Dinner with an Old Friend

The other night I had dinner with an old friend. Actually John is much more than an old friend although he certainly is that as well. Thirty years ago I had a six month romantic affair with him and to this day I regard him as one of the great loves of my life. I met him in a popular gay bar in the Castro neighborhood as I was watching Pat Benatar’s Love Is a Battlefield video. I had just returned from a trip to New Orleans where I first saw the video and was reliving happy memories of my trip. As fate would have it John had only recently moved to San Francisco and had lived in New Orleans so conversation with him was quite easy and enjoyable. I was quickly smitten with him; besides being physically attractive, he was intelligent, articulate, soft-spoken and sincere. My partner of five years and I had an unspoken agreement that extra-curricular sex was permissible and up to this point I had never allowed myself to enjoy anything more than a one night roll in the sheets with someone else. Despite my primary relationship being very satisfying, John was someone who touched me in a different way and throwing caution to the wind I allowed myself to fall in love with him. While my six month fling was wonderful I did pay a dear price for it, hurting my partner deeply and causing a serious rift in our relationship requiring a period of time that we needed to live apart so we could work things out. Happily eventually we did and now 35 years after we first met he and I remain very much a loving couple. From time to time I have wondered if I had not already been in a loving relationship would something more lasting between John and I have happened. I of course will never know that and certainly am not suggesting that I wish that would have been the case. After all this time I do though still remember what my feelings for him were and believe that at least from my perspective that was a possibility.

Over the years the two of us have stayed in touch although often there are long stretches between phone calls and emails.  My life partner long ago got over the notion that he was a threat to our relationship and in fact has told me on multiple occasions that he enjoys his company. A week before John’s birthday I contacted him and told him I would love to take him out for a birthday dinner, giving the two of us plenty of time to catch up on what was happening in our lives. And so we did on his birthday eve. The three and a half hours we set in the restaurant there was never any awkward silence or a sense that one of us was bored or restless. As had been the case that first night we met, conversation flowed freely as we discussed a wide range of subjects about both our individual lives and more global matters. A year earlier in an exchange of emails he alluded to a series of bad things that had happened to him and told me he would go into more detail when we next saw one another. Even though I did see him once briefly between our 2012 email exchange and our dinner engagement, the timing was not right for heavy conversation. And so after talking for hours about so many other matters I inquired about the details of his misfortunes. As I listened to the painful account of his recent past I felt not only deeply sad for him but despondent that I had not been there to help him in some way. Here was a man whom I truly loved, someone with whom under different circumstances I might have had a much longer intimate relationship. I felt that I had failed him as a friend by simply not making the effort to stay in touch better and I was disappointed in myself for my shortcoming.

I will not beat up myself too much over all this; I do though feel I have learned a valuable lesson about the importance of not letting a lot of time pass without touching base with those for whom I care deeply. John if you should read this and from our dinner conversation I know you do check out my blog, I hope you are neither annoyed or embarrassed that I have taken such liberties about discussing our past relationship and recent conversation.  I want you to know that I am there for you even if it’s just to be a good set of ears, a shoulder to lean on, or a set of arms to give you a big hug when you feel you need one. I love you and am so happy that we met 30 years ago and have stayed in touch. Stay well my friend and know you are loved.

Background Reading for My Novel: “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby

Disappointment is an unfortunate fact of life. Let’s face it: all of us have had more than our share of it in our lives. Many things can trigger this: someone’s actions, a vacation spot, a meal at a restaurant, a show, a movie, a book.  The list is almost endless. If the source of the disappointment is something that has won widespread praise you may wonder during or after your experience what all the fuss was about. High expectations often can lead to major letdowns. Fortunately this book did not elicit that response from me – just the opposite in fact happened.

When I began reading The Great Gatsby I was well aware of the high esteem the book enjoys in the literary world.  It was a book I had long-planned to read and somehow never did despite its brief length. One quarter of the way through the book I had the dreaded sense that this was going to be a literary disappointment for me. Yes I could appreciate Fitzgerald’s writing talent but I could not help but wonder why it has been consistently ranked one of the greatest works of American literature.

