“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: “Changing Tides” by Michael Thomas Ford

Changing Tides

I am currently in the process of reading Last Summer by Michael Thomas Ford and enjoying it very much. About 3 months earlier I read Ford’s Changing Tides and somehow never got around to writing a review of it so my post today deals with that book. I try to review books shortly after I have read them so my impressions are clear in my mind and not clouded by plots and characters of stories I have read since. Hopefully I will do the author justice.

This story takes place in Monterey, CA and is told from the POV of three individuals. Hudson Jones, a young gay man, comes to Monterey to complete research that was begun by a deceased lover on an unpublished manuscript possibly authored by Monterey’s favorite son, John Steinbeck. If Hudson’s research proves accurate it would be an eye-opening revelation about the famous author that would bring Hudson instant fame. Ben Ransome is a divorced marine biologist living in Monterey who is totally absorbed in his work and who has a virtually non-existent personal life. His life is turned upside down when his sixteen year-old daughter Caddie, much to her dismay, is uprooted from her Southern California home by her mother to spend the summer with her estranged dad in hopes of re-establishing a connection between the two. She is very angry at her father, feeling he is a deadbeat dad, and goes out of her way to aggravate him. On a personal note I unfortunately can relate only too well to the bad karma since I have an adult daughter who feels the same way about me. Ben and Hudson meet, enjoy each other’s company despite the significant age difference, soon become friends and start spending time together in a platonic way. Carrie quickly detects the flirtation going on between her dad and Hudson even before they realize it. She is not repelled by it; in fact she becomes jealous of Hudson, a somewhat surprising attitude considering her animosity towards her dad.

There is a good story here although the going is a bit slow at first. The book is 352 pages long and as I recall it took about 100 or so pages before the pace picked up. Hang in there would be my suggestion if you are finding the book dragging; it is well worth reading. The tension between Ben and Carrie I felt was the most well-developed of the relationships and Carrie’s bite off her nose to spite her face attitude has near tragic consequences. The shifting point of view of the story reflecting the thoughts of the three main characters works very well as the reader is able to get inside the head of each of them.

Unlike the last work I most recently reviewed here on my blog, the sex scenes in this book both gay and straight have a PG-13 quality to them. That’s not a criticism of either book but merely an observation. Both books were quite enjoyable. My major reservation about Changing Tides was that the author got into what I saw as too much detail about marine biology. Obviously Ford knows the subject well or did an incredible amount of research to prepare for his writing and I respect him for that. I just think that for most readers the detail is overkill. I did not lose interest in the book because of this; the characters and storyline were both very good and kept me wanting to read more. If you happen to enjoy marine biology and a well-written book you will probably love this work. Obviously I enjoyed this book enough to want to read more by the author since that is in fact what I am doing now.

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.