Tag Archives: gay stories

Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories – Gregg Shapiro (Squares & Rebels/Handtype Press)

la-4x6Buy from Squares & Rebels

Gregg Shapiro is used to quick hits. His poetry is short and to the point, his interview questions are punchy and pithy, and his fiction is equally brief. This brevity, however, does not mean that his stories don’t engage or fulfill the expectations they create. Instead, he makes his statement with quiet effectiveness and moves on. Taken together, the twelve selections that comprise Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories accumulate detail with a poet’s eye and spit it back with a serpent’s tongue.

If you don’t know Chicago, you’ll certainly come to terms with its geography, its smells, its peccadilloes, and its citizens. Shapiro has reached deep into his memory banks and come up with vivid images familiar to anyone who’s grown up in a big city in the Midwest–machinery, particularly cars, and fast food. Sleazy motels and desolate vacant lots. Promise and rot. Family and friends and the certain surety that neither will ever be enough.

The challenge with pieces as short as these is finding the ways in which they relate to each other. It’s not enough to pass them off as little slices of life that don’t stay around long enough to fully engage a reader, as at least one critic has suggested. Rather, they work in concert. The narrators of “Your Father’s Car” and “Your Mother’s Car” both use those vehicles to get to bars, but where the first is concerned with the typical dad domain of the car itself (a horrid orange Hornet–remember those?), the second ends with the beginning of a relationship, which is what many mothers are all about.

And family is all over Lincoln Avenue. I particularly liked “Marilyn, My Mother, Myself,” in which Mom uses Marilyn Monroe memorabilia to not only acknowledge being aware of her son’s gayness, but to celebrate that with him. The fact that he doesn’t particularly care for Monroe is secondary. Mom has done her research and knows how much some gay men worship that blonde goddess. She nods sagely and uses her as a tool, a crowbar with which she can open her son’s life and enter as if she belongs there. Knows what he’s about. And Shapiro establishes this relationship, makes his point, and delivers the punchline in under four pages. Yet it feels complete and whole.

The only nail I couldn’t quite hammer down was “Like Family,” the powerful tale of an abused little girl eventually beaten to death. It’s the piece that doesn’t fit the puzzle, but perhaps that was Shapiro’s intention. Nothing else in the collection is like it, in terms of either theme or execution, which makes me think that its very difference is its raison d’etre.

From “Lunch with a Porn Star” to “The Breakdown Lane” to “Swimming Lessons,” Shapiro darts in and out, bobbing and weaving with championship savvy as he lands masterful blows, punching friendship until turns into love, and nowhere is this more evident that the tremendous title piece. On its surface, it’s just an account of an evening cruising the main drag with a best friend, but the narrator and Kenny have a somewhat different relationship. A little time at IHOP, then back in the car for an assignation in the park, a close call with a cop, more fast food, and the radio. Always the radio. But Kenny has another goal in mind. The boys pull into the parking lot of a motel: The bags are in the trunk, Kenny says to the ancient clerk as he is leaving the office, room key in his hand and a liar’s grin on his mouth. He cocks his head to the left, a signal for me to move over. He wants to drive the car across the parking lot to the room. He wants to put on a show. Suddenly I love him more than air for this. For being the man in my life, when we are really only boys. For keeping me guessing, never sure from one day to the next if he will be fire or water. 

If you remember what it was like being one of those boys, this is the book for you. If you don’t remember, this book will bring it all back like the smell of a greasy hamburger wrapper and a smear of Hershey’s chocolate across a freshly-kissed cheek. Highly recommended.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Geography of Pluto – Christopher DiRaddo (Cormorant Books)

jacket_medBuy from McNally Robinson

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized