Tag Archives: gay short stories

Little Reef and Other Stories – Michael Carroll (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press)

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It used to be, way back in the twentieth century, that a literary author would make a name by first publishing a small collection of short stories, most of them appearing in those tiny circulation quarterlies that dotted the landscape, attached to every Liberal Arts College in the Land. Sometimes, a slender volume of verse would appear first. Some fifty people would review the first book, maybe thirty of them having read it, and unless it was bad, the author was on the way up. That was before the current Age of Over-Information that we (so ambiguously) enjoy. Nowadays a confessional memoir or slam-bang novel is almost de rigeur for that path: something big, bad, and, as Jean Cocteau said, something to astonish us.

So it’s kinda cute that author Michael Carroll starts off his own literary career with a collection of stories, and that a handful of them, from the first half of the book actually, were printed in some of those quarterlies either still generously endowed or barely holding on by their fingernails. This collection is in two parts: “After Dallas,” and “After Memphis,” and these tales are not divided by place or time as much as they are by ambition, scope, style and yes, even by content.

The early six stories are almost what any self respecting Brooklyn, New York authoress might write and savor. They’re a little autobiographical, a little earnest, a little sly and funny, and filled with the required shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude and put-on jaded and/or over-medicated aura that today passes for contemporary fiction. But they’re also well-written, easy to take, sharply observed, and most of the characters–including the narrators–get little sympathy and even take a few well rendered beatings on several levels simultaneously. To our pleasure, I have to admit. Especially the two young male/female couples in “The Biographers” and the crusty old gent, widower of the dead writer they’re nattering on about. The one piece that breaks the mold and ends up being quite moving is “Werewolf,” about a straight childhood friend, and the gay male narrator’s relationship with him over the years. It’s a carefully composed piece, with not a comma out of place and, therefore, an utterly credible and creditable narration.

Then we arrive at Part Two, and it’s altogether something different. Knowing Michael a little and his partner a great deal better (or at least longer) this reviewer couldn’t help but think the aging author being cared for by the callow narrator of the five later, longer  pieces are strongly based on them; and so a kind of queasiness or giddiness set in, making  this a post Robert Gluck meta-fiction in which who knows what to believe, really. Yet these are by far the more interesting set of fictions: first, because of the easy going, almost rambling style which fingers the reader as surely as did Coleridge telling about that crazed sailor, and second,because you probably think you know who those major and minor characters –the latter mostly sketched in– are or can shrewdly guess who they might be, narrowing it down to one or two. And third because it seems so intimate and confiding, just like well, Pip or Holden or Nick Carraway, that you’re seduced pretty thoroughly.

Seduced but not lobotomized. Is this a memoir in the making? A fake memoir? A novel in several pieces–it takes up three-quarters f the entire volume? Or what exactly? And what story is being told here? That’s often as uncertain as the location of Schrodinger’s cat. Take “Avenging Angel“ as an example. The story begins in one of those standard-as-possible writers’ work/vacation New England towns (he even references Stephen King!) in great, novelistic detail, and suddenly without any transition I’m aware of, switches to Faith Fox, a long time friend of the narrator’s. From there on it moves back and forth between his current life and her life which he sees in enormous, if momentary, chunks of gory detail whenever she reappears. Anyone who’s lived a few decades will recognize this woman–trendoid to the max–she comes in different shapes, sizes and flavors, and to my mind personifies what we mean when we speak of a zombie. But then we’re knocked back into the story with the older writer, who has had a debilitating stroke and who is increasingly presented as a Baron de Charlus type: “The old libertine can barely move” he calls out, not able to get out of the car by himself. “That’s hilarious,” I muttered, though how I cared for him. “Here, grab my hand.”

Is that irony? Is that affection twisted somehow? What gives? His and the narrator’s story takes place alongside that of Faith as though they were meant to play off each other, or make each other resonate, but that didn’t happen for this reviewer. One area is simply more interesting than the other, and because any emotion possible is held over the fire so long, it’s unclear what we are supposed to feel and for whom exactly.

But … having written that, any story or stories that make me actually think about them  that much are certainly worth my time. And all of these stories are. I think Carroll has opened out a space if not yet a landscape for himself, and he has done so with believable dialogue, intriguing characters, and situations that feel free to promise future benefits if not exactly future revelations. Give it a try.

Reviewed by Felice Picano

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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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