Tag Archives: gay literature

The Dahlia Field – Henry Alley (Chelsea Station Editions)

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As any regular reader of this blog knows, I’m a huge fan of short fiction and will always dive headfirst into an anthology or a single author collection. I won’t like everything in a volume, but if the author/s and I connect ten times out of twelve or thirteen, that’s pretty successful. I know relationships based on more tenuous bonds. But what happens when the connection rate is less than optimal? Is it a bad book? Bad author? Bad reader? Those are a few of the questions I ask myself as I write this and stare at the cover of Henry Alley’s collection, The Dahlia Field.

I’d started this eagerly, having read the blurb and peeked at the titles in the Table of Contents. The author and I have some commonalities. We’re about the same age and, thus, have had a lot of shared experiences.  Logically, we should have connected more often than the few stories that worked for me, but art is hardly logical, is it?

It’s not like we didn’t understand each other, either. It’s hard to miss the disconnection and longing inherent in “Ashland,” for example, which sees a man named Earl attending the performance of a play parodying King Lear, written by his gay son. It isn’t until he attends the AIDS fundraiser afterward that he learns his son is positive, a fact he confirms by telephone the next morning. Similarly, “To Come Home To” looks at boredom and new beginnings as house painter Garrett leaves his previously depressed fledgling stage star boyfriend Ethan. Both these should have struck sparks, but neither was particularly engaging to me. Unfortunately, that was true for most of the other stories here.

That said, Alley and I did connect on the last two stories: “My March on Washington,” a wonderfully bittersweet romance that takes place during the 1963 civil rights march, and “Would You Mind Holding Down My Body?,” a well-observed story of how a straight/gay friendship does or doesn’t weather one of the two guys coming out. The latter story has two of the most interesting and complex characters in the book and seemed to have a different set of nuances and a completeness the others lacked to some degree or other.

Aha, I thought. We just needed some time to connect. So, I re-read the first story, “Border Guards,” in hopes of being able kindle some interest, but a glass wall seemed to go up once again. Nevertheless, if you’re a lover of short fiction, this might just be your cuppa as Alley is a writer worth reading. We may not have hit it out of the park, but that doesn’t mean you won’t discover a new voice or find something here I couldn’t. And, as I said, the last two stories really were marvelous.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Wilde Stories 2016: The Year’s Best Speculative Fiction – Steve Berman, ed. (Lethe Press)

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This annual collection of fantasy and sci-fi stories that probe the otherworldly implications of gay-male life was launched in 2008. Steve Berman, series editor and publisher, knows this territory well. For Berman, adolescence is a magical place where anything can happen. While writers of sexually explicit fiction must beware of describing “underage” sex, the writers gathered in this anthology describe the development of erotic feelings in teenagers in ways both daring and emotionally true. Several of these boys find boyfriends and counterparts who come from another place or era. In some stories, the protagonist finds or creates a doppelganger who may or may not be visible to anyone else.

In “Imaginary Boys” by Paul Magrs, David is followed by his “Novelizor,” an earnest classmate from a planet “about 300 light years from here,” whose purpose is to make sense of David’s life by narrating it. Lawrence, the alien disguised as a handsome earthling, is David’s first boyfriend, and the Boswell to his Johnson as well as the embodiment of his developing adult consciousness.

The intervention of an alien love-interest is repeated in “He Came From a Place of Openness and Truth” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, in which the alien has the familiar task of repopulating his own planet. Needless to say, the alien’s mission must be kept secret on this earth, and the young narrator willingly co-operates. The story title is ironic, of course, and the story explores the various kinds of secrecy that seem necessary to most teenagers who live with their parents. Having a same-sex lover from a different culture adds another wrinkle to the complicated business of growing up.

In “Envious Moons” by Richard Scott Larson, an only son watches from his bedroom window as Callie, a popular girl who played Juliet in a school play, is courted by a swarm of boys. In an apparently unrelated development, a mysterious male stranger appears one night in the narrator’s yard: “that was when I first saw your white chest, your body alight in an almost lunar glow . . . and I saw your face staring up at me. It was like I was seeing my own reflection upon the surface of the lake in front of the house.” The narrator rescues this visitor from the cold, and tells him about “the curves of her [Callie], the way she held womanhood up like a gown, something expensive in a store I wasn’t allowed to enter.” The visitor says: “I know what you want. I know what I can do for you.” When the stranger appears in Callie’s bedroom in her place, the narrator stares until the light goes out, and then, “I saw only my reflection staring back at me across the yard.” By means of the visitor’s intervention, the narrator becomes luminous, a center of attraction in his own right.

Several of these stories deal with the alternative culture created by a small group of outsiders in high school. In “Wallflowers” by Jonathan Harper, a group of bored outsiders in a small town discover a version of the haunted house on the edge of town, but this one is new and never occupied before. The “wallflowers” create their own secret by inventing an imaginary boy who acquires legendary status – and an apparent body. An awakening group consciousness seems to have the power to create something tangible.

Teenagers at the mercy of their parents and other authority figures have reason to fear being pressured to change into more socially acceptable versions of themselves, and drastic makeovers—consensual or not—are a science-fiction trope. In “Edited” by Rich Larson, a privileged young man named Wyatt is given a physical and psychological transformation by his parents as a birthday gift. As Wyatt explains to the narrator, his “bru” from a lower-income neighborhood, the erasure of Wyatt’s feelings for him makes Wyatt’s life “simpler.” In the last scene, the disillusioned narrator watches “the clouds eat the moon, Edit it right out the sky like it was never there, not really.” In this story, as in “Envious Moons,” moonlight is a hypnotic alternative to the sunlight of adult social reality.

In contrast to social conformity through technological intervention, “What Lasts” by Jared W. Cooper is an instruction manual for constructing a mechanical lover from discarded parts in a junkyard which is guarded by a kind of evil witch. The lonely young men in this anthology who need to find companions would surely be tempted to create them, despite the risks.

