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Assembly Required: Notes from a Deaf Gay Life (Updated) – Raymond Luczak (Handtype Press)

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Raymond Luczak has written and edited over a score of books: fiction, non-fiction, plays, and poetry. His eighth book, Assembly Required, first published in 2009, has recently been reissued in a second edition. Inspired by his landmark essay “Notes on a Deaf Gay Writer,” originally published in Christopher Street in 1990, Assembly Required comprises eleven autobiographical essays that have been expanded and updated by Luczak. Many of the themes will already be familiar to Gay men—coming out, first to oneself, then to others; leaving home to find one’s “logical” family; musings on what does, or does not, comprise Gay culture—but all of these are also cast through the prism of being Deaf.

Curiously, I felt that as I read Luczak’s odyssey, that I was also reading my own: I too grew up in the Midwest in the seventies and eighties (not in a small Michigan town, but rather one in Wisconsin), and we graduated from high school the exact same year; he moved to Washington, DC immediately thereafter to attend Gallaudet University, but I didn’t move to DC until I entered grad school, five years later. By the time I made my first trip to (the now closed) Lambda Rising bookstore, it had moved from the U Street location that Luczak describes to Connecticut Avenue, north of Dupont Circle; and instead of riding cross-town via bus, I remember boarding the Metro. Despite these superficial differences, it is clear that we both found ourselves and community through music (via such artists as Lipps, Inc.; Culture Club; Bronski Beat) and books.

However, our life-paths diverged after college: I moved to DC and remained there, and he subsequently moved to New York. And whatever commonalities we may share, his life has been permanently shaped by being Deaf. As one example, when discussing the impact of movies on Gay culture (“Musings of a Deaf Culture Junkie”), he notes that Deaf people experience Gay icons differently: instead of memorizing vocal inflection and accent from iconic movie actresses, they memorize gesture and body language. Nevertheless, even I found myself nodding in agreement with his observations concerning the backstabbing nature of Deaf culture, because I have witnessed the same things in Gay culture (“Daggers in Our Hands“); ditto during his musings on what exactly constitutes Deaf culture—and who gets to decide? And while I too have witnessed the progression from manual typewriters to computers to iPhones described in “My Technological Evolution as a Deaf Person,” Luczak demonstrates how these technological advances specifically have leveled the playing field for him, both professionally and personally.

The final section of his book contains several essays of a highly personal nature. “Lousy Show with Great Production Values” offers some keen insights into the literal (and figurative) drama provided by the Roman Catholic Church. In “Leaving 49 India Street,” Luczak describes his first year living in New York, and the impact it had on him as a person and a writer; while “Weighing the Bacon to Go” traces the development of his relationship with his father, which is almost always a fraught subject for Gay men.

One may think that Luczak’s audience might be even more niche than that of most Gay writers, seeing as it is a subset of a subset of the greater culture. However, these essays deserve the widest possible audience, not only for their informative awareness into being Gay and being Deaf, but especially since Luczak describes being “an eternal either—both outsider and insider—in the Deaf world”—a familiar feeling to many Gay men in the Gay world.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia – Jeff Mann & Julia Watts, eds. (West Virginia University Press)

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I resurrected this blog in response to the McConnell/Ryan/Putin installation of the T—p Reich, which has proven to be just as destructive and embarrassing as we all thought it could. Sometimes worse. We have been divided so deeply, we may never be able to bridge our differences–if, indeed, we had before. We need every scrap of understanding we can muster. We have to begin to know others as more than just avatars alongside rude comments on blogs, and that means reading about them. What we learn from their stories can transform our differences into commonalities. That’s why volumes like this one from Jeff Mann and Julia Watts are so important. But beyond its regional and queer significance, it’s a potent read.

Mann and Watts have pulled together a collection of some fine Appalachian authors, wisely ordering them alphabetically rather than attempting to categorize them. But verse or prose, the basic themes of fierce individualism and connection to the land and family pervade this volume so intensely any categorization would be useless. Approaching this collection from an academic direction, however, would be a mistake. These pieces are all emotionally powerful and speak to a wide range of experiences we all remember no matter where we come from or who we really are.

