by Richard Labonte
August 9, 2010
Insignificant Others, by Stephen McCauley. Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $25 hardcover.
On the surface, Conrad and Richard are everybody’s ideal of a comfortable queer couple. Together for eight years, they’ve settled into a regulated domesticity, accepting ongoing infidelities with “insignificant others” but for the most part drifting along in a sort of jaded compatibility. Meanwhile, Conrad’s flings while traveling as an art consultant are getting more serious, and Richard’s involvement with a deeply closeted married man is becoming more complicated. That said, McCauley’s spirited sixth novel, narrated by 50-something Richard with droll insight, is about much more than sex, fidelity and unusual quasi-marital arrangements. Richard is trying to mask his insecurities with obsessive gym workouts, all while juggling the demands of a resentful sister, a married friend’s reluctance to confront his own health problems, and travails at work involving both a young coworker’s emotional brinkmanship and a hostile supervisor’s discriminatory behavior: the stuff of life. McCauley’s writing, as always, is suffused with wry observations about that “stuff” – wit writ small that builds, page by page, into both complex social satire and a surprisingly sentimental story.
The Side Door, by Jan Donley. Spinsters Ink, 234 pages, $14.95 paper.
Though it’s set in 1988 – when teens still scribbled phone numbers on napkins rather than synching their smart phones – the parallel themes in Donley’s debut of queer self-discovery and the destructive power of secrets pack a contemporary punch. Melrose Bird – she really, really prefers to be called Mel – and her artistic pal Frank are 15-year-old outsiders coming to terms with the truth that she’s a dyke and he’s a fag. Their realization coalesces around the hushed-up suicide five years earlier of a boy named Alex, whose heartbroken mother’s sad vigil in the park across from their high school leads Mel to dig into his death. What she discovers – a closeted football jock who rebuffed him and a closeted school counselor who ignored him – galvanizes her own coming out. Donley’s young adult novel touches all the relevant bases: parents whose emotions evolve from anger to understanding and fellow students whose attitudes range from intolerance to acceptance – in a story that nicely balances humor and emotion.
It’s hardly surprising that boundary-shattering filmmaker Waters claims an eclectic roster of role models – the women and men he says have molded him as a healthily neurotic man. Some are obvious: the flamboyance of singer Little Richard and the perversity of “outsider” porn auteurs David Hurles (of Old Reliable wrestler video fame) and Bobby Garcia (who over three decades filmed himself having sex with hunky Marines). Some are less so: British writers Denton Welch and Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose mannered prose is the antithesis of flamboyant. And some spring from his younger days, including conflicted portraits of 1960s lesbian stripper Lady Zorro and “iron-fisted” Native American bar owner Esther Martin, both of Baltimore. Johnny Mathis is a role model for how he crafted an enduring, self-effacing career under the queer radar; Tennessee Williams is included because a 12-year-old Waters read a stolen copy of the short story collection One Arm and knew he was, like Williams, at least sexually ambiguous. For a man whose shtick is to shock, what’s most shocking about these essays is how sentimental, un-ironic and humane they are.
This collection of essays about queer homelessness in America is a book with two voices. The most searing sections are written by women and men, girls and boys, from their own experience of life on the streets – wrenching accounts of being tossed aside for coming out as lesbian, gay, trans, other. These are the voices of pain, passion and survival, poignant but often triumphant. Buttressing them are several less subjective but no less passionate essays reporting on the work of youth centers, contextualizing the reality that a disproportionate number of homeless youths are queer – as tolerance for gay unions, gay adoption and even gays in the military is on the rise, and gay imagery suffuses popular culture – and noting that the LGBT community, let alone society at large, is often blind to the epidemic of castoff queer kids. Part appeal to conscience and part cries from the heart, Lowrey’s landmark anthology is a must-read for both social workers and – if they can somehow find a copy – youngsters searching for their true sexual selves.
Her footsteps on the stairs made my body tremble. I could feel the anger vibrating around her and resonating soundly in every inch of the house. It settled deep in the pit of my stomach, stirring up a primordial fear in me that I didn’t know existed until that day. Instead of making a stand, instead of raising my voice, I cowered on the floor. My home was lost the moment her flesh connected with mine. The home that I knew was filled with a dysfunctional, verbally abusive but loving family in their own strange way. For fourteen years, I had lived with my aunt and uncle. Now, I was being beaten.
-“Why?” by L. Wolf, from Kicked Out, edited by Sassafras Lowery
Gay reads don’t often crop up on lists of favorite books by straight authors, but that norm was exceeded in a recent survey in New York magazine, where six genre novelists each included something queer – sometimes more than once – among their recommended titles. Peter Carey (historical fiction), cited both Michael Cunningham’s 2005 novel Specimen Days and – though the author isn’t gay himself (even if his debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was) – Michael Chabon’s gay-charactered fiction from 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay. William Gibson (science fiction) championed both Samuel R. Delany’s 1975 novel Dhalgren and Thomas M. Disch’s 1972 novel, 334. Kathryn Harrison (memoirs) singled out Paul Monette’s Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, the National Book Award winner from 1992. Simon Rich (humor) liked Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, from 2000 (as well as Matt Groening’s 1984 comic collection, Love is Hell, featuring the mysteriously gay couple, Akbar and Jeff). Otto Penzler (mysteries and thrillers) included Thomas Robb’s 2008 debut novel, Child 44. And something queer even cropped up in the science category, as selected by Rebecca Skloot: she named Randy Shilts’ 1987 report on the early days of AIDS, And the Band Played On.
Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-‘70s. He can be reached in care of this publication or at BookMarks@qsyndicate.com.