Tag Archives: gay fiction

Scarborough – Catherine Hernandez (Arsenal Pulp Press)

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As we all know, working in the arts pays less than nothing most of the time. Most writers (and editors) have to have supplemental income, and with this aim in mind, I began substitute teaching last year. My school district is huge, encompassing white as well as “urban” neighborhoods, much like the landscape of Catherine Hernandez’s deeply-felt novel, Scarborough. I see the disenfranchised and immigrant children she describes daily. I feed the littler ones breakfast, like Ms Hina does. And I wonder if they can survive what’s been done to the country in which they landed.

Ms Hina is a recent university graduate whose first job is as a facilitator for a literacy program in a Toronto primary school, but any position involving children proves to be far more than its description. Among her charges are Laura, Bing, and Bing’s best friend, Sylvie. Laura has been neglected by her mother and obtained by her father, Cory, who knows even less about raising a child. Bing is a gay Filipino boy living with both parents, but his father is mentally ill. Sylvie is a Native girl whose family is struggling to find a place to live. Ms Hina slowly works past the prejudice of parents, careless bureaucrats, and the diversity of her children to forge a welcoming atmosphere for all.

However, any description of this novel will fall short. Just like the job it tracks, it’s more than the sum of its parts. A skilled writer, Hernandez uses all the emotion at her disposal to create deft, indelible portraits of these children and their parents. Once she has them onstage, she lets them interact with each other and shades those relationships as they develop organically. Nothing about Scarborough feels contrived or manipulative despite its range of emotions, and I never once heard the author instead of the characters.

Although all of Hernandez’s people are real and interesting, Laura’s father and Bing were particularly noteworthy. Cory aches to do right by his little girl and knows how she’s suffered from her mother’s inattention, but he simply doesn’t have the skills. And he’s too afraid to ask, automatically discounting Ms Hina because she wears a hijab. Bing is a fearless little boy who came out at an early age with the full support of his mother and extended family. But even with that love behind him, nothing can compare to the freedom he feels when he takes a Whitney Houston tape to karaoke and makes his statement to the world:

Just as the chorus began again, I jumped to my feet, ripped off my button up shirt and revealed my pink-sequined halter top. Everyone cheered. Under the auditorium lights, I felt the sweat on my arms both cooling and accumulating. Riding the wave of a sustained note, I felt my insides shine like a light beaming from my throat and through every finger. Truth. Truth. It felt like confetti. It felt like running. It felt like screaming. Me. Truth. Truth.

The details of Bing’s story are unimportant. We have all been Bing. We still are, really. It’s the screaming of that truth that’s important, now more than ever.

From Ms Hina’s epistolary battle with her supervisor to the tragedy of an apartment fire, Scarborough is an engrossing read that’s a lot like its cover. Hernandez sets us running down that subway corridor, anxious for what comes around the next corner. Heartbreak, to be sure. But also unexpected joys and big lessons. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Wallaconia – David Pratt (Beautiful Dreamers Press)

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Please look at the cover to the left and note the cedilla, which WordPress cannot accommodate, in the title. The somewhat exotic pronunciation of the pictured Massachusetts salt marsh makes the location sound like an independent and separate country populated by its namesake, one Jim Wallace, the protagonist of David Pratt’s (Bob the Book, Looking After Joey) latest novel.

On the verge of turning eighteen, Jim Wallace is looking forward to losing his virginity to longtime girlfriend Liz, hoping this will somehow “fix” him. Before those repairs can be completed, however, Jim finds himself helping neighbor Pat Baxter out in Baxter’s bookstore. In addition to finding an unexpected friend and ally in out and proud Baxter, Wallace also encounters a fellow student he bullied years ago, who had left the area and returned to visit, helping Pat in the bookstore as well. Jim faces the choice between living his truth or not.

I suppose because of the age of its protagonist, this needs to be labeled and marketed as a “young adult” book. Not, as Jerry Seinfeld points out, that there’s anything wrong with that. The realities of the marketplace are what they are, but I hope that won’t prevent other audiences from picking this up because it has lessons and observations germane to other age groups. A coming out story? Well, that’s part of it–but the book runs deeper than that.