The need for survival in a hostile environment, and the heroic lengths to which some social outcasts will go to save their fellows, give momentum to a dystopian tale, “To the Knife Cold Stars” by A. Merc Rustad. In this story, the “cityheart” is a massive engine with its own will that feeds on the energy of young strays.

In “Lockbox” by E. Catherine Tobler, the young male narrator is lured by his boyfriend to explore Exham Priory, a sunken structure that “had housed the worst of the worst,” including a legendary murderess. It seems as if the bond between the two young men protects them from harm. The narrator, a university student, writes his story as a class assignment, bristling with footnotes.

“Utrechtenaar” by Paul Evanby is set in 1729 in Utrecht, a righteously Protestant city in the Netherlands, where the Night Watch patrols the local cruising spot, and God help any young man caught out after dark. The narrator is a terrified university student who learns that the city is haunted by a sentry from centuries before who seems to be caught in a time warp. As alien as the Latin-speaking sentry is, he seems determined to protect the young man from the forces of repression.

A surprisingly small number of these stories deal with traditional relationships between young male ingénues and their older mentors. In “The Duchess and the Ghost” by Richard Bowes, an eighteen-year-old flees to New York City in 1961 because he knows he is “different,” and hopes to find his tribe. His mentor is a magnificent, fading queen who introduces the young man to the “Doorman,” a supernatural being who literally provides him with a new identity and who determines the length of his life. Although AIDS is unheard-of so far, no gay man of the time can assume he will survive long or well.

“To Die Dancing” by Sam J. Miller is also set in New York, but in a dystopian future, in which all “decadence” has been “cleaned up” by the governing Christian Right. A generation of young, queer New Yorkers who have never known freedom have one night in which to experience joy, inspired by legendary rebels.

In the majority of these stories, however, the young protagonists learn that older men (especially those with political or supernatural power) are not to be trusted, and the best allies are close to one’s own age. In two stories, ancient gods from specific other cultures claim human sacrifices, although homophobia does not seem to be a motive. In “The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zaci” by Benjamin Parzybok, a young Mexican man is a gatekeeper for a tourist attraction which was important to the ancient Mayans, who would surely disapprove of the commercialization of their sacred sites. It seems that they take revenge.

In “The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov, a man is officially designated as the one who must prepare his husband’s body for the gods who are meant to consume it, and the man’s apprentice is the couple’s “daughter,” who may or may not inherit her father’s role in due course. The grisly operation is described, step by step, as a last expression of love.

In “Camp” by David Nickle, a pair of upper-middle-class male newlyweds plan to spend their honeymoon in the scenic Canadian wilderness. They seem as innocent as a young heterosexual couple in a more traditional story; they don’t expect to encounter any discrimination on the road, and they explain themselves to everyone they meet. The older husband and wife who invite the newlyweds to an isolated camp seem overly friendly, but the young men see no reason to refuse the invitation, and they ignore the warning signs that something is amiss. The climax suggests a mythical transformation, but the role of the strange couple (deities in disguise?) and the power of the natural world are unclear.

The book concludes with “The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red, Red Coals,” written by Chaz Brenchley. This witty story is about Oscar Wilde, using his actual assumed name (“Mr. Holland”) while in exile on Mars, which itself is a popular destination for space-travelers in nineteenth-century science fiction. True to the gay culture of their era, a group of middle-aged fellow-exiles gather on the colonized planet to share sexual access to a young man who works in a shabbily-genteel hotel. This carnal sharing enables them to communicate at an extrasensory level with each other and with non-human, shapeshifting beings. The men’s attempt to form a collective consciousness through sex resembles the tribal bonding of teenagers in other stories in this collection. In this case, however, the young man is a pawn or a toy for his elders.

Although today’s queer young adults come out into a more accepting society than that of the past, these stories show that youth is still a life-phase full of danger as well as transformation. Parents and teachers still discourage same-gender closeness, and the religious and political repression of the past could always return.  Just as the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Ugly Duckling” speaks to most young readers who feel as if they were raised in the wrong family or species and want to find their soul-mates, the stories in this anthology remind adult readers of how that felt.

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

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Salvation – Jeff Mann (Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press)

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Any regular reader of this blog knows I’m a big fan of Jeff Mann, whose work never fails to inspire me with its depth and profundity. I was mightily disappointed when I did not get a chance to review his previous Civil War novel Purgatory. Another reviewer fell in love with the book and asked if he could take on the task. As I rarely get a chance to read anything that I can’t also feature on the blog (so many books, so little time…you know how it goes), I couldn’t get back to it. When I heard the sequel was being released, I grabbed the chance to read it. And my patience was well-rewarded.

In Purgatory, Yankee soldier Drew Conrad is captured and tortured by the Rebel soldiers, but war makes for strange bedfellows, and he falls in love with Rebel Ian Campbell, with whom he escapes. As Salvation begins, they are on the run in Rebel territory, trying to find a safe place to wait out the war so they can begin their lives together. They encounter a variety of Southerners in their travels–men, women, opportunists, sadists, and just plain folks–having to keep their love secret with all but one. Can they survive until war’s end and make new lives for themselves in the post-war South?

Perhaps Mann’s largest gift is his ability to take the political and social implications of the war and humanize them to such a degree that all that remains is the human face of conflict. And there are human faces aplenty, here. Not surprisingly, most of them belong to strong, nurturing women. That does not mean, however, that danger is far removed. Pursued by a band of Rebels who have splintered from their respective units and have banded together in a loose conglomeration of death and destruction, Drew and Ian are hardly safe. When their paths do cross, the carnage is as bloody as Mann can make it. But again, politics (other than the broadest kind) are secondary to human retribution.

Along the way, Mann makes the obligatory stops for his recurring peccadilloes of bondage and food. Both are explored in detail. I’ve said it before, but I’ll reiterate here that Jeff Mann is the only author I’ve ever read who can make bondage and sweat-soaked gags sound intriguing and erotic to me. It’s nothing I’d ever indulge in anywhere except the printed page, but…lordy, it makes me want to fan mahsaylf. But his descriptions of Southern cooking are even better–biscuits, gravy, ham, chicken and dumplings, beef stew, sweet potato pudding, creasy greens, barbecue, slaw, custard pie…well, the list goes on. One of the blurbs for this book should read, “A pound on every page.” Clearly, Mann relishes (I couldn’t resist typing that) writing about both bondage and food with equal gusto.

