Finding Your Own True Myth: What I Learned from Joseph Campbell – Toby Johnson (CreateSpace)

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Unlike some other atheists, I certainly have nothing against spirituality. Anything that helps you examine your own life and your relationship to those around you and the world in general is a positive thing. Self-reflection is a wonderful tool and one that is in all too rare use these days. In his time as seminarian, monk, author, lecturer, psychotherapist, Toby Johnson’s experiences and insights rival those of his mentor, Joseph Campbell, and many of them are laid out in this third edition of what may become Johnson’s Leaves of Grass, The Myth of the Great Secret.

This edition focuses on Johnson’s relationship with and assimilation of the teachings of myth-master Joseph Campbell, providing well-chosen anecdotes as well as teaching stories to illustrate his points. Johnson also includes a great deal of personal history pertinent to his own path, but he never intimates his journey must be your own. One of the points he stresses is that the spiritual search is an extremely individual one, and what works for some may not for others. His example provides both a model and a point of departure for those on their own mythic hunt.

If all of this sounds frightfully boring, it’s not. Johnson uses his novelist’s skills to infuse a bit of life into what could have been a very dry read and also uses his own history as a gay man to make his philosophical points salient to other gay men. This common ground proves indispensable in making the material accessible. And although Johnson always comes back to Joseph Campbell, he uses Campbell’s myth-making to include Eastern religious modalities, occultism, and even parapsychology, ranging far and wide among these subjects to bring us a gestalt of the lessons he has learned.

Finding Your Own True Myth, then, is more of an instruction booklet than dogma, presenting possibilities and potentialities that the reader can choose from. It provides a light by which you can walk your own path, and in these days of homogenized, ready-made belief systems, that’s an invaluable service.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Susurrus on Mars – Hal Duncan (Lethe Press)

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Susurrus on Mars, Hal Duncan’s latest offering from Lethe Press—described by the author as an “Erehwynan Idyll”—takes place on a terraformed Mars, in the town-state of Erehwyna. One day Jaq Cartier of Mars notices Puk Massinger (with his sister Ana), a recent arrival from Earth: love at first sight can still happen, even in the far distant future. And the story is truly idyllic: over the course of several weeks during a Martian summer, Jaq and Puk explore each other’s bodies and minds, while Ana discusses “pataphysics” (a branch of philosophy dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics) with Guy Renart. Interspersed among the graphic depictions of sex on another world, and erudite discussions of philosophy and art, are digressions concerning the mythological stories, folklore, and botanical qualities of numerous plants: they may be native to Earth, but they still remember their classical origins as nymphs and young lads beloved of the gods, even after being transplanted to Martian soil. And whispering through all of this is the personification of a small breeze, the titular demigod Susurrus, not born of a goddess or begotten by a god onto a woman, but rather the genetically engineered son of the gods Ares and Zephyros: and as the gene-spliced child of Ares, Susurrus may in fact be the most Martian of them all.

This short—but dense!—work combines hard (and I mean that in every sense of the word) science fiction, Greek mythology, botany, philosophy, and erotica into—well, I don’t know what exactly. Susurrus on Mars is not an easy book to describe, nor is it an easy book to read (have a good dictionary handy—you’re going to need it). But Hal Duncan wrote it, so what did you expect? Duncan’s love of language is probably exceeded only by his love of beautiful men. And here he celebrates both: not only does he draw forth from the full bounty of English vocabulary, but he pushes the boundaries of those words, giving one the sense that they are reading a future English, a living language that continues to be slangified by future teenagers.

However, the dislocation in time works mostly backwards: Duncan’s intermingled herbarium evokes the distant, classical past much more than a typical science-fictional future. And his story is not only an homage to classical myths, with their numerous allusions to man/man love, but also to classic SF, and to Renaissance drama—as evidenced by the protagonists’ names: the one clearly evokes Burroughs’ hero of Barsoom, while the other that famous trickster of Shakespeare. Indeed, Duncan spends several pages describing the garb of his protagonists, their doublets, jerkins, breeches, et al: his heroes could easily be seventeenth-century swashbucklers. The nostalgic element, coupled with the sense that one has stepped out of ordinary time (for even a terraformed Mars still has a year twice the length of Earth), adds to the idyllic quality of this work.

