Kramer vs. everybody

FaggotsFaggots by Larry Kramer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Larry Kramer’s eponymous 1978 novel is one whose reputation precedes it. Apparently condemned upon its publication due to its singular (and single-minded) focus on drugs-and-fucking in the New York gay scene in the 1970s, the truth is always both more. And less.

Reading the book today, especially given the international brouhaha over gay marriage, and the manifestation of strange forms of agit-prop like the Kim Davis case in the US, what I found most surprising about Faggots is how unpolitical it seems.

A good example of this is the infamous Everhard fire, with Kramer noting that “seven brothers perished”. But this becomes more of a footnote than a warning to the general refrain that “We have to disco and drug and fuck if we want to live fantastic!”

Also, and this is probably one of the side-effects of the novel that Kramer could not possibly have foreseen: Faggots today reads like an elegy to a lost age, rather than a dire warning of a pending gay apocalypse in the form of the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s.

Many gay people today come from cultures, families and countries where being gay is an exceedingly complex negotiation between societal and religious expectations and personal convictions. Many gay people have never, ever experienced the kind of totally open and life-affirming community that Kramer describes in Faggots, and which one could argue was both its artistic and personal peak.

Those detractors who argue that the book focuses on drugs-and-fucking to the total exclusion of any sense of these characters’ ordinary lives ignore Kramer’s savviness as a writer. There is an astonishing set piece early on, where Garfield’s doorman clocks in a record 80 ‘single gentlemen’ before 21:30 to his apartment.
The vast range of occupations and class status gives a tantalising glimpse into the depth that the gay community had achieved in what is an incredibly short period. Kramer lists these with a kind of journalistic fervour:

…five attorneys, three art directors, seven models, ten would-be models, twelve said-they-were models, one journalist, three hairdressers (one specialising in colour), two antique dealers, one typewriter repairman, one manager of a Holiday Inn, one garbage collector, two construction workers, one toll collector from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, three policemen, two firemen (one out of state), seven hustlers (three full-time), one elevator operator (Garfield’s landlord’s son), one bass player, five doctors, twelve students, one ethnic dancer, two restauranteurs (one fancy, one shit food), one judge (rather old, but Garfield had to remember business), one newscaster, one weather man, one football player, one folk singer, four truck drivers, twenty-nine on unemployment, eleven unidentified, and the new assistant Orthodox rabbi for a congregation in Seattle.

(The latter is part of a very funny Jewish riff running throughout the book about the fagolim and their weird proclivities, such as ‘tinkling’ on each other).

I suppose another wholly unintentional aspect of Kramer’s book is how much ammunition it gives to anti-gay detractors and protestors to decry the ‘gay lifestyle’ as utterly immoral and devoid of any meaningful social relevance or human contact.

A good example of Kramer’s refreshingly direct, and therefore scandalously provocative, approach to this issue is the following comment: “Sex and love are different and any faggot given half a choice will take the former. And probably fucked with Adolf Hitler if he’d been cute!” The implication here is that sex is the be-all and end-all of gay life, and that gay men are completely indiscriminate in service of their cocks. Kramer points out that:

…whatever prodigies the male genitals can perform, the human mind is incapable of emotional focus when it’s asked to experience so much emotional intensity with so many different objects. And when orgasmic sex ceases to constitute emotional intensity for its participants, then what remains in the realm of sensory possibility for the deadened veteran – human torture, murder, the consumption of children?

Drugs-and-fucking are still very much a mainstay of the gay lifestyle even today, post-AIDS, especially in countries where the simple act of being gay can be punished by death (simply think of vast swathes of Africa and the entire Middle East, while general intolerance and bigotry continues to simmer in countries like Russia).

This is much more an act of defiance, I think, whereas Kramer’s point is that the energy and vitality expended on drugs-and-fucking would result in a Trojan horse type of situation within the gay community itself.