But as interesting and as well-written as those particular quirks are, Mann shines most brightly when creating characters. Drew and Ian spring ready-made from the last book, deepening and strengthening their relationship, so Mann must start from scratch with such wonderful minor characters as Irene Stephens, one of their female saviors. Christian but not puritanical, she’s tired of being bled dry of supplies by the local reverend, so she extracts a terrific retribution  on him and his church. But even she’s small potatoes (oh, dammit–more food) next to the former slave, Tessa, who shelters and feeds them. But the color of her skin is not all that separates her from the others in this book. She’s also a lesbian with a gal masquerading as a soldier in the Confederate ranks. That alone would make her special, but Mann endows her with an insatiable curiosity about the ways of “mens like you.” This character is a total delight that you’ll be thinking about long after her time on the page is finished.

Salvation, then, is an incredible read that teaches about the Civil War as well as it entertains. Full of richly nuanced people and heart-stopping situations of desperation and pursuit, it’s a worthy successor to Purgatory. And I can only hope for a third book that explores how Reconstructionism treats Drew and Ian. Highly, 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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Fire Year – Jason K. Friedman (Sarabande Books)

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A sexually insecure teen drifting through his failing bar mitzvah party. A good ol’ boy who needs to make sure he’s not gay. A financially squeezed cantor who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. A young museum worker who thinks he’s spied something no one else ever has in the work of an obscure Renaissance painter. In Fire Year, his debut short story collection, Jason K. Friedman skillfully explicates the secrets, lies and unresolved shame in each of his characters’ histories. In service of their desires, the characters are determined to keep their secrets and make their lies work (or simply not matter), but they all pass a point of no return. They are forced to do things they might have thought they wouldn’t or see things they did not want to see. But they can’t stop the machinery or keep the knowledge from coming. Fate haunts Friedman’s characters as surely as it haunts the shtetl of the title story, whose periodic fires the inhabitants try to parse, predict and prevent through ritual and superstition. In the modern world we call this “magical thinking.” It blinds Friedman’s characters and so precedes their fall.

I have not found Fire Year to be on the radar of many gay authors or reviewers. In spite of the presence of male homosexuality in nearly every story, Friedman’s greater theme is those who are dislocated, squeezed to the margins, struggling to survive, pushed toward desperate measures. Gay people happen to fit this description. Jews and Jewish culture fit it superbly well. Friedman links the two oppressed groups in a quick moment in “The Golem,” in which Blaustein, a dealer in used auto parts, calls his assistant, Artie, a “fageleh.” It is not seem meant to address Artie’s actual sexuality. Blaustein instead seems to speak of Artie’s all-encompassing, intractable traits: bad luck, social awkwardness, isolation, and, yes, a kind of defeated sexlessness that must unnerve and repel the cunning, determined Blaustein. The story’s ending implies that Artie may have his triumph, but it may be a triumph in defeat. Even if you aren’t trammeled by shame, lies and desire, you never best the Blausteins of this world, just as the fires don’t stop (though the hapless hero of that story, too young to be sexually active but a bit of a fageleh in the Blaustein sense, reaches a private state of resolution), just as a young art history major will not best his oppressive curator boss, no matter the boss’s ridiculousness.

I loved “The Golem” and was on the edge of my seat for the art museum story, “There’s Hope for Us All,” but I find I have less to say about my three stories favorite stories from Fire Year: “Blue,” “All the World’s A Field,” and “The Cantor’s Miracles.” In these three, Friedman hits on something ineffable. One has no wish to take these stories apart to see what makes them work. One almost can’t. They are superbly detailed yet mysterious pieces of experience that fit the patterns and themes I have identified, but that pass through us, resisting too close an analytic look.

Like the fires of the title story, Friedman’s best stories surprise and haunt us with truths that are frightening and intractable but hard to name. Like the villagers trying to understand those fires, we try to understand the heat generated when characters’ egos press relentlessly against their sins, ignorance and limitations. But we don’t wish to stop the spark the author strikes nor the flickering mystery that springs to life. On the contrary, we welcome it. And we welcome the debut of a wonderful new writer – gay and Jewish, yes, but most of all human.

Reviewed by David Pratt

 

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Looking After Joey – David Pratt (Lethe Press)

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I love to laugh. I think laughing is pretty much the best way we learn – especially when we laugh at ourselves. So when I had the chance to pick up Looking After Joey, the latest from David Pratt, I didn’t hesitate.

If you’ve never read Pratt before, then I should mention  I’ve learned to expect a genuinely enjoyable sense of revelation in his work.  Bob the Book was such a unique and witty ride and the moments of laugh-out-loud were balanced with surprising instances of introspection. My Movie – his collection of short fiction – had such range and breadth of tone that I parceled them out to myself like a Forrest Gump chocolate box, knowing that I’d enjoy whichever flavor I ended up getting.

All that to say I walked into Looking After Joey pretty aware there was going to be more to the experience than the fun synopsis suggested, and Joey delivered.

The greater narrative might seem a little out-there: this is, in a way, a kind of reverse-Pleasantville except the characters are traveling to and from gay porn rather than a 1950’s feel-good family drama. That conceit is played to full humorous effect. Calvin, Pratt’s protagonist, has socially retreated from even attempting to find a love life after his most recent split, and counts the minutes to when he can enjoy some solo satisfaction while watching his beloved porn movies. It’s Calvin who first stumbles into the porn world and finds himself adrift in this fantasy,  which amuses right off the bat.