Duncan’s novella, therefore, is not science fiction, mythology, erotica, or even narrative in any traditional sense: Publisher’s Weekly blurbs it as “an exquisite mosaic” on the front cover, and that metaphor captures the shiny, multi-faceted nature of this work. Each jewel-like scene is like a marker on a trail through the otherwise unfathomable landscape; and despite the difficulty in navigating the Martian surface, it is a journey worth taking.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Just One of the Boys – Gillian M. Rodger (University of Illinois Press)

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One of the voices I rarely get a chance to feature on this blog is non-fiction, especially academic writing. Now, this isn’t everyone’s cuppa, and it certainly doesn’t scream “beach read.” However, it does cast some legitimization on whatever part of the subculture is examined and is worthwhile even if that part is small.  In the case of Gillian M. Rodger’s textbook, it’s male impersonators close to the turn of the century.

Rodger does a great job in hitting the well-known performers of the day (Annie Hindle, Minnie Hall, Maggie Weston and Ella Wesner–pictured on the cover) as well as the secondary ones. Though much research material has been lost, Rodger uses what’s available to bring these women to life. We come to know their work, their private lives–as much, again, as we can–their public personas and what their fans are like.

For male impersonators had an important role on the variety stage (the forerunner of vaudeville), reflecting and sometimes redirecting the men in the audience. I found the fact they had a place in that society at all fascinating, so Rodger really won me over when she took these women and started placing their work in a larger context, professionally as well as socially.

And no detail is too small to capture her attention. I thought hearing about the sorts of numbers these women did as well as reading some of their reviews was particularly interesting, both giving a good deal of insight into the social conventions of the times. And her knowledge of booking and touring practices gave yet another dimension to the subject.

Just One of the Boys, then, is a smart, erudite exploration of female-to-male cross dressers for the time period in question, rescuing some marvelous bits of queer history from the dusty archives.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Sin Against the Race – Gar McVey-Russell (Gamr Books)

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First novels are tough, especially ones that aim to tell a large story. Big stories usually require big casts, which can be difficult for even the most experienced novelists to manage. That Gar McVey-Russell does it pretty well right out of the box speaks highly of his skills, and by about a third of the way through, his tale gets its game and chugs along nicely, pulled by a solidly emotional core, and its ending satisfies with a vengeance.

Alfonso Berry, gay son of a city councilman and grandson of the state’s first African American legislator, is still grieving for his late cousin Carlton, an AIDS casualty. Basing himself on the queer street in the ‘hood, Alfonso has a lot on his plate. He’s going to college, thinking about coming out to his homophobic father, and wondering if his crush Jameel feels the same way he does. When the Huckleberry Community Clinic gets torched, not only does his father applaud its destruction because of its “negative influence” (i.e., needle exchange) on the neighborhood, he actively runs on a platform of exclusion and expects Alfonso to support that. But when Alfonso nearly loses his life in a police beating at a rally in support of the clinic, minds and courses change.

The last two thirds of this book are extremely compelling and had me totally involved. But it took a while to get rolling for me, mainly because the first few chapters are front-loaded with character introductions, most of which are only a few paragraphs long. The first four chapters alone introduce upward of twenty characters with little interaction that helps the reader distinguish between them. Many of these are incidental–especially those involved in the African Students Association–but it’s impossible to tell at that point who will become important, so I found it difficult to discern which ones I should pay the most attention to.

That said, there’s much here to enjoy. I particularly liked Alfonso’s father’s journey and the realizations he made during its course. Berry has difficulties not only with his son, but with the legacy of his late father as well as the local conservative reverend and a lesbian opponent he’d wronged during their last match-up. He has a lot of to atone for, but Russell manages to subtly change him from oppressor to victim, thus winning him some sympathy he didn’t originally have. The sub-plot between Alfonso and Jameel, however, is less successful because Jameel isn’t as clearly drawn as some of the other characters. I could never figure out why Alfonso liked him.

Of the many minor characters, Sammy, the former jazz musician turned shopkeeper, is a standout. Wise and unafraid to show his wisdom, he clearly dominates the neighborhood and becomes a touchstone as well as a sounding board for many of its younger members. I wish I’d seen more of Councilman Berry’s opponent Charlotte Hunter, who is only in a few scenes but makes her appearances memorable.

In the final analysis, however, the book is about Alfonso and his father’s relationship, and that’s where Russell shines. Their difficulties are about more than Alfonso’s sexuality, though that proves to be the initial flashpoint. Berry is disappointed in himself, his own life, and even his successes–taking all of that out on Alfonso.