And then the magic happened. The book which had started so slowly soon picked up tempo so that by the time I finished it I felt I had been taken on a wonderful journey. It amazes me that Fitzgerald could create such an incredible tale and such fascinating characters in a mere 180 pages. This is the story of Jay Gatsby’s rise from his humble origins to a life of great wealth, of his obsessive and doomed love for Daisy (née Fay) Buchanan, a love that ultimately results in his downfall. Though set in Jazz Age Prohibition-era 1922 in the fictional village of West Egg, Long Island, the story has an almost timeless quality about the rewards and dangers of pursuing the American dream. The story is told through the eyes of Gatsby’s next-door neighbor, Nick Carraway, a bond salesman, who like Gatsby served in World War I. While Nick appears to live a comfortable life, living in a small house that he rents, Gatsby’s home is a lavish mansion where he frequently holds extravagant parties. The two men become friends after Nick attends one of Gatsby’s elaborate gatherings. Nick’s presence at this event and the brilliant images the author used to depict the party scene was for me the point when the pace of the story began to accelerate. In hindsight I now appreciate that Fitzgerald in the measured first forty plus pages was setting the stage for what would follow.

Gatsby’s efforts to reignite the love affair he had with Daisy five years earlier and to convince her to leave her husband is of course the centerpiece of this story. At one point Nick warns his friend of the futility of pursuing Daisy by simply stating, “You can’t repeat the past.” To this Gatsby cries back incredulously “Can’t repeat the past? But of course you can!” This stubborn blindness and refusal to let go of the past drives Gatsby’s every movement which sets in motion events that have tragic consequences. By the time the novel ends, it becomes evident how shallow, dishonest and self-absorbed all of the characters are with the notable exception of Nick. Early in the novel, Nick makes this comment about himself which by story’s end proves quite accurate. “Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

This is truly a masterful story with so many memorable quotes. Here are a few of my favorites:

“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

“I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.”

“There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind.”

“The rich get richer and the poor get – children.”

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”    The novel’s final sentence.

This was a novel which had little in common with the book I am writing but has so inspired me to be a better writer. Thank you Mr. Fitzgerald. I feel forever indebted to you.

Background Reading for My Novel: “Running in Bed” by Jeffrey Sharlach

Running in Bed

Running in Bed by Jeffrey Sharlach is a book that I found very enjoyable despite certain reservations I will discuss later.  As a gay man who like the main character Josh Silver came out in the 1970’s and was so impacted by the horror of AIDS, the storyline was both quite believable and fascinating. The tale begins with Josh, a recent young college graduate moving to Manhattan where he has accepted a position with a prestigious advertising firm. At this time he is still in denial that he is gay, just as I was until 1976. He seeks the help of a psychiatrist to “cure” him of his “illness” (check, only I went through that absurd effort in the 1960’s) but finally realizes the futility of his efforts. He initially takes a cautious approach to experimenting with his gay self but once he gets a taste of what it is like to walk on the wild side, he throws himself into it wholeheartedly (double check!).  As the story continues Josh rapidly advances at his firm, has a very active and satisfying sex life and makes many friends, eventually even feeling comfortable coming out as a gay man at work. In 1978 while spending most of his weekends at Fire Island’s hip gay neighborhood The Pines, he meets and falls in love with a man named Tommy who is a popular call boy. Eventually they become a couple. Fast forward now to the summer of 1981 and the first reports in the New York Times of gay men diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, the disfiguring and at that point almost always fatal skin cancer. Although it would be several years before the acronym was used, this of course was the beginning of the AIDS pandemic that would take such a heavy toll on the gay male population in the USA in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The last third of the book deals with the growing horror of the disease as its impact grows steadily closer and closer to Josh and Tommy’s lives.