The book is dedicated to the late Okey Napier, Jr., aka Ilene Over, a locally revered West Virginian drag queen, but the last line of Mann’s dedication is separate–for the ones who stayed. Queer people of all stripes have been leaving their backgrounds behind and reinventing themselves en masse since World War II, but the population of those who never left the small towns, the gossip, the beatings, the separateness, is largely unheralded. And many of those are, willingly or not, on the front lines in the fight for LGBT rights, bringing queer realness to the Sunday church picnic. It’s less of a feat being gay in NYC than it is in, oh, say Sylacauga, AL.

That divide between those who left and those who stayed is exemplified in Rahul Mehta’s “A Better Life,” perhaps my favorite piece in the book. Sanj and his bestie Sylvie are separated when Sanj leaves for the Big City. However, things aren’t as rosy as he portrays them on a visit home, as Sylvie finds out when she comes to visit. Not only does Mehta explore the dichotomy between those who stayed and those who left, but he throws a multicultural element into the mix. I also enjoyed Silas House’s “How to Be Beautiful,” a tale of a wild excursion from a small town to a drag bar, and “Saving,” by Carter Sickels, about the return of a trans man and his girlfriend to film a documentary in his small town.

And that’s just the prose. The poetry also takes on many of the same themes but seems to concentrate more on the Appalachian relationship to the land, family, and domesticity. Kelly McQuain’s “Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers” is a powerful example of the former while both Dorothy Allison and Jeff Mann have a firm command of the latter. In particular, I loved Mann’s “The Gay Redneck Devours Draper Mercantile,” a perfect depiction of how food resurrects memories. In addition, some newer poets are also highlighted, including Lisa Alther, whose “Swan Song” really moved me, especially the last stanza:

Yet, life is long (unless it’s short)/And friends who last are few,/And since love first starts in one human heart/It might just as well end there too.

Mann and Watts have done a splendid job of choosing pieces that represent not only Appalachian values but how those values often conflict with each other. More than just an academic exercise, however, these poems and stories bring the point home emotionally as well. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales of a City That Never Was – Dave Ring, ed. (Mason Jar Press)

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Ten stories traverse queer love, loss, and courage in a highly readable, urban fantasy anthology that is refreshingly replete with #OwnVoices.

These are modern tales in style and tone from a new generation of young, emerging authors. One, kx carys, is still in high school. Some, like Pushcart Prize nominee Claire Rudy Foster, have garnered attention in the literary community. As such, Broken Metropolis invites discovery of new perspectives in short fiction, and readers will find it delivers on bold, imaginative queer storytelling.

The anthology is branded as an exploration of urban situations and possibilities, though it could be said the story moods provide the connective tissue. In M. Raoulee’s “Neon,” a mechanic and money hustler navigates a post-‘Electric Revolution’ misandrist dystopia in a magic-fueled motorcycle while trying to repair his android boyfriend. Caspian Gray’s “The Plague Eater” concerns two guys dancing around their mutual attraction as they chase a macabre urban legend that might be the only way to save a friend dying of cancer. The non-gendered trans narrator of V. Medina’s “My Heart in My Teeth” (a reference to “my transition” is the only clue) moves numbly, robotically through the day, haunted by the violent murder of a lover, and in Jacob Budenz’ “Under Her White Stars,” a witch (also non-gendered) must trust in their powers to reanimate their fiancé after a noble mission to capture a soul-consuming renegade witch goes horribly wrong.

The futures the authors imagine aren’t bright, perhaps in step with Millennial sensibilities and/or our current times. But the stories do explore the possibility of hope. Their heroes might be jaded about the state of the world, but they want to believe in the redemptive power of human connection. However bleak their situations, true love surely offers a chance to rise above.

Claire Rudy Foster’s “Saturn Conjunct Venus” evokes that dark and tentative romantic mood in a story about the challenges of trans living. Angie, a young phlebotomist working in a lab to find a cure for HIV, perseverates on astrology to glean clues to her romantic future while muddled in a depressive episode that has her seeing the world in shades of blood. She’s been dating a lesbian woman for two months and has yet to tell the girlfriend about her transition. It’s an entirely contemporary situation that grips the reader as well as any suspenseful fantasy adventure. Having been rejected by T.E.R.F. lesbians before, Angie’s heart hovers above a blade awaiting the moment her girlfriend will learn her history. Her situation is specific, but the fear of revealing one’s whole self to the person with whom you’re falling in love strikes a universal chord.

