A Tight Fit

Narrow RoomsNarrow Rooms by James Purdy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The most forceful impression of Narrow Rooms is how politically incorrect a novel it is. In a modern age where all LGBT people are supposed to be happy, well-adjusted poster children for homo-normativity, Purdy’s novel is like a runny dog turd smeared on a hot pavement.

A gothic tour de force of lust, perversion, obsession and violence, all often on the same page, Narrow Rooms ostensibly centres on a lovers’ triangle gone wrong. To give away any more of the lurid plot, especially the ending, would be to deprive Purdy’s novel of much of its impact. This is a book to experience; beware that it will probably hit you like a sledgehammer in the nuts.

What struck me immediately about Narrow Rooms is how pared down the writing is. Gone is the often ornamental writing and baroque plot contrivances of earlier novels like Cabot Wright Begins and Eustace Chisholm and the Works.

Here Purdy strips his writing bare, just as he lays bare the tortured souls of this wretched trilogy of characters. As a result, the book reads like a parable, while also having the impact of a Biblical story. This is also quite a brief novel, barely 200 pages, that moves inexorably from Sidney arriving home from jail to the domestic apocalypse unleashed at the end.

What is one to make of Purdy’s contention that true love is as much a destructive force as it is a creative one? That desire or even lust thwarted is liable to fester in a person, leading him to lash out with all the pain and rejection that he himself feels he has been dealt?

I constantly use the male pronoun, although I would hesitate to label this a ‘gay’ novel, despite the proliferation of gay sex, which runs the gamut from enthusiastic tonguing to eyebrow-raising S&M (and this all in a 1978 novel).

Despite the violence and anguish, can one ultimately see this as a novel of hope rather than despair? I would like to think so. After this late novel Purdy himself had about 20 years left to live, holed up in the Brooklyn, NY apartment where he stayed for 45 years until his death in 2009, largely ignored by the literary establishment that had so fêted him at the start of his career.

And yet I do not think this is a bitter novel. Instead it is a remarkable distillation of the uncompromising vision that Purdy had been honing throughout his career. As Paul Binding writes in the 1985 Introduction to the reprint: “If love is what frequently brings people into damned-seeing states of being, it – and it alone – is what brings about redemption.”

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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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The Lost Library

The Lost Library: Gay Fiction RediscoveredThe Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered by Tom Cardamone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, what a fantastic tribute to the power of literature to broaden people’s minds and to inspire and change lives.

What struck me again and again was how so many of these gay authors, writing about literature that had a seminal impact on them, recounted how encountering a specific book in a bookshop, library or even garage sale at a specific time had a crucial effect on their socio-sexual development and identity.

I wonder if this is something we have lost in the age of ebooks: that sense of walking into a library or bookshop, the smell of the stacks, the reverent silence, and the incredible sense of discovery and empowerment when you find a particular book that seems to speak to you directly in a language you understand.

Of course, ebooks have also revolutionised both publishing and reading in that a lot of out-of-print titles can be revived economically for a new generation of readers. The Lost Library clearly represents a vanguard of this movement.

Indeed, the book ends with Philip Clark’s ‘A History of the Reprinting of Gay Novels’, which recounts how specialist presses and dedicated small publishers have revived some of the out-of-print authors celebrated in Cardamone’s book.

What also struck me was the incredible depth and range of gay literature. I was astounded to learn that “travel writer Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend (1870) is generally considered the earliest example of a consciously gay novel.”

Many of the themes we take so for granted today, such as the coming-out novel, were pioneered by writers who were generally well ahead of their time, and who wrote and published in very difficult cultural and political climates. There were gay novels written in the time of WWII and the Vietnam War; the first YA novel saw the light of day in the 1960s.

This is by no means a comprehensive history of gaylit. What Cardamone does instead is stitch together a living document from other writers’ experiences and memories. This is an incredible read, alive and rich in the best possible way. May this book itself never be lost.

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