Coitus Interruptus

Pardon my being a bit cutesy with my choice of a title for this post. I figured for sure it would draw attention and probably generate some additional readers to my blog. No, this posting is not going to be what one would presume from the title but rather a discussion of books that I withdrew from reading before completion.  Since I first started writing my blog most of what I have discussed have been reviews of books I recently read and how each of them has impacted me on the novel I am writing. Through some combination of good choices and good luck most of what I have read during this time has impressed and inspired me. A couple of works disappointed me but even those I completed reading and I found some benefit from the experience. Today in my “the glass is half empty” mindset I want to briefly comment on books that for one reason or another I did not finish reading. This will be the first of two such postings. Today’s discussion is about works of fiction that I did not complete. Part Two will involve works of non-fiction, or more specifically books that I have explored that deal with the actual craft of writing. Some of these works I do intend to revisit but for various reasons did not finish in my initial effort. So much for introductory comments.

The first book I want to mention is A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. By all accounts this is a book I should read. The book is the first of White’s trilogy of autobiographical novels that deal with a young man’s coming of age and dealing with his homosexuality. Good grief, this is exactly the theme of the novel I am writing so it should have been a no-brainer to finish, right? To be honest I never got very far into the book, found it to be agonizingly slow and simply lost interest. The Publishing Triangle, the LGBT publishing association, has listed this as #14 on its list of 100 best lesbian and gay novels so I have to believe that the book deserves a second chance on my part. I think part of the problem for me was that I had just finished several novels which I found stunning and White’s book was taking too long to get me intrigued so I moved on to something else which I found more appealing. I have this back on my To-Read list and probably will give it another shot before long.

Best American Gay Fiction #2 edited by Brian Bouldrey and published in 1997 is the second volume in a series of short story collections which deals with gay life in contemporary America. By nature of its being a collection of twenty-one short stories, the reader has an opportunity to sample a host of authors and writing styles in one book, which I believed would be beneficial. Unfortunately I only got through four stories, finding just one of them to be worthwhile. That was the first story, “Il Paradiso” by Andrew Holleran, author of the widely read novel Dancer from the Dance which I had recently read. This was a rather depressing story of an afternoon an older man spends in a gay bath house where he frequently goes. During the time there he is consumed with self-loathing, longing to touch the young men he sees there, knowing how much they would reject his advances and refusing to fulfill his sexual cravings with men of his own age. Pretty much of a downer theme but still well written. The other three stories I found totally unsatisfying and as a result the book sits on my shelf now collecting dust. There may be some gems in the book. Since each of the stories is typically 20 pages or less, I might open it up again to find out. My hunch though is that I probably won’t; too many other books I want to read including one I am currently reading  Don’t Let Me Go by J.H. Trumble. I will be reviewing that soon.

Background Reading for My Novel: Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette

Becoming A Man: Half A Life Story

This is the first work of non-fiction I have read since I began writing my novel just over five months ago. Since my novel is about a gay man in his late teens I have focused most of my recreational reading on other works of fiction where the protagonist is gay and/or coming of age. I chose to read Paul Monette’s 1992 agonizing, painful yet beautiful memoir which won the National Book Award for non-fiction because it is not only an important piece of 20th century literature but also one of the most significant books of all time by a gay author.

Monette who died from AIDS in 1995 struggled for the first 30 years of his life accepting his homosexuality much as I did for the same period of time. The parallels do not end there. Since Monette, born in the fall of 1945, was exactly 6 months older than me, I could so well relate to the cultural biases of that time as well as the self-loathing and denial he experienced through his teens and twenties. Like Monette I lived in constant fear in that early part of my life that someone would find out I was sexually drawn to men rather than women. Like him I submerged myself in my studies throughout my college years to avoid coming to terms with who I was.  I too lived a lie for nearly thirty years, ashamed of my desires and fearing rejection or worse if those whom I knew discovered my darkest fantasies.

Like Monette I sought professional help to “cure” me of my “illness”. In the last two chapters of his memoir the author recounts his absurd attempts to heterosex himself, having a series of intimate relations with women over several years while occasionally falling off the wagon and getting down and dirty with another man. Some of these women he cared for deeply. Later he came to realize his adventures were feeble efforts to convince everyone, most importantly himself, that he was straight. While I did not bed down with the number of women Monette did, in one respect I actually did take the deception one step further by actually getting married in 1969 and staying in the marriage more than six years. There were other similarities in our lives’ experiences but I think you get the point that this was a story to which sadly I could so well relate.

Reading Monette’s memoir was a painful remembrance of my own life experience. It also was a reminder of how far I have come since that time. Just as I have, Monette thankfully found self-acceptance, happiness and love before his death at the age of 49. Yes at times the memoir is very hard to read because of the self-loathing, shame, sadness, anger, and loneliness that Monette had to endure for more than half his life. Ironically though it is a joy to read because it is so beautifully written and brutally honest. The author taught writing and literature and his mastery of the written word is apparent throughout the book. If I had to find one flaw in the work it would simply be that his descriptions of his attempts to heterosex himself got to be a bit confusing at times. Because of his sleeping with multiple women at that time in his life I would find myself thinking “Now who was she again?”  But that is a minor criticism in what I regard as an otherwise stellar work. The book ends just after he has met Roger Horwitz, the man who would be his life partner for the next ten years, sadly ending with the AIDS-related death of Horwitz in 1985. Though I have not yet read it, Monette’s 1988 Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, chronicles his years with Horwitz and how that time turned him into one of the nation’s leading AIDS activist. I fully intend to read this book as well as some of Monette’s fiction.