In the porn world, it’s never night. The pool always needs cleaning, the pizza is always being delivered, and no one has anything other than a hundred dollar bill, which – of course – the delivery boy can’t break and could they come up with some other kind of barter? Even better, Calvin realizes at a glance that his real-world physique has gotten an upgrade, and he can enjoy every position and play out every scene he’s ever watched to satisfaction…

Except, of course, that every man he meets has a girlfriend who’s “away for the weekend” and certainly there’s no cuddling going to happen afterwards. In fact, it’s hard to even get a moment to nap, what with it never being night and every single person wanting to have sex the moment they meet Calvin. The reality of just how awkward porn dialog is – especially, y’know, during – is both funny and painful, and Calvin’s escape from the porn world leaves him all the more confused about life and what he wants.

Then Joey pops out after him. Joey, Calvin’s favorite porn star. Joey, who has only the porn world as his knowledge base. Joey, who is completely and utterly unequipped to deal with the reality of, well… reality. To Calvin’s best friend Peachy, however, Joey is a perfect convenience – they can use Joey as a kind of revenge-by-proxy, bringing the flawless young man to one of the biggest gay social parties coming up. Joey will steal all the attention, and finally allow Peachy and Calvin to feel vindicated in their hatred of some of the major players in the gay social scene who’ve done them wrong.

It’s here that Pratt’s novel really begins to shine and takes the reader in a direction they might not expect. Joey is a perfect foil for Calvin and Peachy, and he turns what could almost have devolved into a straightforward comedic revenge tale into something much better. Calvin’s hopes for partnering off with Joey and having his fantasy relationship come to life are quickly complicated by Joey’s inability to understand he’s even gay (after all, he has a girlfriend but she’s away for the weekend) and his sudden and complete faith in Jesus (a local priest tells Joey that Jesus would forgive him of anything, which is just what Joey thinks he needs to get back to his ‘real’ world). Joey has never seen a world with sickness, or aging, or average length penises. The culture shock through Joey’s commentary is hysterical, as are the actions of Calvin and Peachy as they desperately try to turn Joey into a mainstream gay socialite capable of turning heads and delivering their revenge.

The humor isn’t lost throughout the book, but gradually, the tone does shift. I found myself smiling and nodding at the dawning realizations of Calvin (and to a lesser degree, Peachy) as they start to clue in that what they think they want isn’t necessarily what they should want – and potentially, they don’t want it at all. Joey’s evolution, as well, never loses its charm even as you see his innocence tested time and time again by the stark realities of a world where perfect looking guys just don’t have the freedom to stop and have sex with other perfect looking guys every twenty minutes or so.

As more and more of Pratt’s gay socialites are brought into the tale (most of which are fun almost-spoofs of one extreme of gay culture or another), the plans to get Joey invited to the big party become more and more tangled. Favors are traded, new alliances are made and broken, and the boys start to realize that a serial kidnapper might be more important than making sure Joey knows the difference between Sondheim and Stravinsky, though only just. What if it takes connecting a self-involved jackass to a publisher so he can publish the worst autobiographical-fantasy revisionist history of his youth (as an erotic venture, of course)?  Peachy and Calvin take it in stride. These things happen.

Ultimately, it’s these conniving strands that start to form the real joy of Looking After Joey – Calvin grows as much as Joey, and while nothing turns out the way Calvin (or the reader) would expect, there’s a heartwarming touch to this funny book that left me smiling as I turned the final pages. No one is as simple as they seem – even the one-dimensional porn stars who have no idea how to interact with the real world. Calvin begins as a man desperate for even a shallow connection – a place it’s not hard for anyone to imagine being – and Peachy comes across as superficial and jaded; both men are in new places by the end of the tale. You can – and should – read Looking After Joey with the expectation of laughing throughout, but there’s more to it than that. Though characters are madcap in their execution, the social commentary is razor sharp. And though every stumble on the way to the big party (and the big reveal) grows more over-the-top than the last, the ultimate destination is surprisingly moving, and worth a few unexpected sniffles.

Looking After Joey is a book I’m happy to recommend.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

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Silencing Orpheus – J. Warren (Rebel Satori Press)

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Although J. Warren’s Silencing Orpheus makes thematic and literary references to Classical literature, such as naming a chapter “Dawn’s Rose-colored Fingers,” this story is about as far away as you can get from the time when the sound-bite “rosy-fingered dawn” was used to fill out a line of dactylic hexameter, when heroic men of battle spoke to each other with wingéd words. There’s nothing of Gluck’s “che farò senza Eurydice?” or the following “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” in this book, either.

This is a sequel to Stealing Ganymede, which leads me to wonder whether Silencing Orpheus is actually a stand-alone work. I suspect it’s a more meaningful read when coupled with the first volume.

As it stands, this is the story of Orpheus as doomed immortal marooned among the living—angry, paralyzed, haunted, isolated—refusing the comforts of music as well as the company of women. It’s a fascinating premise but for this reviewer, unsatisfying in its execution.

Told in first person present tense, the story is immediate, hard and lonely. The writing is focused and lean, which supports the characterization of the protagonist in his emotional straightjacket. Nothing moves easily, nothing is given away, emotion creates risks he can’t afford, kindness leads to obligation that might tie him down. He has room in his heart only for his own torment. Sometimes his fingers ache so intensely to make music that he has to cut himself to keep saying no to his urge. It’s powerful stuff.

Silencing Orpheus doesn’t show enough character development of the protagonist to be a conventional novel. In fact, the spine of this story is its relentlessly unchanging portrait of a rigid character trapped in a barren existence, someone who has given up everything except drifting and staying ahead of his doom, until he doesn’t.

The Eumenides (Erinyes)—the Furies of Classical mythology—pursue him. According to the author’s premise, Orpheus has violated the natural order of things and has thus earned their vengeance. The Eumenides sprang from drops of Uranus’ blood when he was castrated and killed by his son Kronos. In addition to punishing certain other crimes, their main duty was to punish those who had spilled the blood of their own kin.

So the engine that drives this story forward is that the furies pursue Orpheus. Why? Because he has slept with young men. This constitutes his violation of the natural order of things. I’m not sure the author intended the story to make this moral condemnation of homosexuality, but the logical implication is inescapable.

If sleeping with young men had been cause for vengeance from the Furies in mythic times, a lot more men would have died a gruesome death at their hands. However, to my knowledge there is not one instance of it in the entire body of Classical myth.