Sin Against the Race is an extremely promising first novel, slightly unfocused but emotionally spot-on, and I’d enthusiastically recommend it. I think Russell’s next will really prove his worth, and I’m looking forward to what he has to offer.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Not the Son He Expected: Gay Men Talk Candidly About Their Relationship with Their Fathers – Tim Clausen (CreateSpace)

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Ask any Gay man—hell, almost any man for that matter—about his relationship with his father, and surely the most common response you will hear is “It’s complicated.” (A close second might be “Relationship? What relationship?”) Even now, after a generation or two of expanding gender roles, changing expectations of fatherhood, and increased visibility of Gay men, the relationships between men and their fathers continues to be a fraught minefield, and for Gay men exponentially so.

Into this emotional landscape Tim Clausen offers, not a map exactly, but a guide from those who have traveled it and survived. In Not the Son He Expected, Clausen presents twenty-six stories of Gay men and their relationships with their fathers, beginning with his own. He selected the additional twenty-five stories from eighty-two interviews that he conducted between 2015 and 2017. Included at the beginning of his book is the 28-question questionnaire Clausen asked each man; however, each chapter reads as a stream of consciousness narrative rather than a strict question and answer interview.

The interviewees demonstrate a wide diversity in race, age (from early twenties to late seventies), location across North America (from both rural and urban areas), educational backgrounds, and career paths. Although he strove for a wide range of stories, Clausen notes in his introduction that he purposely chose stories that included men coming out to their fathers, specifically since coming out is such a milestone event in the lives of Gay men. The reactions of each man’s father span the gamut from unconditional acceptance to disowning; and the interviewees did not always experience the reaction they expected (whether positive or negative) from their fathers when they came out.

Although each story is unique, certain themes emerge: the kind of relationships these men have/had with their fathers often depends on the kind of relationships that their fathers had with their own fathers. Several of the men are now fathers themselves, either biologically, through surrogacy, or adoption; some would like to become fathers. Another important theme that runs through most of the stories is that the relationships between Gay men and their fathers is never static, but is rather dynamic: this is especially true of men who end up caring for their sick or dying fathers at the end of their lives—flipping the role of caretaker. Also, even men who had bad coming out experiences with their fathers might still find that their relationships improve over time. (Or not. There are no guarantees.)

Perhaps the most unusual—and unexpected—story is Justin’s, whose father transitioned and is now living as a woman. Justin’s coming out eventually led to his father gaining the courage to live life as honestly as possible, and their relationship has changed immeasurably. Indeed, it is worth stressing that each man’s “father” is not strictly his birth father, but may refer to a step-father, uncle, or other father figure; several stories narrate the disappearance of (biological) fathers in the early lives of the interviewee through either death or desertion. One individual (George Morris) states explicitly that when he was thirty, and newly out, he had many male friends, all older men, men he wanted to impress and have respect him—an attempt on his part to gain the approval he never received from an absent father while growing up.

Certainly for any boy, his relationship (or lack thereof) with his father has a profound effect on his development: many of the men herein state not only how they take after their fathers physically, but also in terms of temperament and character. And while not necessarily a how-to guide for Gay men to improve their relationships with their fathers, many of these stories provide common sense advice and examples of how to do so; regardless of the kind of relationship you might have/had with your father, you will no doubt see yourself in these pages.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Postcards from the Canyon – Lisa Gitlin (Bywater Books)

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Back in August of 2010, I reviewed Lisa Gitlin’s debut novel, I Came Out for This?, which I liked a great deal. So, I was at the front of the line when I heard Bywater was about to release her second book, Postcards from the Canyon, and I must say I was not disappointed. Eight years is a long time to wait, but it’s done nothing to dull Gitlin’s talents.

Our protag, Joanna Jacobs, is a writer whose latest novel about 9/11 has been rejected soundly by a number of publishers. As if this wasn’t disappointment enough, she also has to deal with the recent death of her mother. As authors often do, she tries to write through her grief by setting down an account of her childhood in 1960’s Cleveland. Her anxiousness also manifests itself in a threatening call to a conservative Congresswoman on a talk show, causing a visit from the FBI. Not to mention the juvenile delinquents from upstairs who have drilled a hole into her closet and invaded her apartment.

Gitlin’s voice in both the flashback childhood segments as well as the adult present story is every bit as sharp and observant as in her first book. And Joanna is a character with great aplomb. Nothing seems to faze her. Her childhood encounter with a pair of lesbians on her block (The Blobs), her time as a pyromaniac and her resulting stay in a mental institution, her rage-filled father, her brushes with racial prejudice and riots in Hough–all of this is handled with the dispassion and doesn’t-this-happen-to-everyone? attitude I often see in children. Her adult self deals with just as much–career failure, lesbian drama, death, homelessness–but carries over much of that dispassion. That, however, doesn’t mean she can’t be outraged, as when the juvenile delinquents invade her apartment:

Finally, I had the presence of mind to look in the closet and there was a huge hole in the ceiling! Those crazy kids had apparently chainsawed a hole in the floor of the Chinese people’s closet in order to obtain access to my apartment! Jesus Christ, I cannot believe they had the nerve to do this! I just kept standing there like a dope. I heard a guy talking in Chinese through the hole in the closet. I looked over at the boys and saw them all poking on their phones except for the Jewish kid, who was sitting next to the good-looking kid banging his head against the back of the sofa. I realized I had to do something, so I shut the closet door and walked over to the seating area and planted myself in the middle of the rug like an old maid at a beer party. “What are you people doing in here?” I yelled.

