“Mysterious Skin” by Scott Heim

Mysterious Skin

Earlier this year I read Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim and only now am I getting around to reviewing it. I recall when I finished it my reaction was “Wow!” This is an engrossing and extraordinarily well-written work, especially when one considers that it was Heim’s first published novel. The subject matter is one of society’s great taboos, child abuse/pedophilia. The story traces the lives of two young boys, Brian Lackey and Neil McCormick, both eight years old when the tale begins; they live in Hutchinson, Kansas about 50 miles NW of Wichita and the year is 1981. While they do not really know one another until the story’s end eleven years later, their lives are very much connected. The two though could not be more different.

Brian is quiet, withdrawn and a somewhat nerdy kid. He is one of two children in a middle-class family in which the parents are increasingly growing apart. Brian’s father is determined to make his son a Little League star even though the boy has no interest and very little talent. In the opening chapter Brian is under the crawl space of his house late at night, bruised and confused, having no recollection of what happened to him over the past five hours. He eventually becomes convinced he was abducted by aliens and held captive in a UFO. Trying to discover what occurred on that fateful evening is his narrative.

Neil lives with his single, promiscuous mom on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. He is daring and a hell-raiser, the total opposite of Brian. We learn early on that he has been seduced and sexually abused by “Coach” Heider. Rather than feeling violated by the experience, he is comfortably drawn into the relationship. As the story progresses and Neil reaches puberty, he turns to hustling and targets adult men, craving the satisfaction and security he experienced with Coach Heider. Unlike Brian who cannot remember what happened to him, Neil cannot and does want to forget.

The story has a shifting first person POV. Besides Brian and Neil we see the story unfold through the perspective of three other people:

•Deborah, Brian’s sister
•Wendy Peterson, Neil’s close friend since sixth grade who has a serious crush on Neil but who eventually must accept the fact that his sexual cravings are not for the opposite sex
•Eric Preston, Neil’s other close friend who is gay and in love with Neil although the feeling is not mutual

Other key characters include Avelyn Friesen, whom Brian seeks out when he learns of her accounts of being abducted by aliens, Brian’s parents, Neil’s mother and of course Coach Heider.

This is not a book for the squeamish and I am certain many will be repelled by the graphic descriptions of Coach Heider’s appalling predatory behavior. If however you can stomach the subject matter, it is difficult to not be impressed by the incredible story that Heim has to tell. The author tells a frightening, disturbing tale populated with believable and interesting characters.

In 2004 there was a film adaptation of the book starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet as the teenage Neil and Brian, and Bill Sage as the Coach. Gordon-Levitt has recently become one of my favorite actors and seems the perfect actor to capture Neil’s complex and fascinating character. The film like the book received excellent reviews and I look forward to seeing it sometime soon. The novel is a definite winner, perhaps the best book I have read in 2014.

“Probation” by Tom Mendicino

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I was pleasantly surprised at how well written this book was, especially considering it was Mendicino’s first novel. The plot sounded interesting enough: Andy Nocera, a married man in his late thirties, is arrested for having sex with another guy at an interstate rest stop. His life quickly goes downhill from that point. Besides the public shame and legal ramifications, he loses both his job and his wife. As the title suggests, the story traces his life during his one year probation period. This is Andy’s story and is told from his point of view. Over the course of his probation Andy must finally come to terms with accepting himself as a gay man, something he has struggled with since his early teens. We learn much about Andy’s back story through the effective use of flashback.

Probation is an excellent accounting of one man’s fall from grace and the difficult road he must take over the course of one year before he can achieve happiness and inner peace. Andy is neither a hero nor a villain. He is just one screwed-up guy trying to make some sense out of his life. The author has strong writing skills and delivers a story that is powerful and compelling. In addition to Andy the other primary characters are:
• Matt: the court-appointed counselor, psychiatrist as well as Jesuit priest. Matt is the perfect foil for Andy and plays an important role in getting Andy to accept himself.
• Alice: his ex-wife who despite everything that has happened still cares deeply about Andy.
• Andy’s mom who bails him out of jail, welcomes him into her home and provides him important emotional support.

Some of the comments others have made about this book frankly annoy me. Apparently some people found Andy whiny, self-righteous, irritating and pathetic. One person commented “If you’re dissatisfied then change your life and stop whining. He seemed to ‘enjoy’ being miserable, drinking and smoking himself into a stupor.” Really? I could not disagree more strongly. The story as I recall takes place in North Carolina in the early 90’s, not exactly the cradle of love your gay neighbor. To apply a mindset of Will and Grace, Modern Family and Marriage Equality to Andy’s time and place as I suspect many Generation Xers and Millennials do is preposterous. Even in 2014 there is enormous societal pressure to think and act straight. Andy grew up in an environment that told him he was sick and disgusting for his sexual urges and behavior and he should probably be beaten to a pulp like Matthew Shepherd was. As a result he is self-loathing and resorts to drinking heavily to mask the pain he is feeling. “Don’t judge me till you have walked a mile in my shoes” seems an apt way of describing his situation. That is why I can and apparently others cannot understand his anguish, self-hatred and suffering.

Like Andy I too was once married, trying to live the Leave it To Beaver existence society had pressured me into believing I needed to pursue to achieve happiness. Even though I had known since my early teens that guys and not gals was what aroused me, I struggled with my feelings, living a lie, trying to convince myself and others I was something I wasn’t. Only when I reached the age of thirty and my marriage started to crumble did I face my demons. Fortunately I was not caught at a public restroom having sex, although at the time the prospect of engaging in such activity did cross my mind on more than one occasion. Living in the closet is a bleak and heavy burden to bear. Like Andy when I allowed myself to accept me for who and what I was, it was quite liberating.

This is not an easy story to read but one that is gripping, believable and very satisfying. It is not your usual M/M romance story. Rather it is the saga of a middle-aged man who happens to be gay though not willing to acknowledge it, and what happens to him after getting caught going down on another guy at a rest stop. The work was a Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Gay Debut Fiction in 2011. All-in-all this was a very rewarding novel.

” Flesh and Blood” by Michael Cunningham

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Flesh and Blood is another masterful work by Michael Cunningham, an incredibly gifted writer. Last year I read A Home at the End of the World, the author’s first novel.  I absolutely loved it. Though I have not read his Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours, I have seen the movie based on the book several times; it is one of my all-time favorite films.  This book written between the two others just mentioned is nothing short of superb.

The novel told from the third person POV chronicles three generations of the Stassos family beginning in post-World War II America. Constantine Stassos, a Greek immigrant, marries Mary Cuccio, a striking young woman of Italian heritage. Early in their marriage trouble develops and Mary soon feels she has married below her station. Things rapidly spiral downward in their relationship. They have three children. Susan, the oldest, like her mother is very attractive;  ironically she pays a heavy price for her natural beauty. Her father has the disturbing habit of touching her often and for too long, suggesting sexual cravings for her. While outwardly she seems the most conventional and successful of the children, below the surface she is quite unhappy. Billy, the brightest of the three, has a stormy relationship with his father even as a young boy; their relationship becomes especially ugly when he announces he is gay. The younger daughter Zoe is wild, rebellious and reckless. It becomes obvious she is destined to have a troubled future. Add to the mix the romantic relationships of the adult children as well as the next generation of the Stassos family, Ben and Jamal. Each character adds further depth, darkness and occasional humor to the story. Especially memorable and endearing is Cassandra, a drag queen and Zoe’s close friend.

The story takes place over nearly five decades, from 1949 through 1995. In addition there is a three page snippet of Constantine’s childhood at the beginning as well as a two page conclusion that looks to the distant future (2035). The two brief chapters act as interesting and effective bookmarks for the main story.

Cunningham covers a broad range of issues in the book: a heavy-handed patriarch, an aloof mother, love, death, infidelity, incest, child abuse, drug abuse, kleptomania, generational tension, homosexuality, AIDS, self-mutilation, class conflict, and so much more. I like many people have often thought that I came from a dysfunctional family.  The Stassos family takes that concept to a whole new level.

Cunningham is a master of prose, creating rich, complex characters and vivid images with his words. The tone of the book is one of melancholy and tragedy. There are no real villains or heroes but rather a cast of characters all with their own flaws. The book took me a longer than normal time to read not because it was dull or difficult. Rather I was captivated throughout the story and hated coming to the last page. I wanted to savor the work and not rush through it. I look forward to reading more of Cunningham’s works. He has quickly become one of my favorite authors.

“How Long Has This Been Going On?” by Ethan Mordden

How Long Has This Been Going On? by Ethan Mordden is an ambitious, sweeping and panoramic 600 page epic novel that traces LGBT history over a 40+ year span through the lives of a broad cast of characters. The story opens in 1949 at Thriller Jill’s, a Los Angeles gay nightclub where patrons needed to be very discreet; it concludes with the 1991 New York City Gay Pride Parade. Along the way, the story takes the reader to San Francisco, small-town Minnesota and New Hampshire, and of course covers the 1969 Stonewall riots and AIDS.

