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

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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

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Queer and Celtic: On the Irish LGBT Experience – Wesley J. Koster, ed. (Squares and Rebels/Handtype Press)

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Queer and Celtic–a niche market? You bet. But there’s much to learn for everyone in this slim volume from Squares & Rebels, which taps a culture as rich and earthy as the smell from its turf fires. Wesley Koster has collected a diverse smorgasbord (yes, I know that’s Scandinavian, but I don’t know the Irish equivalent) of poetry, drama, memoir, and fiction that entertains as it educates. No mean feat, that.

The collection features old friends like Jeff Mann along with some authors I’d never heard of before who turned in some stunning work in terms of both depth and interest. Mann is represented by both poetry (“I Looked for You,” “Irish Coddle”) as well some wonderful travel writing in “Ireland,” which sees him in several cities from Dublin to Galway to Inishmore, as enamored of romantic ideals as he is confounded by reality as when he arrives in Dublin:

I’m not sure what I expected. Leprechauns and Celtic harps on every corner, perhaps, the atmosphere aswirl with almost palpable magic, with poetry and folklore. But Dublin is just another city. Building construction growls everywhere, with its ugly cranes, grit, and mud. The streets are too crowded and, to my surprise and disgust, scattered with litter. I regret not having read more James Joyce, whose works might have been able to gloss this unattractive reality with literary meaning.

But Mann is not the only one to find contradiction in the Emerald Isle. Trisha Collopy’s “21 Meditations on the Catholic Body” illustrates some disparities between the theory and practice of Catholicism, Robin NiChathain contrasts what does and doesn’t translate in “Debt of Light,” and Michael O’Conghaile shows us brilliantly what can and cannot be forgiven in his touching essay, “Father.”

Indeed, family is as important as anything in the Irish culture, and this is well represented in Diane Searls’s short scene “The Goldie Boy” as well as the escape from family as in Isaac Swords’s “Angry Sheep: Recollections of Growing Up Gay in Northern Ireland.” For me, however, the very heart of this book lies in the final entry, Brian Merriman‘s “The Gentleman Caller,” which sees a modern gay man reflecting on the death of a village octagenarian. Perhaps the last of a dying generation, this gossipy old man is a “confirmed bachelor” and tireless worker for the Church. Merriman leaves open-ended the question of whether or not Martin, the old man, was in fact gay. But Merriman uses the possibility as a springboard for rumination about his own life, his gayness, and his place in society.  Mesmerising and emotionally powerful, this piece is one I turned over in my mind long after I finished the book.

And those are just a few reasons why this important volume should not be overlooked by any ethnic group. It’s lessons are timeless, universal, and beautifully written.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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