Readers will find a mix of traditional, atmospheric urban fantasy (Raoulee’s aforementioned “Neon”), a clever trans-slashed update on Greek mythology (H. Pueyo’s “Perseus on Two Wheels”), stories in which hand-drawn cats come to life (Victoria Zeldin’s “The City of Cats”), and others that are darkly psychedelic and reminiscent of William S. Burroughs (D.M. Rice’s “Dissonance”). Similar to Medina’s aforementioned “My Heart in My Teeth,” Meghan Cunningham’s “The Strange Places in the City” delves into the fantasy theme by imagining the city as a living organism.

A challenge with queer anthologies is providing representation across the spectrum. In that regard, Broken Metropolis takes a different and I’d say inspired approach by making space for trans, non-binary, and non-gendered stories, which haven’t received as much recognition as cis gender gay and lesbian fiction.

A nice achievement and an entertaining sampling of modern queer lit that offers something for comic/fantasy fans and literary fiction readers alike.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Threesome: Him, Him and Me – Matthew Bright, ed. (Lethe Press)

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As hot as sex between two men can be, sex between three men is undeniably hotter.  As to the reason behind this phenomenon—and why it seems to be a staple of queer life—Matthew Bright adroitly notes in the introduction to his anthology Threesome:  Him, Him and Me, “…surely it’s simple maths, then, that the more genitalia in one place, the more exciting?”  I would argue that it’s not simple mathematics, as the hotness level can climb exponentially—and the stories in Bright’s anthology provide ample evidence of that fact.

Although it is a truth universally accepted that threeways are unquestionably hot, every time you add another human to the mix, things invariably get complicated.  (Just as sex between two men can be uninspiring or disastrous, adding a third doesn’t automatically improve it.)  Several stories explore the potential emotional fallout of a threesome, despite (or because of) the hot sex.  “Call for Submission” by N. S. Beranek, which opens the volume, is practically a meta-story—it involves a writer asked to contribute a short story about a threesome to a volume of short stories—that presents the gamut of conflicting emotions between the writer and his partner both wanting/not quite wanting to open up their long-term relationship to a third.  “Share and Share Alike” by Evey Brett similarly involves a couple who must confront their shared feelings for a third man from their shared past. “Dr. Dave” by Dale Chase, with five characters, actually has three threesomes at play (as opposed to three-way sex, of which there is only one example in the story).  Both of these stories acknowledge that sex among three men can also involve shifting pairs, and not always sex among all three.

Which is not to say that the entire volume revolves purely around emotional angst.  (Hey, this is a book of erotica, after all.)  Some stories incorporate other fantasy elements, such as drag (“Fancy Dress” by Chris Colby) and uniforms (“The Guards of Governor’s Square” by Shane Allison).  And as befits an anthology about a popular sexual fantasy, several stories have a fantastical bent:  for example, Rob Rosen (“Invasion”) humorously describes three-way sex between two male Earthlings and an extraterrestrial with two penises.  A couple stories even straddle the line between erotica and horror: “Spring on Scrabble Creek” by Jeff Mann depicts the vampire Derek Maclaine and two human partners with his trademark BDSM, and Jerry Wheeler’s “Strawberries” (the only reprint in the anthology) is genuinely creepy.

While each story is outstanding, three (appropriately) stand out as my favorites.  “Vanilla” by `Nathan Burgoine is a delightful account about a competition between two men for a baker; with a little magical help, everyone wins.  Bright’s contribution, “Time to Dance,” is a poignant tale about three high school students during their final term at school making a statement at their senior prom (in its own way a revenge fantasy worthy of Stephen King’s Carrie–although way less bloody).  “The Big Match” by Lawrence Jackson is hands down my favorite story in the entire anthology:  told entirely through a series of e-mails mostly between two (ostensibly straight) mates the week before  a big soccer game on the telly, several twists occur to produce an unexpected threesome.