Anyone now over the age of 45 and who lived through the nightmarish dawning of AIDS knows just how scary that time was. Certainly as a subgroup, gay men and those close to them were especially susceptible to being in a constant state of fear. The author acknowledges losing both his partner and most of his friend to AIDS during that period and does a superb job portraying the pain and fear that he along with many of us had to bear during that dark period in our recent past. He begins his story at a time when gay men felt liberated, carefree, hopeful and yes safe living a hedonistic life, when it seemed that the worst consequence of being sexually active was a visit to the VD clinic. Sharlach very effectively transitions that world to the horrors and sadness of the 1980’s at the slow pace at which it actually occurred.

Why some who lived a life similar to Josh and Tommy survived and others did not will forever remain a mystery to me. Those who want to provide the simplistic explanation of some divine plan I believe are not only delusional but flat out offensive. To suggest that some omnipotent power gets up every day and after a couple of cups of Morning Joe goes through his/her list and decides, “this one I’ll let live; this one, nope” is as about as close to reality as the idea that Santa Claus decides who’s going to get ice skates and who’s going to get a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking. Just as wild fires destroy whole communities and somehow manage to not touch certain homes in their path, there is no rhyme or reason to any of it. Some of us despite countless times practicing what we now view as unsafe sex never became infected; others of us became infected and yet thirty or more years later are still alive and doing well. And of course far too many who were no more or less promiscuous or unworthy perished.  It is a bizarre, sad but fascinating phenomenon that perhaps one day science will be able to explain.

The reservation I had about the book was that far too often I felt the author dumbed down the reader by explaining things that seemed all too obvious. While using historical facts and events is perfectly fine (I am doing that myself in the novel I am writing), explaining terms at length as though the reader had never heard of them was irritating. At times I felt like I was reading the transcript of a history lecture. A few examples: explaining the derivation and significance of the “Friends of Dorothy” code word for gays and lesbians; explaining the 1982 battle over the use of the word “Olympics” in what now is called the “Gay Games”;  explaining T-4 cell count numbers to differentiate between an AIDS and ARC diagnosis. There were certainly other examples but the point I am making is that this was a work of fiction not a documentary so the repeated drum roll of explanations struck me as both unnecessary and annoying. I am sure that some readers may not be familiar with such terms and events but I suspect they are in a small minority of the book’s audience.

Despite that weakness I thought this was a good snapshot of life in gay America, especially big city gay America, during a critical 15 year period. Published in 2012, it was a quick and easy read and a journey I was glad to take.

Background Reading for My Novel: “Dream Boy” by Jim Grimsley

Dream Boy

I recently finished Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley, the second book of his I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. The author’s Comfort & Joy I liked very much and it made me want to sample more by him. As much as I enjoyed the first book, Dream Boy proved to be even better. Both stories take place in the American South in the recent past. Grimsley grew up in North Carolina and has lived in Atlanta for many years so he obviously knows the mores and fabric of this area very well. Both books deal with the struggles gay men growing up in the South have to endure.

While Comfort & Joy takes place primarily in Atlanta and deals with the difficulties two grown men who love one another must face, the earlier published Dream Boy by contrast focuses on two teenage boys living next door to each other in rural North Carolina. The physical attraction that develops between the two is almost immediate and very profound. The shy, bright Nathan, younger by two years, has recently moved into town with his parents. Roy, the farm boy next door, has a steady girlfriend and is popular in school although academics are definitely not his strength.  The secret love affair that develops between the two teenagers comes at a dear price for Nathan. Roy has made him swear to tell no on about it, obviously afraid or unwilling to admit to himself his true sexual identity. An important subplot to the novel is the relationship between Nathan and his alcoholic, religious zealot father. Early in the book the author hints that there is something seriously wrong between the two but the disturbing nature of their relationship is only later revealed. Before the story’s end, tragic events happen. I will refrain from revealing the details but the conclusion will lead most readers feeling shocked and sad, possibly in tears.

This is by no means a feel good book. It is disturbing and by the final pages the reader may be wondering the specifics of just what has or has not happened. But the story and characters that Grimsley creates in less than 200 pages are truly unforgettable. Enticing, entrancing, powerful, moving, violent, tragic, sparse, brilliantly crafted and executed, immensely satisfying. Those are just a few of the phrases that I would use to describe this work. It is beyond question one of the most compelling though heart-breaking books I have read in a long time.