Well, of course that particular dark horse was AIDS, and not even Kramer could have foreseen the subsequent decimation of the gay community that he loved, as much as its excesses and shortcomings exasperated and upset him.

Of course, detractors have drawn an arrow-straight line between the excesses that Kramer depicts and the pandemic that followed. There is no doubt that the rampant promiscuity and drug use added to the death toll (and continues to do so).

However, there is equally no doubt that the energy and vitality that found expression in such promiscuity and drug use also resulted in one of the brightest artistic and cultural renaissances we have ever experienced, and one whose light we still look to today, in tantalising wonder at both its fierceness and its warmth. And Kramer himself is a product of this renaissance.

Another very real point to be made is that the book can be read as a general reflection of Kramer’s own prudishness, despite its explicitness. There is as much laughter as there is vulgarity, but it is a gallows humour that gives the novel a frenetic energy and pace.

The fact it is also written without any chapter breaks, with short sections and short sentences almost akin to dialogue in a play, inevitably means that the characters themselves get the short end of the stick (so to speak). The names and types do tend to blur after a while, but I think this is a deliberate narrative strategy on the part of Kramer, given his subject matter.

People unfamiliar with gay history (which sadly includes many gay people themselves) tend to see Faggots in isolation, but one has to bear in mind that the equally extraordinary Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran was published in the same year, another indication of the gay renaissance that Kramer seems so curiously dismissive of.

Is Faggots as negative and bile-ridden as it has been made out to be? I certainly do not think so. While Kramer has a keen eye for the absurd, he also has a deep and abiding love for his characters, and the community they define and inhabit. The fact that the book ends so prosaically, with one of the protagonists turning 40, is an abiding affirmation of this enduring love.

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Rock Hard

The Lava in My BonesThe Lava in My Bones by Barry Webster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an extraordinary novel, a great shaggy dog (or, in this case, shaggy rock) story that mixes satire, melodrama and magic realism into an intoxicating brew. Bodily and geological fluids – semen and lava – drench these pages, which begin with the book-in-a-book called ‘Fairy Tales of Flesh’. The Mr. Potato Head people are able to swop body parts and organs, and are always experimenting with more and more outrageous configurations.

None so outrageous perhaps as Sam Masonty’s infatuation with Franz Niederberger, the former a blue-blooded male (or so he thought). The two meet at a geology conference in Zurich (Sam is a geologist) and soon embark on a torrid affair, the very intensity of which ultimately drives them apart.

Sam returns to his home town but ends up in a mental hospital (where he helps the two doctors treating him complete their mystical transformation into a Sonny and Cher lookalike – don’t ask; this is one of many such manic but utterly delightful and whimsical escapades in this wonderful book).

The viewpoint character switches to Sam’s sister Sue for one section, and her own battle with her out-of-control body (she perspires honey). Sam eventually escapes from the loony bin, hitches up with Sue, and they stow away on a ship bound for Zurich and a presumably ecstatic reunion with Franz.

However, en route they have to deal with their religion-crazed mother and Sam’s long-gestating change into a man-beast (with a super-long penis). Sue has an epiphany with bees and Sam eventually arrives at Franz’s doorstep … only to discover the most logical and incredible transformation of them all.

No simple plot description can do this gonzo novel any justice. You just have to read it and, er, go with the flow. What I loved is how Barry Webster transcends gay conventions, and how gender becomes a cause célèbre in these pages. None so than with that ending, which cockily thumbs its snoot at a legion of single-gender gay literature and activism. Let Sam himself explain (note that this is not the ending):

… he was gripped by a fear of death, all the more ridiculous because he’s just about to see Franz and fulfil his most profound desire, a desire that is itself ridiculous because Franz is ridiculous, and their relationship is ridiculous. All at once the ridiculousness of everything – his impending death, Franz, ships exploding, girls sweating honey, supernatural urine, the Dairy Queen, men loving mermaids, summertime snowstorms, skies full of bees, Pentecostals at sea bottoms, giant spinning wheels, steel dresses, earthquakes on the far side of the world, and this Earth spinning so blindly on an axis without oil – assaults him, and the wonderful illogicalness of Life stares him in the face like God.

