Before I became a writer, I was a reader. In my heart, I’m still reader, except now I read less for pleasure than for writing technique. This shift began during the multiple rewrites of my first novel, hidden. I found myself gravitating towards – or, discovering – books that featured similar scenarios people on-the-run (Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz), people living underground (Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta), or that were written in first person (E.R. Frank’s America, and Patricia McCormick’s Cut).The idea of a being a published novelist or, having written a first novel is great. Except now I need to write a second one. Summer’s a good time for beginnings, and I’m in the process of learning what it’s like to start working on a new novel. In that spirit, I recently picked up The Virgin Suicides (the Jeffrey Eugenides novel about five suicidal sisters). Curious to know if there were other novels written in the (little used) first person plural (basically, “we”), I found In The Gloaming: Stories (Alice Elliott Dark), a short story collection featuring “Watch The Animals,” and promptly ordered it from Book Soup, my favorite indie book seller. A copy arrived two days ago, and it was everything I wanted – lapidary prose.This is all in the way of announcing my summer fav reading list. Below, Queerty rounded up some great summer book reads. Yes, it’s pretty random (and subjective), but I believe this is as good a guide to queer books as any.
Union Atlantic (Adam Haslett) is a social novel by the author of the well-regarded short story collection (You Are Not a Stranger Here), that features a similar cast of characters (the crazy lady, the sexually precocious gay kid) in another small town setting. A former soldier with a heart of stone, Doug Fanning is the hot banking executive & closet case who returns to his hometown and builds a gianormous mansion. The eyesore drives the crazy lady to crazy extremes (her death is, as he notes with admiration, that of a “professional soldier”) and finds some measure of happiness topping a sexually insatiable teenager. Implausible? Somewhat, but a page turner, timely, ambitious, and (mostly) satisfying.
Yield (Lee Houck) depicts a contemporary Manhatten, filled with characters who could be Edmund White’s grandchildren: languid they drift through turning tricks and falling in (and out) of love. Simon, the novel’s main character is a hustler / art fag and the book is gratifying not so much because of a compelling story but because there isn’t one – just life. “Witty and wrenching,” Vestyl McIntyre (Lake Overturn) blurbs, “Yield is required reading for anyone who wants to know what it means to be young, gay and without a roadmap.”
Reading Yield along with Justin Luke Zirilli’s Gulliver Travels is better than a Google Map to the heart of gay existence.
Pacific Agony (Bruce Benderson) follows the “depressed and cynical” Reginald Fortiphton on a journey to the Pacific Northwest. If there was ever an anti-tourist narrative this is it. Benderson, the winner of French’s Grand Prix for The Romanian and essayist (the seminal, Towards a New Degeneracy), turns his eye on an parochial America that’s rotten from the inside, and hypocritical enough to drive a grown gay man mad, darling, simply mad!
What We Do is Secret (Thorn Keif Hillsbery) draws from the author’s experiences in late 70’s L.A. punk scene and its spiritual leader, Germs lead singer, Darby Crash. Hillsbery gives shape to the mythic – yet elusive – era. Crash commits suicide on the same day John Lennon is shot (December 8, 1980) and becomes the rag tag group’s philosophical leader and main character’s soul brother: “part ringleader, part god, and all charismatic manipulator, Darby was as close to family as a hustler and street kid like Rockets might ever get.” A cross between James Joyce and JTLeRoy/Laura Albert’s work, WWDiS’s prose is flushed with teen boy angst. Like LeRoy/Albert, Kief Hillsbery side steps the popular, but often vacuous “young adult” novel, for something far more serious, and transcendent. Told in prose that oft-times verges on poetic, WWDiS is challenging, but well worth the effort. If you’re trying to remember what it was like being a hormone & sex crazed teen who gets a hard-on from a hand brushed against your knee – this is for you.
The Abomination (Paul Golding)
Size queens of the bookish sort will love Paul Golding’s strange yet mesmerizing story about a boy who’s sent to a boarding school, turned into a sex toy, and grows up to hire hookers. The Abomination‘s heft announces it’s a Big Book – the literary equivilent of James Mitchner’s Hotel, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, or Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (oops, Franzen – and his dead bete noire, David Foster Wallace – is literary in that big tome way.) There’s a quality of guilty pleasure in these books, “intellectualized” by their heft. As in, “This maybe crap, but it’s long, so it’s Worthwhile.”
The Abomination benefits, too, from its elusive author, Paul Golding. Unlike everyone else – authors, college students, pop stars & politicians – vying for attention in the twenty-first century vis ubiquitous (Lady Gaga‘s on Tmblr! Look, Katy Perry’s just tweeted!), there are exactly two photos of Paul Golding. The first is blurred and looks nothing like the second: Golding (or, as some have suggested, a call-boy hired to pose as Golding), wide-eyed, wearing a very tight, very white t-shirt. Golding doesn’t have a Facebook fan page.
I mention these “Paul Golding” photographs only because they cue so perfectly to The Abomination. One imagines a narrator who’s brilliant yet painfully sensitive, sexy and urbane. The language’s allure connects with the picture – “Paul Golding” (or, his stand-in) – to such an extent that it made me turn back and look at him / his stand-in while reading the book. I wanted to see the adult who wrote so beautifully about the homoerotic charge of an all-boy boarding school, and the institution’s insane mix of religion and sex.
Auto-Hagiography / Trainwreck!
