic and I would have been overwhelmed – I needed the train ride or long walk that followed to fully digest the wisdom and life-experience contained within each discussion. Philip Gambone, then a budding journalist with a literary bent (he proceeded and followed this compendium with a short story collection, a novel, and additional works of nonfiction) proves not only exceptionally well-read, but a keen listener, mining an author’s answers for further insight. The list of interviewees is astounding: twenty-one gay writers discuss their work, their lives and education, occasionally each other, in ways that define, explore, and expand our definition and understanding of gay life during the 80s and 90s. Starting with Joseph Hansen and ending with Michael Lowenthal, including powerful voices lost to AIDS: Paul Monette, Allen Barnett, and John Preston, the book resonates with our history and can be considered a masterclass when it comes to craft.

For the writers herein who I’ve heard physically read their work, Christopher Bram, Edmund White, Brad Gooch and Scott Heim, I felt like I was again in the room with them, their commentary so resonated. While I had read or had a general awareness of every writer within Something Inside, the conversations with authors on my “what’s-wrong-with-me-why-didn’t-I-read-them-years-ago?” list were oftentimes the most surprising and transformative as I added yet again more titles to the mental tally of books that I’m regularly scouring The Strand for.

This was another reason why I enjoyed reading one interview at a time, as it was an invigorating continuation of the conversation to go online and check out the author’s work, reflect on the course of their career, how reputations expand and contract with the passing of time. I would exit the train as certain phrases lingered, impressions deepened. I always get off at the 4th Street exit, near Christopher Street, and I would reflect on how a plague shaped our culture in ways tragic, heroic and prescient. Paul Monet so poignantly remarked toward the end of his interview, “I want gay and lesbian people to be strong for what’s going to happen in the next twenty years, for the millennial earthquake that’s going to happen. It’s going to be a tough, hard place. The very rich are going to have all the money and everyone else is going to be poor…There are real dark forces out there.”

That’s from 1990. Monet died in 1995.

While every conversation is unique to the author and their work, Gambone does conclude most interviews with a variation on the question: What advice would you give to a young gay writer today? The answers are fascinating, often complex, from the heart, and it would be a disservice to all if I were to quote a favorite morsel or two here, though Holleran and White certainly deliver. Perhaps someone should compile them in a separate essay and asking our contemporaries to continue to pay it forward. But that’s work for another soul.

What probably surprised me the most about these conversations, was for the most part how central a writer’s relationship to New York City was to their identity as an author. Some were fully consumed lovers, others acted as if Manhattan was the worst boss they had ever had at a job that still somehow paid dividends. I haven’t yet fully conceptualized what this means as it relates to the publishing world and gay culture at the time of these interviews but it was the brightest among the multitude of filaments linking these peers, forefathers, and the-then up-and-coming talent contained within.

Something Inside is a singular collection. In fact, halfway through the book I stopped and surveyed my shelves and then jumped online to see if anything else quite like it existed. I am in possession of both Conversations with Edmund White (2017) and Samuel R. Delany’s Silent Interviews (1995) -both are focused solely on one author and, interestingly, the Delany interviews were conducted in writing. I was excited to learn that Christopher Hennessy has two collections of interviews with gay poets available. However, when it comes to fiction and nonfiction, as far as I can tell no other collection of interviews with the writers who witnessed and participated in the birth of gay liberation and the rapid growth of modern gay literature has been preserved in book format. Decade after decade of author interviews and conversation are increasingly separated by time, existing momentarily online or in out-of-print magazines, which makes Something Inside not only recommended, but essential.

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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