This story is compelling, a fiercely atmospheric, brooding piece of fiction with all the unhappiness of a dystopian graphic novel. It relies on its interesting use of mythology, some of it disturbingly unconventional. For those who don’t mind that re-interpretation and enjoy anti-heroes, Silencing Orpheus offers a gloomy but stimulating read.

Reviewed by  Lloyd Meeker

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A Conversation with Shannon Yarbrough

IMG_20130719_075701 Author, blogger, and amateur gardener extraordinaire Shannon Yarbrough has written about OCD baristas (Stealing Wishes), dysfunctional families (Are You Sitting Down?) and the difficulites of coming out in a small town (The Other Side of What), and for his fourth novel, Yarbrough has taken on the audacious task of mashing up Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Emily Dickinson in Dickinstein: Emily Dickinson, Mad Scientist. Yarbrough put down his trowel and his laptop long enough to answer some questions for Out in Print regarding Dickinstein as well as some other subjects.

Out in Print: How did the idea of mashing up “Frankenstein” and Emily Dickinson come about?

Shannon Yarbrough: It happened last year on opening day for the movie of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I was driving to work and some local radio station was talking about it. I had read and enjoyed the book the year before and was anxious to see the film. I started wondering what inspired the author Seth Grahame-Smith to write it, so when I got to work I did what anyone would do. I Googled it! Like any writer, this led me to thinking about what kind of mash-up I’d do if I dabbled in this genre. I immediately thought of Frankenstein. Vampires and werewolves have gotten plenty of attention in book, films, and pop culture, so I had to be different. But Frankenstein usually gets thrown into the zombie genre that’s all the rage these days since he was “undead.” I couldn’t get the classic Boris Karloff Hollywood image out of my head though and I wanted to pay homage to him. Given the themes of mortality in Frankenstein, I got to contemplating Emily Dickinson’s poetry which has similar themes, and slowly the two blended together in my head.  I knew it was a stretch but once I started my research and began to form a plot in my head, it just worked!

OiP: What kind of research did you do and how much?

SY: My research was quite extensive actually. I did a lot of it before writing a single word, and continued my research during my writing. Though the book is fiction, I dickinstein-frontcoveronlywanted it to feel real to the reader, as if it could have actually happened, and since Emily was my main character, I wanted her to be as real as possible. All of the background information I wrote on Emily and any secondary characters she interacts with is based on real history and real people. I had actually never read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so I had to start there obviously. I was amazed at how different it was from what I thought I knew just based on pop culture or Hollywood. I’d read all of Emily’s poems before, but I read them again. Her poems introduce each chapter and there are pieces of poems throughout the story. I also picked up some other older volumes of her poems that contained historical information and letters. Next, I had to research quite a bit about her life, family, and home. Since I wasn’t able to visit, I purchased a spectacular coffee table book filled with pictures of her home and gardens which was quite helpful.

OiP: Was it tempting to write this first person and actually put yourself in her head? Or is there a reason you shied away from that?

SY: I admit I write better in first person at times. It certainly would have been exciting to be in Emily’s head, but I didn’t want to restrict myself there. I think the book would have certainly had a different tone. I needed that third person narrator who knew all mostly because of Emily’s relationship with others in the book: her best friend, her sister, brother, the maid, her biology teacher, her mother and father, etc. Their influence on Emily and on the storyline was just as important, so I had to make them multidimensional, instead of the reader only seeing them through Emily’s eyes.

OiP: This is such a different book than Stealing Wishes or Are You Sitting Down? Did it call for a different process in the writing?

SY: Yes indeed! Most of that involved the research. Anything from electricity in the 1800’s, to the school Emily attended, dialogue or even clothing all had to be researched to make my story feel accurate and historical. I’d always drawn from my own life and personal experience when writing my previous books.

OiP: What was the most difficult part about writing this book? The most enjoyable?

SY: The most difficult part was the dreaded middle, where most writers get stuck. When I sat down to start writing it, the story came pouring out. But I got to a certain point where I started losing steam. I knew how I wanted the book to end. I just didn’t know how to get there.  So, I actually skipped ahead and wrote the ending which was definitely the most enjoyable. After I’d finished it and had my ending, I backed up and had a better understanding how to tie it all together.

OiP: I’m always interested in how writers write. Do you do extensive first drafts with little revision, or do you write quickly and revise later? Paper and pencil or computer? Morning, afternoon or anytime?

dcccc0f28dfe7c4c6c1aa2a2b46b606SY: Stealing Wishes and Are You Sitting Down? were both written in sequential order, meaning I started right at the beginning and I wrote straight through to the end. As I already stated, that didn’t happen with Dickinstein though I did attempt it. I typically like to write one or two chapters a day, always on the computer. I step away, and then go back and reread them the next day before I start writing again. I fix any obvious errors, add or delete, and then start writing the next chapter. Once I’m done with the first draft, I print it out on paper. I let it sit for one week and then I pick it up and reread it with a red ink pen and a yellow highlighter in hand. I mark it up, fix things, make notes in the margin, and then I use it to construct the second draft. Once I’m done, I print again and repeat. After my third draft, I send it off to my editor. I’m typically a morning person when it comes to creativity. Through the week, I have an hour in the morning once my partner leaves for work and before I have to get ready for the day. I call it my magic hour because I’ve always been able to get so much writing done during that time. But with Dickinstein I actually wrote quite a bit at night too. After my partner went to bed, I’d spend an hour or two researching, reading, or writing and then pick up where I left off again in the morning. I wrote the first draft of Dickinstein in just eight weeks, averaging about 10,000 words a week!

OiP: Would you do another mashup?

SY: Definitely!  And it’s already been churning in my head for months. I’ve even been doing some light research. I don’t want to give it away but I will say it involves our beloved Truman Capote!

OiP: What’s the next project?