More, Now, Again (Elizabeth Wurtzel) My inability to look away from a (human) train wreck was indulge in this mash-up of self-mythologizing, autobiography, and social narrative. If you’re into James Frey, Wurtzel’s like his naughty aunt. More, Now, Again reads like a sequel to the phenomenally successful, Prozac Nation – except instead of downers, now she’s hooked on uppers. Wurtzel’s “discovery” that she can use a mortar and pestel to crush painkillers and provide herself with more immediate “relief” is hilarious. Epic insomnia ensues, and Wurtzel spends months in Florida, steals a $598 Elisa Peretti bracelet from Saks Fifth Avenue, gets caught, (and then sues the cops – how dare they!), returns to New York, and moves into her publisher’s offices. There, she alternates ordering pizza with drugs, a wild ride en route to her inevitable destination … rehab!
Ye Gay Elder in his 60’s Recalls the (much more fun) Gay 70’s
City Boy (Edmund White) is a breezy, tour through the 70’s pre-Guliani New York – a time when a writer-on-the-make could move his acne plagued nephew into his large, Upper West Side apartment where he lives with his beautiful boyfriend (Keith McDermott, then starring on Broadway in Equus), write The Joy of Gay Sex, hit the gym & head downtown and dance with an amyl nitrate soaked bandana stuffed in his mouth at The Saint until dawn, walk to the Everard Bath, and have sex with (everyone) while Bette Midler sang with Barry Manilow on piano. Pre-AIDS New York City, in other words, when everything was fun, and you could get mugged walking to Times Square without seeing people wearing fanny packs.
Biography, Shaken not Stirred, Snapshots & Rimbaud on the Side
The Talented Miss Highsmith (Joan Schenkar) isn’t just a summer beach read, it’s an entire summer beach read. Weighing in at 684 pages, the biography is a very (very) detailed of Patricia Highsmith, the author of the popular “Ripley” series (featuring the “hero-criminal” Tom Ripley), Strangers on the Train (made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock), and The Price of Salt. Schenkar’s Highsmith is portrayed as a writer who is a true believer – of her future greatness (fueled by an epic mommy complex) – that manifests in her compulsive rewriting of events in diary-like cahiers (notebooks). At first, weird doesn’t begin to describe Highsmith and, though it’s true sometimes meeting (or, reading about) your heroes is an inevitable exercise in disappointment, over its many (many) pages, Schenkar’s “Pat” unfolds as less strange character than painfully human.
Mapplethorpe, A Biography (Patricia Morrisroe) and Just Kids (Patti Smith’s National Book Award winner) are perfect compliments. Morrisroe’s is the conventional biography (childhood, struggle, success), whereas Smith’s is impressionistic, and first hand (Smith and Mapplethorpe were lovers and room-mates before he came out and met his muse/mentor/patron, Sam Wagstaff.) Morrisroe’s biography details events that Smith leaves out (or, wasn’t present to observe: Mapplethorpe’s gimmicky, yet effective first opening(s) – at the uptown Holly Soloman Gallery, and downtown, The Kitchen), and people she either didn’t know (iconographic models, Milton Moore, Lisa Lyon, and Robert Sherman), or didn’t care enough about to recall. There’s a wonderful contrast between Morrisroe’s disciplined work and Smith’s, the latter casting her as wayward sister, limned with the bittersweet feelings evoked by a young artist who found her best friend in a lost boy and muse in poet Rimbaud.
So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore), The Sluts (Dennis Cooper) & Lithium for Medea (Kate Braverman)
Cra – cra and yet more cra (crazy), these three novels would make Sybil (a patient made famous for her multiple personalities) look like Heidi (Johana Spyri’s classic novels about a girl who lives with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps.)
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (So Many Ways …), Dennis Cooper (The Sluts) and Kate Braverman (Lithium…) render emotionally, and physically battered characters who are all in the grip – of sex, drugs, and trauma. Monstrous parents loom in the background. The characters stagger around popping pain meds, pursuing degrading objects of desire, overuse the “internet” and run from Mom. Wildly different (stylistically), the narratives are relentlessly grim yet impossible to put down. Yaaa!!! Page turners for the depressed and disaffected.
Sycamore’s So Many Ways … is the rawest yet most accomplished of the three. Once you give yourself over to the challenging style, the words overtake you.
Cooper’s The Sluts is the apotheosis of a story he’s been reworking for years: a generic, yet elusive boy who comes to an ambiguous end. At times, The Sluts narrative comes close to unraveling, but Cooper exercises a firm hand over his material. The puer figure who appears in multiple incarnations (Safe, Try, Frisk) is taken, in The Sluts, to an endpoint that’s more definitively terminal.
Braverman’s Lithium for Medea, is the most conventionally written of the three, grounded as it is in the daughter / crazy mother trope. What elevates and propels Lithium… out the realm of genre (or, “women’s fiction” ie., Jody Picoult et al) is the language. Braverman’s constructed a writer self who’s both seer / sorceress who uses language to perform her alchemy for purification, self-immolation be damned.
Some characterize (and, disparage) Braverman’s work as, “beat.” But unlike Kerouac or, Ginsberg, Braverman’s trafficks in the mythological, an icky underneath that’s both earthy and “feminine.” Starkly different from the sissy boy / homocore feminity of Cooper, or Sycamore, Braverman’s feminine is both regenerative, and destructive – Goddess Kali on estrogen – cued to the female archetype: girlhood giving way to motherhood giving way to the crone.