The stories themselves are sandwiched between two short pieces of non-fiction:  Bright’s introduction and an afterword by Redfern Jon Barrett, himself a member of a trio.  Of all the possibilities for sex between three men, the only one not explored by the authors herein is between three men already effectively married to each other, so Barrett’s closing essay about living in a polyamorous relationship suggests that possibility, a potential outcome of three men coming—and staying—together.  It is a fitting end to a provacative (in more ways than one) collection about the endless permutations among three men.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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A Congress of Ships (The Maverick Heart Cycle, Book 3) – Stephen Graham King (Renaissance)

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Between my gay men’s book group and this blog, I’ve been reading a lot of “alternative structure” books. Just the luck of the draw. Some were good, some not. But after four or five, I started longing for a fully plotted story with characters who interacted with each other instead of the furniture. I was excited, then, to start Stephen Graham King’s A Congress of Ships. Full disclosure: I edited the first two books of this series and was unable to review them, so I’m well acquainted with King and The Maverick Heart Cycle. This one, however, is fair game. And it’s an exciting, interesting read that stretches King’s universe both literally and metaphorically.

Sentient spaceship Maverick Heart, or Vrick, as his human occupants, Keene, Ember, and Lexa-Blue call him, is one of several self-aware craft haunting the Galactacum. One of the others finds a rend in the fabric of space and as the rest of them gather to study it, a colony ship from another dimension falls through–pursued by the aliens who destroyed their galaxy. Vrick and his crew, aided by his fellow ships and some folk from the other two books, must figure out a way to seal the rift and deal with both sets of intruders.

One of the key components of world-building is knowing when to stop piling on the bricks, and King is superb at giving you just enough to understand why something’s happening or a character is performing an action and stopping. He never goes for the esoteric factoid or sneaks in something that doesn’t belong, and his writing is all the clearer for it. And when backstory is necessary, he never overworks it or drags it out into filler. He drops in what needs to be there and moves on.

The characters who populate this world are also top-notch. Since this is space opera, there’s a lot of buddy banter between the humans and Vrick, and it’s all delightfully done, but it’s all the more serviceable due to the deep feelings the characters have for each other. Keene and Lexa-Blue were together in the first book, joined by Keene’s new lover Ember in the second. The politician Daevin is also along for the ride, having had “history” as it were with Keene as well. And the characters, both major and minor, are representative of many spots along the genderqueer spectrum.

But when the chips are down, they perform admirably in the action scenes. And King shines here, too. His battle scenes are breathless, and he knows just when to up the ante and when to back off. The climactic chases and narrow escapes abound, but they’re all believable and perfectly plotted. King’s writing is elastic, with honed short sentences and terse dialogue for the battle sequences and some lovely languid descriptions of both alien vessels during downtime.

A Congress of Ships is a worthy entry in The Maverick Heart Cycle. Even though each book works quite well as a standalone, you might as well just order all three of them at the same time. I’ll guarantee you’ll enjoy the other two just as much as this one. Long may the cycle continue!

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

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Oranges – Gary Eldon Peter (New Rivers Press)

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Any regular reader of this blog knows I am a huge fan of short fiction, so any new author collection usually rises to the top of my TBR pile pretty fast. Some of them are hit and miss, but this short, competition-winning volume of linked stories by Gary Eldon Peter is a solid bet for fellow lovers of short stories.

Many of the pieces follow a man named Kevin through the death of his mother, as well as interludes from his childhood and a strong story about Kevin’s relationship with his father after his mother’s demise. Other entries follow a character named Michael, who also intersects with Kevin. But each of these tales stands alone perfectly.

Very early on, “The Bachelor” sees childhood friends Michael and Sam spying on a neighbor they’ve nicknamed ‘The Bachelor’. The caper was initially Sam’s idea, but Michael continues peeping while Sam is away, not only seeing the neighbor naked but kissing another man in his backyard. This coming-out-to-myself story is a little gem, with beautifully awkward realizations we all remember from those days of first times and ‘aha’ moments both good and bad.

I also enjoyed the double whammy of the title story and its follow-up, “Sun Country.” “Oranges” is a lovely piece about Kevin and his relationship with his terminally ill mother. I loved its quiet determination and understated elegance as Kevin’s mother displays her acceptance of her son in the only way she can. But Kevin’s story with his father, “Sun Country,” adds some tension to the mix as both of them deal with how to be with each other during a visit minus his recently deceased mother as a buffer. By turns poignant and angry, this story turns out to be the sharpest, most clearly realized of the lot, capturing a very tentative yet loving bond at its most precarious.