The relationship between Pat and Jim is interesting, even idyllic–an essential component of the imagined country in which Jim lives. Not every gay man finds a mentor so willing or generous with his time and insights. Equally as serendipitous is the outcome of his meeting up with Nate Flederbaum, the boy Jim had previously bullied for being gay. I can’t say more without being a spoiler, but lessons are learned all around and all is forgiven. Even Jim’s parents take the news with little heartbreak. The one exception to this is Jim’s girlfriend, Liz.

Having given her virginity to Jim, she has more than a small stake in their burgeoning relationship. She endures his confession with more restraint than may seem reasonable to some, but she’s clearly devastated. And while they gamely try to remain friends, both know it’s useless. Her reactions are emotional but not as histrionic as I’d imagine. Less than idyllic, maybe, but still an easier row to hoe than not. Which leads me to wonder if this version of Jim’s coming out may be part of Wallaconia itself, an imagined outcome masking a not-so-perfect emergence.

Okay, okay–way meta, right?

I’m reading far too much into it, and I’ve got no time to go back and re-read for something that may or may not be there, but the more I think about the book, I wonder if the cracks between Wallaconia and a harsher reality might not be a bit more apparent the second time around. Something to consider as you read. Because you should read this book. I’ve enjoyed Pratt’s work ever since I came across Bob the Book, and I’ve never been disappointed once in his characters or his well-turned prose. And I wouldn’t put it past him to sneak some sort of meta-metaphor in a “young adult” coming out story.

That’s just the kind of author he is.

JW

© 2017 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Eros and Dust: Stories – Trebor Healey (Lethe Press)

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I picture three Trebor Healeys.

The dense forest hides many more, but three in particular creep out from the between the trees most often: one poetic, one crazed with lust, and one shaggy with heat and dust. A fourth one, regretful and elegiac, can also be relied upon for regular appearances. When all of them work in concert as they did in 2012 for A Horse Named Sorrow or Faun, their combined power is formidable. But the shorter pieces such as those found in his recent Lethe release, Eros and Dust: Stories, reveal the strength of those beasts on a more individual level.

That boy-crazed one may be the most prevalent, reigning supreme in “Los Angeles,” about a Chaturbate addict and a plan gone horribly wrong, the psuedo-pedophiliac “Lolito,” and the definitely pedophiliac “The Pancake Circus.” The latter is particularly disturbing, not for how off-track the narrator’s dick drives him, but for the way his Clown Daddy normalizes an abhorrent act. The metaphor is strong any time but becomes nearly prescient when seen in light of the current political situation.

Actually, this musk pervades all Healey’s stories as flawed characters use faulty reasoning to make bad choices. We’ve all been there, right? One of the differences between Healey’s longer fiction and his short stories is that very often the protagonists of the latter don’t get a chance at the redemption the heroes of his novels do–an odd omission due to the Catholicism exuded by these tales. It’s not that redemption isn’t possible (and I’m thinking for the narrators of “Los Angeles” and “Lolito” in particular); it’s just not presented as an option.

The horny Healey is usually flanked by the shaggy one, the hot grit he exudes providing a dusty, transient backdrop that serves the author well. Whether the setting is parched Los Angeles, the Oaxacan desert, or a PV resort, the Santa Ana winds blow hot on the heels of his characters. Going to the heat, getting out of the heat, dealing with the heat–all motivations that make these characters as restless as their lust.

The poetic one pokes his delicate nose in all stories as well, but makes memorable appearances in the character sketch “El Santo” and the transient restlessness of “Pilgrim Soul,” but again, this one’s influence is everywhere–especially on the too-short “Puppets”:

I started seeing his puppets all over the place…he made puppets who took pills and were cathetered; he made demon and angel puppets; puppets of crack whores and drag queens, muscle boys and campesinos; puppets in gabardine suits and puppets in silk kimonos. He made puppets of political personalities–Jesse Helms, Reagan and Bush, the Pope–and he made monstrous puppets named HIV and PCP, KS and CMV–big ogreish things with arms to their ankles and enormous malformed dicks. With big sad eyes. They looked back at me hungrily out of lit-up windows in darkened, empty shops on Guerrero or Valencia Street long after midnight, the fog sifting down, enveloping everything–all the streetlights like dandelion seeds.