I came out as a gay man in 1976 and have certainly seen a huge attitudinal change toward gay men and lesbians in the mindset of American culture during my life. I am also old enough to know how repressive American culture was to the LGBT community during the post World War II era and for many years thereafter. Mordden does an impressive job describing just how bleak that world was and how hard the fight was to accomplish the changes many of us today take for granted.

The author introduces us to a cast of wonderfully drawn and very diverse characters. Most notable among them:

  • Frank, the closeted vice cop at the story’s beginning, who later becomes a gay porno star. He is one of the novel’s most memorable characters.
  • Lois, the no-nonsense lesbian owner of Thriller Jill’s and her eventual partner Elaine. Elaine is married when we first meet her and eventually becomes a successful writer.
  • Luke and Tom ” the Twins”, childhood friends from small-town Minnesota whose lives become complicated when sexual longings begin to color their relationship.
  •  Luke and Tom’s close female friend Chris, the primary straight character in the story. She later moves to New York and achieves fame.
  • Walt, Tom’s nephew who grows from a young boy to a grown man.
  • Blue a teenage hustler from West Virginia.
  • and the unforgettable Johnny the Kid, the charismatic, cocky & talented singer/cabaret performer who in Chapter 1 is a 17 year-old and is approaching 60 by the time the story ends.

Many other fascinating characters are introduced throughout the book. Some both major and minor perish along the way; others survive to the end. There is an ever-shifting change of focus from one chapter to the next as the reader is regularly introduced to new individuals. In the hands of someone less skillful this shifting perspective might get muddled; Mordden however succeeds in making it work. He  uses a good mix of humor, sadness and pathos, infusing a sense of life and realism to the story as we join him and his characters in their journeys.

The opening sentence sets the stage for giving the reader the sense that one is looking back from the present to a distant time and place. “In the days when men were men and women adored them, there was a club called Thriller Jill’s on a side street off Hollywood Boulevard”. While primarily told from the third person POV, periodically this changes and it gradually becomes apparent that this is one person’s recollections of these events. That person’s identity is not revealed until the last pages.

While a long book, I never found myself wishing it would end. Each character’s story is fascinating and how their collective lives become intertwined made me want to keep reading. For anyone trying to understand the sea of change that happened within the LGBT community over this time period you need look no further than here. This was clearly one of the best books I read in 2014.

Background Reading for My Novel: “Just Between Us” by J. H. Trumble

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Just Between Us is the third book by J.H. Trumble that I have read in the past seven months and just like her first two she has scored another clear winner with this one. Since  my own book deals with a young gay man in his late teens, I have sought to read books with a similar theme in hopes of learning from others what for me at least works and what does not. It was this mindset that led me to read her first novel Don’t Let Me Go. Having enjoyed that so much I then read Where You Are which I enjoyed even more. Just Between Us is her most recent work. While each of her novels has a common thread of young gay men in love, the author successfully tackles very different topics in each. Don’t Let Me Go focuses on issues of gay-bashing and the challenges of trying to keep alive a relationship when two people are living more than a thousand miles apart. Where You Are dares to take on the explosive issue of student/teacher intimacy. Just Between Us chronicles the hurdles of two people being attracted to each other and then having one of them learn that he is HIV positive.

The main characters of this work are Luke Chesser and Curtis Cameron, ages 17 and 19 respectively. Luke was a major secondary character in Don’t Let Me Go. He is a high school junior and is still recovering from having his heart broken in his first romantic fling. Having an abusive, homophobic father does not help matters any. Fortunately for him his physician mom and younger brother are loving and supportive. He is a member of the school’s marching band which is a big part of his life and that helps to fill in some of life’s blank spaces. Curtis is in college but attended the same high school as Luke. After spending a good portion of his time partying in his college freshmen year he returns home and helps out as a field tech in Luke’s marching band. Unlike Luke, Curtis’ widowed dad is very accepting of his being gay as is his twin sister. The two young men soon become attracted to one another and start spending time together while postponing any sexual intimacy.

The proverbial you-know-what hits the fan when Curtis learns he is HIV positive. By now he cares deeply about Luke and is terrified that he may infect him if they have sex. The remainder of the story focuses on how these conflicted lovers and others around them deal with the news. Having been a sexually active gay man before and during the Age of AIDS and having watched scores of friends succumb to the disease, I fully appreciate what devastating news this normally is for someone. While HIV/AIDS is today not the death sentence that thirty years ago most people viewed it to be, it is a terrifying and life-altering experience for those who contract it and the people who love them. The author does a superior job depicting Curtis’ coping with the news and the stages of grief he experiences: denial, anger, depression and eventual acceptance. The reaction of Luke and others is likewise very believable. The author once again tackles a difficult issue and avoids creating clichéd characters and situations. This is a very moving, at times heart-breaking and at other times triumphal story. Just as she did in Where You Are, the story is told from the perspective of the two main characters and the technique works as effectively in this book as it did in the earlier one.