The powerful “Itching” has Michael exploring the possibilities of his burgeoning relationship with Stephen in light of Michael’s recent STD diagnosis. This story also features Kevin as Michael’s late boyfriend. As with nearly all the other stories, this is sharply observed and well-rendered. Peter’s prose is vivid but not flashy, free of clutter, with just enough detail to set the scene. He leaves plenty of room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.

Gary Eldon Peter’s Oranges is a strong set of stories, perfect for rainy Spring afternoons that look forward to sunny mornings.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Late Fees: A Pinx Video Mystery (#3) – Marshall Thornton (Independently Published)

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Accomplished mystery author Marshall Thornton (the Boystown series) takes readers on a trip back to early 90s Los Angeles in his recent release, Late Fees: a Pinx Video whodunnit. Against a backdrop of nascent antiretroviral HIV treatment, VHS rentals, beepers, phone books, and West Hollywood muscle queens, it’s a well-crafted murder mystery that makes for a fun, nostalgic ride.

The series’ sleuth is Noah Valentine, a regular gay in his early thirties, recently diagnosed with HIV, who owns the sort of no-frills, independent video rental store that was a staple of urban Main Streets across the country before the digital age. Noah’s investigative prowess comes from a combination of TV detective fandom, a coterie of friends who love a salacious scandal, and a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time might be more apt.

For Thanksgiving, his mother Angie has flown out from Michigan, and arriving late to the airport to pick her up, Noah finds her with a newfound, boozy friend named Joanne. They met in a bar during a layover in Chicago, Angie explains, and they struck up a camaraderie when they discovered they were both traveling to LA to visit their gay sons.

Noah becomes chaperone to both older ladies as Joanne’s gay son Rod never showed up to pick her up and isn’t answering his phone. Joanne confides that Rod is something of a partyer, and she’s not alarmed when he won’t buzz them in at his apartment. Noah is too nice of a guy to leave her to wait outside with her luggage, so Joanne ends up joining him and his mother for a Friendsgiving dinner hosted by his neighbors, a gay couple Mark and Louis.

Then Joanne receives a phone call from the LAPD. Rod was found dead in his apartment, an apparent drug overdose. But naturally, not everything is as it seems, and after carting Joanne back to Rod’s apartment and overhearing a conversation between the neighbors, Noah begins to piece together an intrigue involving sex, drugs, and life insurance funny-business.

Thornton writes the gay son and mother relationship with authority and endearment. They become unlikely conspirators in snooping, which offers many comic moments as well as a focus for the two who would otherwise be awkward in one another’s company. Noah has barely come to terms with his serostatus himself, and though he’s told Angie, he’s hardly eager to delve into that topic with his mother. Angie is just getting used to being around her son as a single woman; Noah’s father died eighteen months back. They edge around those tough issues in the familiar manner of adult children and their parents, and the two getting re-acquainted as adults is a nice side story.

Beyond Noah’s adventure uncovering what happened to Rod, which is suspenseful fun best left for readers to discover on their own, Noah’s reckoning of how to live as an HIV positive gay man provides another compelling story line. He avoids the attentions of  handsome detective Javier O’Shea, defensively asserting to himself sex and love are off the table due to his serostatus. He faces treatment choices, dietary considerations, and AZT side effects, all while being gravely uncertain about his long-term prognosis. His decision about what to do with those challenges is another journey within Thornton’s otherwise light and fast-paced novel, beginning with the question of whether or not to deal with them at all.

Thornton uses pacing, dialogue, and camp to masterful effect, a solid artist of genre fiction who knows how to keep the reader burning through the pages. A slight qualm is the resolution of the murder mystery. Thornton’s clever cues and miscues build high expectations, though there’s plenty to delight mystery readers along the way.

Late Fees is a nifty amateur detective story that stands up to the work of R.D. Zimmerman, Lev Raphael, and Greg Herren, with special appeal for folks who remember fondly gay life before cell phones and Grindr.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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