And there’s that pesky, elegiac Healey, bringing forth his solemn reflections in the middle of the bawdiest episode to remind you that life reveals its most serious sides in quirky ways. Thus, the aforementioned “The Pancake Circus” becomes more an elegy to lost innocence than what its surface indicates. That’s the way the fourth dude works. Sometimes you don’t notice his effects until a couple of stories pass or until the whole thing plays out (“Imp”) and then his part in the liturgy becomes apparent.

Each voice is as distinctive in solo as it is an essential component of the blend. Truly a marvelous trick to pull off, and Trebor Healey does so. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2017 Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Quiet Death – Cari Hunter (Bold Strokes Books)

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You may well ask what I’ve been reading since the blog’s been on hiatus, and I can tell you it’s been mostly non-fiction. I have read little LGBT fiction other than what I’ve edited. Thus, I’ve fallen behind on some of my favorite authors–including Cari Hunter, whose Desolation Point and Tumbledown I thoroughly enjoyed. So, when I saw her latest release, A Quiet Death, coincided with the reopening of the blog, I was (as they say) “chuffed” and immediately put it on my TBR pile. And it should be on yours as well.

Lifelong pals Detective Sanne Jensen and Dr. Meg Fielding, are now officially dating, but that’s the least of their worries. Meg is mystified by what appears to be a case of domestic abuse while Sanne is investigating the death of a Pakistani girl on the moors. As the two mysteries move inexorably toward each other, Sanne also deals with the hospitalization of her father and uncovers a slave trade ring in the Pakistani community.

Post-CSI and its various anacronym-ridden spinoffs, police procedurals can  be a bit of a slog–almost as routine as their real-life counterparts–but Hunter is savvy enough to use that as a springboard on which she can launch some wonderful characters. Sanne is spunky but vulnerable, and Meg is professional yet not. Together, their banter is witty and believable. Sanne’s relationship with her work partner, Nelson, is also interesting to watch play out.

But all this is beside the point. Hunter moves these people through the plot with a confident joy that really comes through on the page. She revels in the details, works in the peaks and valleys, and maintains the balance between explanation and action like a true pro. And those action scenes are incomparable. They move so well, so effortlessly that it’s past your bedtime before you know it, and you’ll still want another chapter. She also has a way with a twist, keeping you off balance until she reveals the true connection between Sanne and the case at hand.

But this cracking good mystery also has a thorough respect for the various ethnic subcultures it explores. I learned things, which is never bad for a reader. Moreover, it has a distinctly British flavour, not pandering to American tastes. Personally, I love British slang, and the more the better for me. Of course, I watch Scottish dramas without the subtitle function. Still, any reader worth his salt can comprehend the context clues.

Of the three of Hunter’s books I’ve read and reviewed for this blog, this has got to be my favorite. Interesting plot, great characters, muscular prose–I’m more than chuffed. I’m potty about it.

And that’s no bollocks.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Country – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press)

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Country music isn’t a place I ever expected myself to venture as a fiction reader. Music in general isn’t something I find easily translated to text, and yet two recent books I’ve read have had music intrinsic to their core narratives, and have done so deftly.

But country music? I can’t imagine a genre of popular music less open to a gay experience than country music. Don’t get me wrong, some of the country music stars themselves are definitely fetching (their names I sometimes vaguely know thanks to magazine covers from my bookstore days), but the industry itself—and the fan base—have never struck me as remotely friendly.

Obviously, I know that’s a sweeping generalization, and even this Canuck has heard of Steve Grand, but beyond a few recent blips, my experiences in the rural Canada of my youth has left me with a less than welcoming sense of the country music community, even up here.

All that to say when I was handed Country, Jeff Mann’s novel, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.  From the blurb alone, I knew Country featured a bunch of things I didn’t necessarily connect with: country music, rural culture, and living a closeted life.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Mann brings us Brice Brown, a big name Country star, and introduces us to him at his peak, moments before the tipping point that sets the novel in motion. Brice is overdue for a new record, deeply closeted, and finding company to rent online, and about to be outed by a former lover.