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Barracuda

BarracudaBarracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an extraordinary novel, brutal and tender in equal measure. Flawed, unlikeable protagonists are perennially fascinating; the writer has to strike a fine balance (or is it a trade-off?) between alienating the reader and remaining true to his vision. The reader, in turn, has to be unflinching in his commitment to the novel and his trust in the writer’s journey.

Barracuda is almost unbearable in its intensity at some points. There is horror, pathos and tragedy aplenty; but this is no ‘kitchen sink’ drama. Tsiolkas bravely tells the story of one man’s life, the choices he makes, the consequences stemming from those actions, and his quest for redemption and the ultimate answer to whether or not he is a good man who has done his utmost to live a good life, despite his many failings.

It took me a while to find the rhythm of this book, particularly at the beginning, as Tsiolkas interweaves the younger Danny’s life with the older (when he simply calls himself Dan). I was so confused that I thought it was a different character altogether, particularly in that he was living with, and contemplating leaving, a man called Clyde. But this is precisely Tsiolkas’s point, I think: Danny and Dan are indeed two very different individuals, and this is the story of their reconciliation with, and acceptance of, each other.

The story here is quite simple: a school swimming prodigy fails to live up to his reputation and his own expectations of himself. This deals such a fatal blow to his self-esteem that it derails his life, culminating in a shattering tragedy. Another writer would have built up slowly to the tragic event itself, using this narrative tension to propel the story towards its ending and some kind of catharsis.

Not so with Tsiolkas. Instead he takes quite a risk by outlining the tragedy right at the beginning, when the reader has barely begun to know Danny/Dan. Of course, this colours our perception, as human nature is wont to do. Only gradually do we learn the truth, and so our perceptions begin to change.

There is a lot going on in this novel: Tsiolkas uses his characters to make some impassioned statements about the immigrant experience in Australia, and about the entrenched racism and noblesse oblige inherent in such an apparently civilised society.

There is also a lot here about family dynamics, especially between parents and children and the misunderstandings and grudges that can get passed on from one generation to the next.

What I particularly admired about Tsiolkas’s writing here is how tangential Dan’s gayness is to the story. It is simply a facet of who he is, and in no way defines his total identity. Dan’s prison experiences are quite harrowing: he equates discovering the beauty and bliss of being fucked with the beauty and bliss of discovering Shakespeare.

Indeed, it is in prison where Dan discovers a lifelong love of reading as a means to take him out of himself and to suspend time, as swimming did when he was young.

This is not an easy book to read. Tsiolkas demands much of the reader. He pushes a lot of white, liberal, bourgeois buttons. At various times I was affronted, angry and repulsed. But there is a rawness to his writing and a satisfaction to be gleaned akin to a child tearing off half-healed scabs in order to make them bleed again.

And then there is the sheer brilliance of Tsiolkas’s tehnical skill as a writer, which takes you effortlessly from the mind and heart of the teenage Danny to the full-grown failure of the man and his many regrets. Utterly magnificent; this novel will burn a hole in your heart.

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Sturm und Drang

The Coming StormThe Coming Storm by Paul Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am amazed at how topical and incendiary this novel remains 15 years after its publication in 1999. Paul Russell went on to win the Ferro-Grumley Award for The Coming Storm in 2000 (and for a second time in 2012 for The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, a much different novel that marks the true skill and depth of this remarkable writer).

I was a bit leery about reading this as I kept on thinking of a gay version of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. However, Russell’s classically simple story of a 25-year-old teacher at a New York prep school having an affair with a 15-year-old student is remarkably free of both cliché and melodrama.