SY: If the Truman mash-up doesn’t come into fruition, I have a historical novel that I’ve been writing off and on for almost eight years. It takes place during present day and the Civil War. It’s a ghost story centered around a retired famous piano player and her page turner.  I’ve completely started over from the beginning numerous times and only recently I changed the lead character from male to female. If I never write another book after it, I am determined to at least finish this one some day!

OiP: What would you like people to take away from Dickinstein?

SY: If anything, I hope that readers will develop a newfound respect or at least an interest in Emily Dickinson.  I took great care in keeping true to Emily and her life. I’ve admired her ever since I was in college, so writing her in a somewhat historically accurate manner was very important to me. My tagline for the book is, “What was Emily really doing all that time up in her room?”  I’ve always had an interest in conspiracy theories or alternative history, so it was fun to create this unconventional world for Emily in order to answer that question, and in turn I challenged myself as a writer. I’ve never wanted to plug myself into one genre or subject. That’s why all of my books are so different. Writing Dickinstein has definitely been my biggest challenge as a writer, so I just hope readers are inspired and enlightened by it.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with LA Fields

SweptLA Fields has many voices, among them the second Mrs. Watson of her Sherlock Holmes pastiche, “My Dear Watson,” and two teenage boys, Jesse and Marley, of “Maladaptation” and “Dysfunction,” two novels (so far) comprising the Disorder series. She also has the voice she answers interview questions in, which may or may not be the closest to her own. She took time out from her busy writing and grad school schedule to talk to Out in Print.

Out in Print: The voice you have for the Disorder series is powerful and has a great deal of veracity—is that because it’s actually your voice or a compilation of people you know? Do you hear it when you to go the place in your head where these characters come from?

LA Fields: It’s mostly the voice I got from learning how to talk in the 1990s. I still use the word “like” excessively, though now I do it with a deep understanding of the difference between metaphor and simile, and yes—so far every time I go home to those characters, I can still access how they talk and think. They used to be older than I was, and that writing felt prophetic on a personal level. Now that they’re a couple of years behind me, a playlist of the songs I loved at whatever age I need access to can tap me right back in. That voice and process is still there, it just takes a little more work to be true to it.

OiP: What was the genesis of the Disorder series?

LAF: Maladaptation started just before the end of my senior year. I had quit fanfiction in my junior year and wanted to get serious about original fiction. I wrote a few short stories that blew like the fucking wind, and I decided to try to and write something without any gay in it, to write something outside of my comfort zone. Enter: “Cowboy Dan” by Modest Mouse. I tried to write a story from that song about a hundred times, first as a ghost story in which Dan tries to escape town, dies in a car crash, and then haunts a bridge, killing those who try to escape the town. At one point he had two sons (Billy, the oldest, and a younger Jesse, after Billy the Kid and Jesse James) and at another he had no family, and the story kept sucking just like all the others. At some point, the murder of his wife became the new story, and that made me think of what it would be like for the son who was orphaned like that, but the story stalled again.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, I had a friend who sat in front of me in English class named Marley. Not only was her name the coolest thing I had heard all year, but I had a total friend-crush on her, and so came up with my Marley. This was just after my mom died and I was transplanted to a new school, so I gave Marley my old life. He lived in my old house, went to my old school, and had all of my books. We were reading Heart of Darkness around this time, and another friend who sat in front of me in Drama class had the name Kurtz, so that became his surname. Another friend-crush from Drama also shows up as a name for Marley’s sister, Lindsay. I had a lot of girl-crushes in high school. And now.

But then that halted too. I had Marley all ready, but nothing interesting to put him through. I went back to Cowboy Dan: Billy became Jesse because I liked the name better, and he became gay because I couldn’t help myself, but then the story just petered off into nowhere again. And Marley was sitting in Estero, FL (later to become East Arrow—I was eighteen, so don’t judge) with his thumb in his ass. And then one day I finally put my hands together. Voila.

Marley’s affair with an older man grew out of the fact that I had recently read Lolita and needed a reason for his parents to send him away. The program in Loweville was a imgreshideously contrived way to get them together. Loweville is based on Loveland, CO but fictionalized so that my lack of research isn’t me being wrong, it’s artistic license. Also I like the pun on the word ‘low,’ and I hope I didn’t beat it to death.

Missy came out of me trying to combat my literary misogynism (which I think I’ve pretty much overcome at this point). It wasn’t until I gave the manuscript to my best friend and frontline editor that we both realized how similar Missy’s brash and bubbly personality was to her, and the fact that Missy and Marley are best friends is only art imitating life.

Aaron and Genny were needed to fill in the group, and they developed from there. Genny will make a cameo in the sixth book, and Aaron will stick with Missy until the day he dies. Tulsa began as a generic bully and bloomed into so much more. I stole his name from Diana Wieler’s Bad Boy and I think I loved the name too much to waste it on a 1-D meany, and I needed an extra 10,000 words after my first little 60K draft, so he got his perspective added in. It turns out that he is my favorite character to write, because he’s the most messed up and poetic of them all. Tulsa even gets his own book down the line, if I ever make it that far, because I love him that much.

I had just started listening to emo music (girl Marley liked Panic At The Disco, which meant it was okay to like that sort of music, which I secretly did the whole time) and I burned a CD that was half From Under the Cork Tree and half Hot Fuss and brought it with me to my dad’s cabin in Georgia for one week of the summer. That week was the point of no return. I discovered Missy’s voice, hit the 1/3 mark, and finally wrote the “Cowboy Dan” prologue in one shot, after all that trouble, on a janky old laptop from the early nineties. It was a third hand hand-me-down with no Ethernet jack, it was so old, and I had to save my novel on a floppy disk and squeeze the screen to get it to stop blotting out half the time. Super fun.

I finished the novel Wednesday, September 13th, 2006 at 6:16 PM in Sarasota, in my dorm room, Pei 128. This book transitioned me through one of the most significant summers of my life, and I think that’s reflected in the plot. I was neck deep in Poppy Z. Brite books and Modest Mouse CDs, and I’ve gained a boner for pictures of desert highways that may never go down. It’s the first book I ever finished, and the first one I ever seriously started, and it’s got my fingerprints all over it. Writing a book is better than burying a time capsule; so long as this is around, I’ll never forget who I was when I wrote it.