Rereading my review of her previous works, I see that what impressed me about those stories is much of what I so enjoyed reading this one. Of Don’t Let Me Go I wrote: “a very sweet, tender coming-of-age novel but not one that is overly sweet, throwing in enough drama and darkness to make it all seem very real. All of the characters have their flaws… He is impulsive and foolish at times and certainly does his share of dumb things. There are times when I wanted to kick him in the butt and other times when I wanted to tell him to stop being so insecure.” Of Where You Are I commented: “He is tormented trying to figure out what is the right thing to do, struggling with the collision course of wanting to be there for Robert, the growing sexual attraction he and Robert are feeling for one another, and his terror of where all of this may lead.”  Except for proper names, the comments are just as  true about this work. That in no way suggests the author is somehow using a cookie-cutter approach to her writing but rather that she has the rare gift to make her stories and characters appealing and believable. Not wanting to spoil too much of the plot I will simply say there were several times when I became very choked up reading this book and my eyes started filling with tears. That does not happen often when I am reading and I can only say thank you ever so much Ms. Trumble for your incredible writing talent and for giving me hours of enjoyable reading. You are a true inspiration for me in my efforts. For anyone who has not read any of her books put all three at or near the top of your To Read list. You are in for some phenomenal works. And please, please another book soon I hope!

Background Reading for My Novel: “The Lost Language of Cranes” by David Leavitt

The Lost Language of Cranes

What an incredible book to launch my 2014 reading! First published in 1986, The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt is an intense, powerful, well-written study of an intellectual middle-age couple and their grown son. Set in Manhattan in the 1980’s, each of the three main characters has kept secrets from one another for a long time, and the story traces the need to finally reveal those secrets and the consequences each faces for doing that.

Rose and Owen Benjamin have been married for twenty-seven years and live quiet, mundane lives on Manhattan’s East Side. Rose is a copy editor for a small NYC publishing house. She is a very structured person and her work is the centerpiece of her life since her home life is so passionless. Her secret is that of a five-year affair she had in the distant past with a co-worker. Owen had a promising academic career long ago but gave it up and settled for a drab position as the director of a private Manhattan boy’s school, a position that leaves him unfulfilled. The boredom of his professional and home life is relieved only by his visit every Sunday afternoon to a gay porno theater which he has frequented for many years. The couple’s lives are further complicated by the fact that they soon may be forced to leave their apartment of many years due to a proposed condo-conversion.

Their only child and twenty-five year old son Philip has his own apartment on the West Side and works midtown as an editor of romance novels. He has fallen in love with Elliott Abrams whom he has known for about a month. Philip is painfully insecure and since Elliot is his first love in a long time he is overly eager to cling to him which alienates Elliot. Phillip is also captivated by the fact that Elliot was raised by two gay men in a literary and bohemian world, an environment totally alien from his own experience. While he is out as a gay man to his friends and co-workers, Philip has never revealed his sexuality to either of his parents even though he has known since a young teenager that he was gay. Now he feels a need to tell them since he has finally fallen in love. His decision to come out to his parents has unforeseen consequences, most acutely his father’s need to finally acknowledge that he too is gay.

This is a book to be enjoyed on many levels. Leavitt’s rich and rewarding story draws the reader into the hearts and minds of its characters. It is an excellent portrayal of different relationships: lovers, parent/child, husband/wife, friends, roommates. The story is also an engrossing account of keeping secrets and the terrible toll that can have on a person physically and emotionally. The author raises valid questions. Is it always best to tell the truth or should some things be left unspoken?  Is the burden lifted from the bearer of the secret simply transferred to the person learning the secret? Leavitt does not answer these questions but raises them in the reader’s mind for consideration. He also shows what a horrible price one pays for living in the closet. Reading and understanding Owen’s many years of secrecy, shame and guilt is painful and his desire to touch and be touched by someone for whom he feels passion is very poignant. Additionally throughout the story there is an overriding theme of loneliness and what one can or should do to try to overcome it that goes beyond just the three main characters.

The specter of AIDS looms through the story. Written at the time of the introduction of the cataclysmic AIDS era there is the fear and dread of contracting the disease running through the minds of many of the characters, a sense they are being forced into monogamy to simply survive. “Now monogamy was in fashion, but it had taken on the status of a safety tactic, an unappetizing but necessary catastrophic measure, like one of those World War II recipes for stretching precious rationed meat. ‘Find ten buddies and agree to fuck only with them,’ Phillip had read in a porn magazine early in the crisis. Then ten was reduced to five, five to two…fear became an indirect route to monogamy and, sometimes, to happiness.”