The story was adapted for the screen and had a limited release in 2008 receiving mostly positive reviews and starring Stephan Bender as Nathan and Maximillian Roeg as Roy.

Thank you Jim for this jewel of a book and for helping me to become a better writer.

Background Reading for My Novel: “Three Junes” by Julia Glass

Three Junes

I’m just now catching up on some delayed reviews of four books that I read over the past month. Today I want to comment on Three Junes by Julia Glass, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2002.

What a superb and totally rewarding novel this proved to be. While a review that I had read made the book sound appealing, it far surpassed my expectations.  I absolutely loved it and since I myself am struggling with writing a first novel I was in awe that this was the author’s debut effort.  The book is not one to be rushed; rather it is best enjoyed by a slower pace of reading to savor the author’s great gift of storytelling, and what a gift she has. Three Junes is actually a literary triptych, with overlapping characters in each of the three stories. The book’s title refers to events that happen in the month of June, 1989, 1995 and 1999.  Each story focuses on people dealing with grief and loss and trying to survive after having their hearts broken. Through effective use of flashback we learn much about the lives of the three main characters and those who are close to them. The first and last stories are told from the third person POV. The middle story is narrated by the book’s main character, a young man named Fenno.

The opening story “Collies” focuses on Paul McLeod, an older recently widowed Scotsman who is trying to put some sense back in his life while vacationing in Greece, six months after his wife’s death. While there he becomes infatuated with a young American female artist named Fern. Even though the two never become sexually intimate Paul is able to envision a brighter future for himself as a result of their encounter. This story’s title is a reference to Paul’s wife Maureen who devoted her life to the breeding and raising of border collies. Through a series of flashbacks we learn much about Paul and Maureen’s relationship with one another and with their three sons. “Collies” won the 1999 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Medal for Best Novella.

The second story “Upright” is by far the longest and most moving of the three stories. It focuses on the life of Paul’s oldest son Fenno who is gay and is now living in Greenwich Village where he owns a popular and successful independent bookstore. Though openly gay, Fenno continually struggles with fully accepting his sexuality and is terrified of contracting AIDS.  The title “Upright” is in fact a reference to this fear and Fenno’s constant reminder to himself; “stay upright and you will stay alive.” While living in New York he develops a very close platonic relationship with a flamboyant music critic named Mal, struggling to survive while living with AIDS. The bond between the two men is poignant and is the most engaging of any of the relationships in the novel. Fenno also has an ongoing sexually satisfying but emotionally unrewarding relationship with a photographer named Tony; the relationship eventually results in Fenno being painfully humiliated by Tony’s chicanery. All of this we learn through flashbacks since the setting of the story is the family home in Scotland where Fenno has gathered with his two younger brothers and their wives following the death of their father. During the visit Fenno is asked to make an important decision which if he agrees to do will dramatically change his life forever. While I felt that the author did an excellent job in drawing the reader into each of the three stories, “Upright” is by far the most endearing and interesting.

The final section “Boys” takes place in the Hamptons, where Tony, Fenno’s ex-boyfriend, is house-sitting. Sharing the house with him is Fern the young artist first introduced in “Collies”. She is dealing with feelings of guilt from the recent accidental death of her husband with whom she had become estranged shortly before his death. Fern has recently learned that she is pregnant and is struggling with how to let the father of the child know. At the invitation of Tony, Fenno comes for a weekend visit. Even though Fenno and Fern never realize the link they share through Fenno’s father Paul, they nonetheless enjoy each other’s company and a bond soon develops between the two. While I felt this was the weakest of the three stories it nonetheless was well written and provided a satisfying conclusion to the book.

If one is looking for a fast-paced action novel, this is not the book to read. But for anyone interested in a character-intensive, beautifully nuanced literary novel this book is almost certain to please.  This was clearly one of the best books I have read this year. I fully intend to read more of Julia Glass’ work since she clearly is a masterful storyteller.