I am sure that for anyone growing up in or after the Will & Grace era it is difficult to fully appreciate just how oppressive life was for gay people a generation or more earlier. Let’s be honest: even with the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage there is still a strong undercurrent of homophobia rampant in this country.

This was truly a wonderful book and one I am so glad I took the time to read.

Background Reading for My Novel: A Home at the End of the World

A Home at the End of the World

One of my favorite movies from the new millennium has been the 2002 film The Hours starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Allison Janney and John C. Reilly. While I have not as yet read the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham upon which it was based I have seen the film twice and loved it both times. In the event that you have neither read the book nor seen the movie the plot centers around three different stories each taking place in a different era, 1923, 1951 and 2001. Not wanting to reveal too much, the three stories are inter-connected and it is only at the very end that the viewer fully appreciates the connection. Each story in itself is fascinating and the acting is nothing short of superb. The movie was nominated for 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture; Nicole Kidman deservingly won the award for Best Actress. I have the book on my To Read list and hope before years’ end to get around to reading it.

Having enjoyed this movie so much, I was thrilled to learn that Cunningham had written an earlier novel A Home at the End of the World in 1990 that fit into my queer fiction genre that I am pursuing as part of my research for the novel I am writing. This book is told entirely in the first person, although the narrator changes from chapter to chapter. Most of the narration is told by two of the main characters, Jonathan Glover and Bobby Morrow, but two additional characters also add their perspective, Jonathan’s mother Alice and a woman named Clare who is introduced about one-third of the way into the book.

Jonathan and Bobby meet as thirteen-year olds in suburban Cleveland in the 1970’s. Both have had troubled childhoods in the 1960’s although their experiences were quite different. Jonathan is introspective and not quite sure of himself. Bobby has had more than his share of tragedy growing up and is very hip, rebellious and somewhat strange. The two boys quickly become best of friends and Bobby soon becomes a part of the Glover family. As time passes the two boys begin to experiment sexually with each other. After graduating from high school Jonathan moves to NYC to start college while Bobby remains with Jonathan’s parents. Jonathan’s roommate in New York is Clare, a woman in her 30’s, who becomes his soul mate although their relationship is strictly platonic. Jonathan by now is openly gay and develops a very sexually fulfilling but emotionally unsatisfactory long-term relationship with a bartender named Erich. Complicating matters Bobby comes to New York, moves in with Jonathan and Clare and is soon seduced by her. Not wanting to reveal any more of the storyline (hopefully I’ve enticed you enough that you may want to read the book) I will simply say that the plot thickens and before story’s end the three main characters have built a very unconventional but loving relationship.

This was an exquisitely well written and enjoyable read, unlike the book I had read prior to this. I loved the way the perspective of the story changed from chapter to chapter; it definitely got me thinking about the way I am writing my own novel which I have been writing strictly in the third person. I found all the characters interesting and believable. While the book has an undeniable sadness to it, at the same time it is very heartwarming. I’ve learned that the book was adapted into a 2004 film starring Colin Farrell as Bobby, Dallas Roberts as Jonathan, Robin Wright Penn as Clare and Sissy Spacek as Alice. I have seen a trailer of the movie and a friend of mine told me how enjoyable it was which does not surprise me. I certainly plan to see it sometime soon.

Background Reading for My Novel: When You Don’t See Me

When You Don't See Me

I’ve been out-of-town visiting friends and am now just getting back into the groove of my normal routine. It’s been more than a month since I have posted any reviews on any of the readings I have recently completed as part of my preparation for the novel I am writing. Today I want to comment on one of the books I recently read, When You Don’t See Me by Timothy James Beck, first published in 2007.

This was a book I was eager to read because in so many ways at least on the surface it very closely resembles the novel I am currently writing. Like my protagonist, the story centers around a 19-year-old who leaves home because of the rejection and alienation he feels for being gay. He moves to a big city (in this case Manhattan, in my story Brian moves to San Francisco) in hopes of finding acceptance and the chance to be himself and live life fully. It also takes place in the recent past so the prevailing sociopolitical attitudes I reasoned would be similar. “Eureka!”  was my initial reaction. I have found something that should inspire me and stimulate my creative juices.

As it turned out this proved to be a very disappointing book. The story began promisingly enough but quickly sputtered out. I did not find the protagonist or for that matter any of the characters particularly interesting or sympathetic. One problem I thought was that the author threw in too many individuals and never really developed them fully.  Even the story’s main characters seemed to be shallow at best. In addition I found one part of the story line to be absurdly contrived. Nick, the protagonist has 3 roommates, one of whom is a woman named Morgan whom he and his other roommates find quite irritating. About 3/4 of the way through the book we find out that a woman whom Nick works for just happens to be Morgan’s long-lost sister. Somehow the reader is expected to find that plausible in a city as huge as NYC. Pretty absurd in my opinion.

The book seemed to drag on and on and never really took off. Even though the book is less than 300 pages it took an eternity to read not because it was deep but simply because it was so vapid. The story ends with Nick temporarily returning to his small Midwestern roots to confront his family. That part of the story is left more or less to the reader’s imagination other than a vague suggestion that Nick and his twin brother may have a shot at finally becoming friends.

I was frankly glad to turn the last page of this book and move on to some other more interesting story with better character development. Fortunately the next book I read was very fulfilling and extremely well written. I will fill in the details on that in the next few days.