It is that last that sends Brown crashing down from the top, of course, and it’s important to note that the novel is set in the late 90’s. Though in today’s world it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine as hard a fall as Brice Brown takes, setting the novel in the recent past served a double purpose to me: the exploration of the homophobia in play was bang-on perfect, and the impotent rage Brown often feels is mirrored in the reader’s experience. So recent as a few decades ago, it would be unheard of for a public “Good old boy” to be outed. Today might hold a different story—might—but in placing the narrative firmly in a time and place where support would be small and unheard, Mann gives us a reminder of both progress and of the hateful frustrations.

I often speak of how queerfolk have to struggle to pass their narratives onward, as we don’t inherit them like other cultures. Fiction can often pass these narratives on just as well, and there’s no doubt that the fictional Southern and country culture at play in Country is a narrative Mann is passing on. The viciousness of the assault on Brice Brown’s name, music, image, and career is borderline relentless, and as the man watches all things crumble, the pain is present—and realistic—to behold.

That Brice Brown himself is by no means a perfect man—he’s as much a product of his culture as those who throw hate at him from within it— works well to ground the story further into that reality. Brice is just as likely to prejudge others as he himself is judged, and watching his journey unfold was a satisfyingly refreshing take for this kind of story. More, Brice’s struggles with depression and his often self-destructive and self-loathing attempts to tame his “black moods” garner empathy without pity, a balance I’ve rarely found achieved so well.

Lest you think the whole novel is a dark and dismal ride, let me be clear: it is not. As much as Brice’s decent is powerfully written, so is the path forward. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Jeff Mann novel if there weren’t rough-and-tumble country man around to capture Brice Brown’s heart, in this case in the form of a delectable delinquent, Lucas. Fans of Mann are no doubt aware already of his adept erotic prose, and they will not be let down.

As the story moves from the macro “fall of the Country Music Star” and into the micro of a smaller cast of characters who gather around Brown when he finds a place to go into retreat, it’s these characters that bring forth the queer “chosen family” value to the story, and where the healing—not just Brice’s healing—comes into play. There are laugh-out-loud moments in Country born of these characters, which include a gay rural retreat owner who is so much larger than life (and yet so like so many people I’ve met), and a gun-toting lipstick lesbian who delivers some of my favorite lines of the whole book. And for fans of Mann’s other works (especially Cub), there are a few moments included for the reader that are richly rewarding. These light moments don’t steal from the realism, either, but add to it: there’s a kind of “laughter in the face of the bad” tone that pops up throughout Country, and it is a sense I can certainly understand and empathize with. At some point, I think most queer people have faced those moments.

Beat us down? When we get back up, our laughter will be all the louder for our survival.

With “survival” being the often raw and minimal goal from the moment Country begins, the reader is left with no sense that “happily ever after with rainbows” is on the menu, which raises the tension of the book all the higher. In turn, I was angry, frustrated, empathetic, or sad—often aimed at Brice himself—but at no point was I anything less than invested in seeing where Brice’s journey would end.

In fact, like so much of Mann’s work, the strength is in how incredibly evocative it is: it’s lyrical, erotic of course, and full to the brim with the sights, smells, and sheer weight of the country setting.

Oh, and of course: the food. Some day I will learn not to read a Jeff Mann book while remotely hungry, as the food alone is described so enticingly I find my mouth watering and wishing I had the slightest idea how one made “scrapple.”

Country is a love letter to a lover who refused to return the affection, sent by someone who is learning to find something else—or someone else—as worthy of the love.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

 

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The Geography of Pluto – Christopher DiRaddo (Cormorant Books)

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Those Canadians. It must be something in the water–or possibly in their government-funded arts programs–but four of my very favorite gay authors (Peter Dube, ‘Nathan Burgoine, Shawn Syms, and Christopher DiRaddo) are residents of that country. Burgoine’s Light was a keenly done superhero love story as sharp as it was sharp-witted, Dube (author of the prose poem collection Conjure) and Syms have new collections either out or just released (and will be featured here soon), and DiRaddo’s first novel, The Geography of Pluto, has also found its way into my hands. And it’s a pleasure to report his debut ranks right up there with the best work of his aforementioned countrymen.