But she doesn’t call the cops. She befriends them, looking forward to their daily arrival and becoming somewhat involved in the lives. Like you do with teenagers who invade your living space, right? This does not go unnoticed by her childhood friends, who have remained in touch as they became adults, attempting to steer her on a somewhat more conventional path. It doesn’t work.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the ending feels a bit rushed in comparison to the way she rolls out the rest of the story. Dealing with her mother’s effects and closing up the house is relegated to only one chapter, but all loose ends are tied up with nothing left to question. And that caveat is a minor one you may disagree with.

In short, Gitlin has created a funny, inspiring character who succeeds in spite of herself in a warm, involving book. Postcards from the Canyon is mail you won’t want to miss.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

 

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The Kinda Fella I Am: Stories – Raymond Luczak (Reclamation Press)

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We’ve all seen the Craigslist, Grindr, and Scruff  ‘need-not-apply’ lists — fats, fems, non-whites, etc., but queer disabled men are so invisible they rarely even appear in those litanies. However, Raymond Luczak puts them front and center in this great collection of powerful and empowering stories, The Kinda Fella I Am.

The umbrella opened by the word “disability” is large, so this collection has a lot to deal with and it does so admirably–in less than a hundred and fifty pages. Quads, paras, psoriatics, Deaf men, and men whose disabilities are never revealed all have representation here, and that’s a beautiful thing. You’d expect the stories to be either rageful or “samey” after a while, and although that anger-fueled voice does appear from time to time, these tales are anything but alike.

The title story, first in the collection, tells you right up front what you’re in for:

When I show up at the Eagle, I scare the shit out of strangers. There’s the mud-splattered spokes of my wheels, the beat-up edges of my seat, the crud-smoothed-over bike bar handles behind my shoulders. You could say this older chair’s my Harley-Davidson. I got on my t-shirt and leather vest, and my jeans folded underneath my stumps…But tonight is different. I’ve caught you standing by the wall with your buddies, drinking and talking…You’re in your thirties. Cute smile. Sharp flattop. Nice ass…Oh yeah. I’m gonna snooker you before the night’s over. You just don’t know it yet. 

The bravado of this voice is not a defense, an act, or a persona. The character reveals it as a well-honed honesty pared to a sharp edge by years of disappointment and anger intermingled with flashes of kindness and humanity from others. It is challenging and meant to be so.

Picking favorites here is tough because each of these pieces has something to recommend it. However, some of them have stuck with me in the days that followed after I finished this. “Cartography,” about a man with psoriasis who prowls the bathhouses wearing a t-shirt to hide his lesions, was a hopeful lesson in connection, as was “A Crip Fairy Tale.” I also liked “This” a great deal, an involving story dealing with two Deaf dancers, one of whom always provides money, home, and a safe haven for the other, despite the way his friend takes advantage of him time and time again.

I also liked “September Song,” a very engaging tale about an able guy working at a carnival. This kid is terrified of his homosexuality and afraid to come out until he meets a straight paraplegic he helps onto the ferris wheel he’s tending. After he puts the guy back into his wheelchair, the para outs him:

“You’re a homo…It’s okay if you are. Fellas like you were always nice to me after I got my legs chopped off, so I don’t care if you’re that way. Doesn’t matter none to me…You looked at me. Everybody pretends I’m not there, and if they see me, all they want to do is to thank me for serving in Germany. Or they act like I’m a freak show. Dames think that if you got your legs chopped off, you got your dick chopped off too. Damn, I can’t find me a girl. But you–you’re different. You didn’t get flustered or tell that I can’t go up or it’s unsafe for me to get on the ride. That’s all I want from anyone.”

That lesson in involvement, in engagement, in inclusivity, gives the kid the courage to think about quitting his dead-end carny life and moving to Greenwich Village so he can be truer to himself.

And that, ultimately, seems to be the goal of The Kinda Fella I Am–to provide lessons on how to be true to yourself despite those around you who encourage you to do otherwise. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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