It is written with a clarity and a tenderness that must render this one of the pivotal texts of gay literature. Just as the ‘coming out’ novel is associated automatically with A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White, so is the ‘under-age romance’ indelibly linked with The Coming Storm.

The novel speaks volumes about free will, love and desire and the long shadows that parents cast over their children’s lives. This is largely due to the immense technical skill and insight of Russell as author, whose finely wrought characters range from the ageing head master and his wife to his younger protégé and his various lovers and acquaintances, to crucially the character of the young Noah himself, whose vulnerability and volatility are heartbreaking to behold.

The reader may think he or she knows how this is going to end, but Russell manages to eke out superlative nuances from what is ultimately such a hackneyed plot. Yes, the resolution is morally problematic, especially in the light of Arthur’s admonition to Tracy to hold onto this beautiful love and never, ever to reject or abandon Noah, which would be a betrayal of the uncompromising nature of their love itself.

There is a fascinating contrast and debate here between the young Tracy, who succumbs to his illicit passions, and the older Louis, who spends the bulk of his life closeted and unrequited. Is the one state of existence preferable to the other, or are both indeed equally morally compromised? And how thin is the divide between love and lust, sex and infatuation?

Russell’s depiction of Tracy’s first weekend away from the Forge School in the flesh pit that is New York City is deliciously lewd, and got me worrying how he was going to handle the inevitable sex scene between Tracy and Noah without it being titillating. Russell deals with this dilemma by having Noah experiencing gay anal sex for the first time with a fellow pupil, and having him reflect on the animal messiness of the act during a buffet hosted by his father:

Suddenly claustrophobic, and focusing on A.J.’s laden plate, Noah said, “Food. That looks like a good idea,” and fled for the buffet table that caterers had set up in the dining room. Shiny metal bins held spicy-smelling Indian food: yellow rice, mercurochrome chicken pieces, unidentifiable lumps in mustardy brown sauce, cheese cubes in spinach. Too many of the dishes looked like one kind of shit or another, and he thought back queasily to the dark matter on himself when he’d pulled out of Chris Tyler’s butt.

Contrast that with the following:

To speak a language that was as intimate and free as certain dreams, saying darkly, thrillingly, My cock inside of you. Your come in my mouth. Already in that dream he was easing his new friend out of those hip, baggy jeans, exposing smooth young flesh to the surprise of cool air. He focused on the boy’s slim, tight hips; with the tip of his tongue he tasted an asshole’s bitter, forbidden mystery.

Russell asks us to consider the separate fates of Tracy and Louis, the former giving in to desire and the latter never acknowledging the possibility within himself. Which is the stronger? Which is truer to his real self? There are no easy answers here, and everyone is culpable to some degree or other.

Is desire itself monstrous? Is love the true enemy of human happiness and achievement? While I was reading this the thought lurking at the back of my mind was: just how is Russell going to end a novel that transects such highs and lows? The end, when it does come, is of course just another bittersweet, exalted beginning.

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Eminent Outlaws

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed AmericaEminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What makes this history of gay literature so effective is Christopher Bram’s cogent and effective commentary on books, people and events. At the beginning he says he excluded his own oeuvre as this would have been self-serving; this made me wonder if he simply balked at turning his kiss-and-tell approach on his own role in this narrative. However, it was only towards the end that I realised, and appreciated, what Bram has done: he is the proverbial Greek chorus, elucidating, championing, lambasting, praising (and even excoriating).

He writes in the Acknowledgements:

Without being aware of it, I spent much of my life preparing to write this book. I came of age during a remarkable period of American history – the Sixties and Seventies – reading many of the novels, poems, and plays discussed here when they first came out.

The book is divided into five parts: the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s and after. In each part, Bram examines the major writers and works of the time period, together with an incisive analysis of the cultural context. However, the parts are not discontinuous, with Bram telling a seamless story, with characters moving into the wings when new ones take the stage, and then reappearing when their own stories intersect with those of others.