Montreal high school geography teacher Will Ambrose can’t seem to get beyond his breakup with his ex-boyfriend Max. Despite the best efforts of his best friend Angie, he dwells far too much on the past even though the present requires his attention. After one battle with cancer, his mother finds herself dealing with another round of the disease with only Will to help her through. But Will’s preoccupation with getting Max back threatens both their holds on stability.

Make no mistake, this is not a novel with intricate plot twists and turns. It is character driven, but that doesn’t mean it’s directionless. Will has a purpose in mind, even if it’s just getting himself through the day or–even worse–the night. We’ve all been there. He’s mystified by Max’s departure. When Will calls Max out of desperation, we are as astounded as Will when Max agrees to see him. Even more astounding is that they attempt a reconciliation, but we know it won’t work. So does Will. But Will’s biggest fear, the one he never states but pervades the book, is that he will end up like his mother–alone, dependent solely on work to structure his life, and facing cancer. The parallels between mother and son are too ably portrayed to miss, but the biggest is that they are both unable to move past their lost loves (Will’s father died when he was quite young). It’s no coincidence his second try with Max happens once his mother’s been diagnosed. They are both afflicted, paralyzed by their visions of what their lives should be, yet unable to make those visions reality. They both come to learn, however, that permanence is a myth and that life is only a series of temporary realities.

The Geography of Pluto is masterfully told, full of heart and heartbreak. DiRaddo’s gift for dialogue is only matched by the clarity and directness of his prose. He also has a finely detailed sense of place and time, but he never lets either of those overwhelm the characters. The setting emerges as naturally as a sunrise. His language and insights are also wonderfully honed, and I can’t think of any better example than the pull-quote from the back cover of the book:

Over the last three months I had been troubled by another imprint that lingered on my walls and furniture. Although he had never lived here, Max’s indelible presence could still be felt in the apartment, his scent burnt into the wood like waves upon waves of incense. It spooked me, sometimes, being alone in this space. It reminded me too much of who I used to be, who I was when we were together. Sometimes it felt as if I were the thing that didn’t belong in the room. This was someone else’s house, a happier person who was long disappeared, and I was living in his place as a squatter.

Di Raddo’s first novel is a terrific debut that will have you mulling over the characters long after you’ve finished. They resonate that strongly. Highly recommended.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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With: New Gay Fiction – Jameson Currier, ed. (Chelsea Station Editions)

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With: New Gay Fiction, edited by Jameson Currier and published by Chelsea Station Editions is a pleasure not to be missed.

As the foreword states, “These stories portray relationships with men: gay men with our friends, lovers, partners, husbands, dates, tricks, boyfriends, hustlers, idols, teachers, mentors, fathers, brothers, family, teams, co-workers, relatives and strangers.”

This is an anthology of sixteen beautifully written short stories from authors with diverse and compelling voices, voices you likely already know and respect. More than that, With is the relatively rare anthology that is emotionally and intellectually more than the sum of its parts. Each story shines a unique light on relationships with humor, depression, grief, adoration, kindness, pride and fear.

How can kindness from an idolized swimming teacher change a boy’s life forever? Why would a man grieving the loss of his partner steal an infant from a shopping mall at Christmas time? How can friendship be witness to rudderless self-indulgence? These and other story questions help make up the rich weave of the anthology, different ways of being with.

From the first story, of a grad student and a hustler who doesn’t know how to make his life better to the last, a triumphant ramble delivered in Jack Fritscher’s signature beat-poet cadences and strewn with period song titles which sort of relate but sound so cool when the line is read aloud, a story of two men proudly together almost fifty years — this collection’s skilled authors bring to focus some quality or insight about relationship that is worth thinking about longer than it takes to read the story. Especially impactful for me was the life-in-reverse-motion of David Pratt’s “What is Real,” a stunning way to experience the grief of a man lost without his dead partner.

Kudos to Jameson Currier for arriving at such an intellectually and emotionally flexible, powerful theme, and kudos to each author for adding his unique and polished facet to the exploration. After finishing With, I found myself in that reflective, inspired, satisfied space that is a gift of every good book. I think you’ll have the same experience.

Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker

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