OiP: Do you identify personally with any of the Disorder characters? Which one is most like you?

LAF: I love this question, I ask it myself when people I know read Maladaptation. I’m curious about how my friends see themselves, so if they like Jesse better than Marley, or love Missy more than any of them, then that tells me who they want to be; it’s like an inkblot test. As for me, Marley is really rooted in who I was at 15 years old. dys. coverWe have the same anxiety problems, and books, and mild OCD habit of never bending their spines, we both still bite our fingernails and chew our lips and twist our hair sometimes, so even though he annoys me a lot now that I’m square in the middle of my twenties, I’m still the most like him. Tulsa was the most fun to write, because he was so complicated and lonely (and he’s coming back in future books). Jesse I envy, that’s why he’s the love interest. It’d be nice to be that minimalist in emotion, but I can answer this question much like Oscar Wilde did: Marley is who I think I am, Missy is who the world thinks me, and Jesse is who I’d like to be, in other ages perhaps.

OiP: The voices of the Disorder boys and the voice used in both My Dear Watson and “The House of the Resonate Heart” in Where Thy Dark Eye Glances are wonderfully different. Do you prefer one over the other?

LAF: The voice in The Disorder Series is easier, because it’s closer to my own (that’s my voice if I thought carefully about what I wanted to say and the best way to do it before I let it all come flying out of my mouth). The imitation stuff is just that—it’s me exploiting a talent I have for being a mockingbird writer. Lots of writers can do this. It’s not unique to me, but it is helpful when you want to sound like someone else. It happens a lot by accident in my academic papers—I’ve been told I’ve taken on the style of writers as unlikely as Nathaniel Mackey and William Faulkner. I write better papers when I let myself get hypnotized by someone else’s text-flow, and assuming I intend to copy another author’s story-telling voice, I write better fiction like that too. There might be an element of gender in that divide too: the Disorder boys (plus Missy and Lindsay, who are both a bit rough-and-tumble) versus a softer, more lady-like Victorian tone.

OiP: How did My Dear Watson come about?

LAF: I got an English degree in a little bubble of a school called the New College of Florida. It’s the only public honors college in the state; there are no fraternities or sororities, there are no official sport teams, there are no business classes, it has narrative evaluations instead of grades, the student government’s charter quotes Star Trek as the school’s motto, and even the admissions office gives out ironic footballs saying that our team is still undefeated (can’t lose if you don’t play, can you?). There I wrote a thesis dominated by Oscar Wilde quotes called “The Life One Does Not Lead: Double Life Narratives and Queer Criminal Codes,” the third chapter of which compared the homoeroticism between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty to the same dynamic between Superheroes (Batman, Spiderman, and Superman) and their main villains. I was writing about adversarial relationships and couldn’t talk about all the tenderness I noticed going on between Holmes and Watson, so I went looking for a book that put them together with as much accuracy as the academic paper I was producing. I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t find anything even remotely close to what I was looking for, so I wrote it myself. Mrs. Watson got incorporated because I’d just gone through a few genders studies classes and I wasn’t about to ignore all the wives and women in that story, no matter how much Holmes and Watson couldn’t take their eyes off one another.

OiP: My Dear Watson really, according to the Amazon reviews, seems to have upset some people as it paints a less than flattering picture of Sherlock Holmes. Was that intentional? Having done it, do you regret it? Is there something you would have done differently with that book?

LAF: Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t get his panties in such a wad over being “misinterpreted” by a woman, so I don’t know why everyone else feels the need to stick up for him. But no: I wouldn’t do it differently because I don’t think I got him wrong. I love Sherlock Holmes, I love him like I love Heathcliff, and Stephen Dedalus, and Professor Snape—while writing I was worried people would read the novel as me (the author lady) protesting too much. Some of the reviews seem to have a problem with how Mrs. Watson sees Holmes, and some have a problem with her point of view being taken in the first place, which is fair enough on their end, but… once I chose her, the debate for me was over.

Mrs. Watson can’t like Holmes as much as I do; he’s the love of her husband’s life. He’s smarter than her, more important, more famous, more rare, irreplaceable to everyone including Watson and the country, and yet… Watson lives with her and not with Holmes. She must have something Holmes lacks, and so the book is an exploration of what Watson wants/needs from someone he admires/loves, and it’s also about Mrs. Watson trying not to feel like a consolation prize. She’s got some winning qualities too, and in fact a lot of what Watson loves about her he loves about Holmes too, but Mrs. Watson is more accommodating, less tortured by her potential/responsibility, and so more capable of doling out love and support. It took me nearly all of college to realize I’m bisexual—so as much as I’m a ball-buster like Mrs. Watson, and as much as I get Holmes’s artistic and nearly self-destructive zeal for what he does, I’m fascinated by the calm, patient, non-jealous love that Watson has for both of them.

I managed to get into a very minor passive-aggressive internet exchange with one reviewer, but I was only trying to figure out what people think they want, and what they71S3tsHI4HL__SL1280_ think I’ve done, and why those two things are different. It comes off as bitchiness (in me and Mrs. Watson alike) because it comes from a place of defensive insecurity.

However, in choosing nameless second Mrs. Watson as a narrator I was trying to do something more than just retell the stories from the POV of someone who wasn’t there for them; the dips into the literature and politics and scandals of the time underline the fact that the second Mrs. Watson was always there (she was “around”), just nobody was really listening to her.  This concept came out of me being a literature major, sure, yes, obviously, but it also came from a passion for gender studies, which includes thinking about both femininity and masculinity, and about how people incorporate gender tropes from both “sides” into their self-expression. That, as well as thinking about what it is to be gay/straight/bisexual and how each could have been dealt with in a specific historical time and place, by a specific woman who no one else had spoken for.

Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has some beautifully effeminate qualities: he’s slim and so crosses his legs knee over knee; he’s neat and catlike in his personal dress and hygiene (a dandy); he blushes when he’s given a heart-felt compliment. But then he’s also a slob around the house, and he’s got the upper-body strength to bend a fire poker, and like my own father he doesn’t often laugh out loud, but instead represses his laughter into near-violent tummy spasms. I wanted to make the ignored woman as present and assertive as I wanted to show Holmes’ (text-based, canonical) flaws. They’re both human, they both exist in those books, and I wanted to draw them even.

OiP: I’m always interested in writers’ creative processes. Are you a plotter or a pantser (flying by the seat of your pants without a plan)? Quick first drafts with lots of revisions or painstaking first drafts with little revision? How do you work?

LAF: A plotter. I’m an outliner and a time-liner. I’ve had the same big notebook since I was sixteen, and it’s full of nothing but Table of Contents-looking outlines for the chapter structure of each book. The paper notes I’m left with after I finish any book amount to between 10-20 one-sided notebook pages, I keep most of it in my head.

I’m in grad school right now at Columbia College Chicago, and I’m meeting all kinds of adorable freaks who write, and then rewrite, and do weird shit like cut up their stories and hang them all over a room, and feel like a story is never really finished… that sounds exhausting. I think out the whole arc of a book first—chapters, sections, scenes, themes, word count, and I tweak a little as I go along, but the overall structure doesn’t vary after I’m a third of the way into a manuscript. That’s my point of no return.

I had one free summer between high school and college for Maladaptation, so it got done in one summer, and it’s the same with all the others. I give myself hard deadlines, mentally prep in advance, and lay it out right the first time. Some writers can’t hold a whole book’s concept in their head on a first draft, but I can if I’m not being lazy, and I’m so glad about that. The few times I’ve been forced to rewrite due to computer error have been agony.

OiP: You write in a variety of genres—do you feel a special affinity for one?

LAF: I have favorite categories that make even the most foreign genre feel comfortable to me. Young adults and teens are a category that can cross all genres, and so are queer characters. For example, My Dear Watson, though mostly about adults, includes snapshots of teenaged Holmes that I treasure, and even when I try to write a clean, plain heterosexual romance, I can’t—somebody’s queer somewhere in this story and I’ll roust ’em out eventually! I have a completed manuscript called Loopholes that is my attempt to be age-appropriate to teens (talk around the swears, go to prom, care about outfits, etc.) but even then the intriguing new boy in town is bisexual, and the parents are an adoptive gay couple. I got way too bored with nothing but straight people.

OiP: What are you working on now?

LAF: I’m about 6,000 words into what might be a very MFA-ish Leopold/Loeb inspired novel, but I’m also worried if I don’t finish the Disorder Series before I’m thirty I’ll forget what it’s like to be young and ruin it. Those are my priorities right now.

OiP: What do you want your readers to take away from your work?

LAF: I hope that readers take away from me the same things I take away from the books and shows and songs I love: you’re not alone. It’s naïve (it’s nearly insulting) to think you’re the only one who’s sad or witty or in love or bored, how dare you? When so many people have come before you making all this art, and for what? Money? Fame? Was everything you love made by someone rich and famous? I bet it wasn’t. The ones before me made it for their sake and mine, I make it for my sake and yours, and I would hope my readers feel that as deeply as I do in my best moments, when I’m overcome by a private, Zen-like, connected peace. Of course, underneath all that shallow shit it’s mostly about: like me and pay me and pay attention to me and agree with me that I’m smart. Obviously.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Who the Hell is Rachel Wells? – J.R. Greenwell (Chelsea Station Editions)

Who_the_Hell_is_Rachel_Wells_lgBuy from Chelsea Station Editions

From the blurb on the back of J.R. Greenwell’s Who the Hell is Rachel Wells?, you might assume the eleven short stories inside consist of a bunch of Southern stereotypes thrown together for largely comic effect, overdrawn and overbroad. Though there is some of that, the wonderful cover is more of an indication of the subtlety inside. With its muted tones and mysterious figure in the process of either donning or removing his drag gear, it speaks to the beautiful contradiction of Southern life.

The oversize caricatures definitely make their appearance in the title story, which leads off the book. We never get to find out exactly who Rachel Wells is, but we see the strife her makeup and wig case causes as it’s picked up by a suburban mom and her little gay son, who hand it off to a straight trucker and his wife who, in turn, throw it out of the window after using part of the drag to hold up a convenience store, where it’s caught by two gay boys just learning the art of drag. Winning, witty, and wise, it’s a great start.

Drag is, of course, a feature in many of these stories, but nowhere is it funnier and more up front than “Silver Pumps and a Loose Nut,” which sees Daphne opening for her hero and mentor Stella during a run in Daytona. Daphne desperately wants to mimic Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in a string bikini as in “Dr. No,” a goal she actually achieves despite several episodes of mistaken identity, one aborted date with a closet case named Chuck, and the theft of Stella’s prosthetic leg. You ‘ll have to read it to believe it.

And that goes for the two straight suburban couples Greg and Erica and Dave and Joan in “Out of the Closet,” starring Paul Lynde’s chair. Really. It’s a red velvet chair given to Erica by an uncle who swore it was once owned by Paul Lynde. What happens when you sit in it? Well, let’s just say that watching the football game is a very different experience when Dave tries it. And when Joan does, she finds herself wearing the pants in the family as opposed to the apron.

“The Scent of Honeysuckle,” “A Colony of Barbies,” and “Spaghetti Kisses” don’t bear the same stamp of humor, but they’re just as deft in handling character as the other stories, as is “Learning to Sashay Like Rupaul,” and my particular favorite, “Watch Me Walk,” about Hal and Robert, two older men who find each other and the courage to express themselves at the assisted living facility they’re in.

Greenwell has a talent for creating immediately recognizable yet slightly weird around the edges characters, and he puts them through some wonderfully silly paces as well as some heartbreaking ones. His prose is admirably restrained, conveying a great deal yet never sounding overwritten. But it’s his characters that shine and sparkle like sequins in the spotlight. If you’re looking for a light read that has some substance behind its humor, you’ll hardly go wrong with this collection.

Dolly Parton wig optional.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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