This makes for a surprisingly incestuous and ribald narrative, as many of the writers and personalities here were either involved with each other romantically and/or professionally, or were engaged in protracted intrigues, catfights, literary and/or personal feuds (this is particularly true of the 1950s to 1960s, when giants like Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and James Baldwin bestrode the literary landscape). Bram is not afraid to step into the fray with his own (often droll and acerbic) observations.

He writes:

This is not an all-inclusive, definitive literary history. I do not include everyone of value or importance. Nor am I putting together a canon of must-read writers. I am writing a large-scale cultural narrative, and I include chiefly those authors who help me tell that story – and who offer the liveliest tales.

Bram also adds: “The story of these men has never been told as a single narrative before, which is surprising.” And what a story it is, chockablock with epiphanies and tragedies, comedy and melancholy, eroticism and anger. I was shocked at what the nascent gay community faced in the 1950s and 1960s in particular. (One has to bear in mind that homosexuality was only declassified as a psychological disorder in the US in 1973.)

However, this is by no means a grim book. Bram humanises all the writers, playwrights and poets he describes, warts and all (some with more warts than others, of course), and places them in their socio-cultural context, as well as considering their overall role and status in the overall evolution of gay literature (even though Bram shies away from using the ‘c’ word, the aggregate effect here is to produce something of a gay canon, which is by no means a bad thing for new gay people to discover, or older ones to revisit).

My only quibble is that the part dealing with the 1990s and beyond is the sketchiest section of a very full and nuanced book. Bram does touch briefly on the end of the gay midlist after 2008, and the uncertainty introduced by ebooks, but points to the plethora of small presses, blogs and independent publishers in the 2000s, and the quantity and quality of extraordinary LGBT literature that continues to be written, published and, most importantly, read.

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Pillow Talk

The Cool Part of His Pillow by Rodney Ross is one of those novels that transcend their subject matter to become a universal statement, in this case about death and loss. But it is about so much more: regret, the inexorable march of age, the power of memory.

There is a wonderful scene towards the end where Barry Grooms undresses before a mirror for a merciless (re)appraisal of his mid-forties physiognomy. At this stage he is involved in a rather torrid but sexually satisfying (and, needless to say, short-lived) affair with a 24-year-old. “I stare at the beauty that comes automatically bundled and unappreciated with youth. I can’t be this anymore.”

What a brave and beautiful thing to say. It is probably a revelation as fraught with self-discovery as coming-out is in the first place. Sadly, it is also an epiphany that a lot of older gay men fail to experience.

There is another evocative scene towards the end when Barry discovers that his older friend Shorty is gay, from a generation where “men couldn’t always live openly together”. By the time the gay 90s arrives to sprinkle everyone liberally with fairy dust, people like Barry are already in their 60s. “An old man who likes other old men just makes people nervous.”

The book begins with Barry’s long-term partner being crushed to death in his parked car when a crane collapses at a nearby construction site. At the time he has their two pugs with him in the car. It is a macabre touch that allows Rodney Ross to explore the random, often baroque ordinariness of lived experience.

It is also the lead-in to a key scene at the end – just why was his partner parked there at that particular time? The (older gay) reader automatically thinks he was there for some kind of lurid pet-friendly assignation, and Ross certainly plays on this stereotypical perception. The truth, however, is far more prosaic and shattering. It is a delicate, pitch-perfect scene that had me crying like a baby.

You have to be careful when you write about sadness and loss: too much, and it quickly becomes maudlin; if the author is too flippant, it can become equally grating. Ross strikes a perfect balance, detailing Barry’s painful journey towards acceptance of his irrevocably altered life. There is one particular event that shapes this journey: when his mother becomes ill, and Barry realises she was already sick when he himself was grieving, but had wanted to spare him this additional worry.

Tender and painful at times, but always heartfelt and brimming over with the sheer unalloyed joy of being alive, this is a truly special book.