Before reading the novel I was intrigued by its unusual title and assumed it was a reference to the long-legged and long-necked birds. Instead though it is a reference to research being conducted by Elliot’s roommate Jerene, clearly the strongest and most powerfully drawn of the secondary characters. A black lesbian who was coldly rejected by her adoptive parents once they learned of her sexuality, she is busy doing research on lost languages. She stumbles upon the bizarre story of a neglected two-year old boy who related to and imitated the movement and sound of the mechanical cranes he saw from his tenement window rather than that of his biological single mom. The boy becomes the Crane-Child and when he is removed from them what he shared is forever lost.

This is a perfectly slow-paced novel, just the right tempo to paint incredible characters and draw the reader into their lives. Never did I feel it was moving too slowly; it held my interest throughout. As I am writing this it has dawned on me that the story in some ways reminds me of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which like this novel dealt with dark secrets and the consequences of revealing those secrets. I was totally captivated by this book and plan to read more by this talented author.

One final comment. The book was adapted by the BBC into a made-for-TV movie in 1991. The one significant change was the setting, London rather than New York. I caught a glimpse of it on YouTube and from what I saw other than the setting it appeared very faithful to the book.

 

Favorite Books That I Read in 2013

I’ve had the good fortune to have read some incredible books these past twelve months. Earlier this week I posted a rant here about the books that appear on a goodreads thread titled Best Books Ever, a list to which I took strong exception. So for the record the works I mention below are the ones I read this past year that I most enjoyed and which I believe have helped to make me a better writer; each of them I found truly outstanding. I will not attempt to rank these; each was superb in its own special way. Thus they are arranged in alphabetical order by title. These authors have all truly inspired me as I work to complete and get published my own first novel. I have also included my Honorable Mention List. A number of the books on both lists were the author’s first published work, wonderful encouragement for those of us who hope to see our own first book in print. The date following the author’s name is where you will find a more detailed review of each of these works in the Archive section to the right. Happy Holiday Reading!

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham: (May 2013) One of my new favorite authors, the story centers around the relationship between two people who meet as young boys, experiment sexually with each other, move apart and reconnect later in life. Beautiful, heartwarming, funny and sad. This book preceded his Pulitzer Prize winner, The Hours.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman: (Feb. 2013) Set in the Italian Riviera and viewed from the perspective of someone looking back on events that happened in the distant past. Aciman creates an erotic energy between two young men that is not consummated until late in the book. Rarely have I ever seen such a beautiful mastery of language and images. I was in complete awe by the time I finished this brilliant literary novel.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin: (Feb. 2013) The tragic, heart-breaking story of doomed love set in 1950’s Paris. One of the great breakthroughs of 20th century literature and one perfectly executed.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: (Aug. 2013) What can I possibly say that has not been said ad infinitum about one of the greatest pieces of American fiction? How did I ever get this far into life without having already read it? A masterpiece without question.

Where You Are by J.H. Trumble: (Nov. 2013) I read two books this year by this incredibly gifted author. This one dares to take head-on the taboo subject of teacher/student intimacy forcing the reader to not think in black & white terms. She creates a beautiful, complex and thoughtful work in the process.

Winter Birds: A Novel by Jim Grimsley: (Dec. 2013) A grim, painful and frightening novel set in a poor rural North Carolina home dealing with an abusive and alcoholic man who terrorizes his wife and five children. 

Honorable Mention List

Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette: (May 2013) This memoir is so painful, so poignant, so beautifully written and deals with the author’s struggle for the first half of his life to accept himself as a gay man. So sad that this great author died way too soon.

Don’t Let Me Go by J.H. Trumble: (June 2013) The other novel I read by this talented author this year and her first. The story centers on two young men deeply in love who face serious challenges and jealousies when circumstances force them to live far apart from one another. This author has really impressed me.

Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley: (Aug 2013) One of three books I read by Grimsley this year. A disturbing, powerful and moving story of forbidden and unspoken love in the rural South.

Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez: (Sept. 2013) This book focuses on the lives of three high school seniors, whose lives are interconnected, each of whom is in a different state of gay self-acceptance. At times quite humorous, at other times fairly serious.

Three Junes by Julia Glass: (Aug. 2013) The 2002 National Book Award Winner. Three separate but interconnected stories taking place in Greece, Scotland and New York during three Junes over a ten-year period. Fascinating work!

 

 

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: “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.

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.