Friday, October 27, 2006

books! For Everybody!

A VERY disturbing feature of this month's Atlantic deserves separate mention. Under the heading 'Reading List,' Terry Castle gives us: "Post-Brokeback, more gay love stories for straight people."

What follows is pretty awful stuff. For instance:

"The Charioteer by Mary Renault (1959). A yummy, plummy page-turner - 'Gone with the Wind' for the educated-pansy set - by a writer best known for her novels about ancient Greece. Laurie, a young British soldier recovering from devastating wounds suffered at Dunkirk, is loved by two men: Andrew, the beautiful and virginal Quaker orderly who cares for him in the hospital, and Ralph, a schoolmate once exiled for homosexuality, who now resurfaces as a handsome naval officer. Which one to choose? (I myself would go with Ralph, whom I imagine looking like George Clooney.) Lots of bedpans, bandage changing, and poetical blatherings about Plato, but also a hugely satisfying dollop of the creamiest Homo Romance."

Every entry is like that - breathless, hand-fanning, aesthetically blind (he refers to K.M. Soehnlein's leaden, soporific novel "The World of Normal Boys" as "deft" and "astonishing," for intance). One imagines it was meant as humor - most blackface is. But in his final selection he becomes simply odious:

"My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley (1956). Religious fundamentalists frequently condemn homosexuality on the grounds that it leads to bestiality. And right they are! Though an avid devotee of guardsmen and other virile types the British writer J.R.Ackerley found the love of his life in Queenie, a female German shepherd he adopted in the mid-1940s. (She is renamed Tulip in this classic - and hilarious - memoir of their liaison.) Looking at pictures of Queenie's sexy snout, lithe haunches, and noble, lofting tail, one can see why Ackerley succumbed: she's a Hot Hot Hottie from Hottsville. Woof."

This kind of prancing idiocy is better ignored than investigated, I know, I know - but I can't let this go by in silence. Ackerley's book is indeed a love story, as deep and true a one as any chronicled in 20th century literature ... but it's not a sex-story, as this moron so heavily implies (aided and abetted by the cartoon at the top of the piece, showing Ackerley in bed with his dog).

Not only does this little squib cast a slur on Ackerley's name and his wonderful book, but it turns back the clock ever so slightly on the whole field of gay fiction.

'Gay love stories for straight people'? What does that even mean? If they're 'for' straight people, does that mean they'll have elements different from if they were 'for' gay people? Is 'Brokeback Mountain' the template here - that straight people will 'accept' a gay love story if you a) never use the word 'gay' b) never use the word 'love' and c) make damn sure the protagonists (don't say lovers! that won't play in Peoria!) are either miserable or beaten to death at the end?

If we're generous, we might interpret the phrase to mean 'love stories in which the main characters are gay but that you don't have to be gay yourself to understand or like' ... still pretty much nonsense (doubt a whole lot of 19th century slave-holders read 'Gone with the Wind'), but at least then the outcome isn't necessarily a passive-aggressive morality play for the good folks of Connecticut.

Given such parameters, we can do better than this Castle moron, with his daquiri-waving and his calling his male friends 'Mary' and his rolling his eyes and flouncing off in a cloud of Clinique at the first sign of literary complexity. What possessed the Atlantic's Ben Schwarz to run this little abomination is beyond me.

So here's a little corrective, courtesy of the right-thinking folks here at stevereads! Six gay love stories 'for' straight people - and for gay people, and mostly for reading people.

Hey, Joe by Ben Neihart - There's no easy way to describe the lazy, lyrical ways of this beautiful, idiosyncratic little novel. It's title character wanders through its happenings (some random, some intensely thrilling) in a daze of sweet nature, pot fumes, and raging omnivorous sex-urges. The book is bittersweet in its own right, but now, looking back at it and realizing how big a part the living, breathing New Orleans is to the story, the thing is almost heartbreaking, in a thoroughly enjoyable way.

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault - Have no fear: there's no Platonic 'blatherings'- instead, there's a moving and extremely well-realized historical novel set during the long 25-year war between Athens and Sparta. The heart of Renault's historical novels is her amazing ability to transport the reader into the mindframe of another time, in this case a time when the love between her two main characters, Alexias and Lysis, was not only condoned by their society but esteemed by it. All of her historical novels are magnificent (something 'The Charioteer' most certainly isn't), and this one is the most poignant, capturing a growing young love against the backdrop of the death of the world's finest civilization.

Clay's Way by Blair Mastbaum - This debut novel, the story of a weird, confused relationship between two teen boys on Oahu, is suffused with all the awkwardness and urgency of adolescence. The author has a real knack for creating atmosphere - there's no hint of the guidebook in his Hawaiian backdrop, and no hint of Hallmark in his depiction of what love can do to young people.

Fool's Errand by Louis Bayard - Hapless, hoping Patrick falls asleep in a nook of a loud house-party and is half-woken by the vision of a perfect man in a cranberry sweater. He spends the bulk of the novel chasing that half-glimpsed ideal, and it's all beautifully, acutely done.

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann - Set in 17th century England, this very involving novel centers on a young soldier erotically fixated on another soldier - the upheavals in England at the time of the novel are very adroitly made to mirror the unspeakable changes the main character is experiencing.

Almost Like Being in Love by Steve Kluger - a hugely inventive and sweetly sentimental (though it would never admit the fact) novel about a high school jock and a high school geek who make a profound connection and then - years later - test its validity. Kluger is so energetically involved in every single aspect of this book that re-reading is virtually required.

The key to ALL these novels isn't being gay, or knowing somebody who's gay - what a poor, pathetic little key that would be for ANY kind of niche-fiction. What a scornful little accolade it would be, to say about a book 'sci fi fans will love it' - no, the point of these novels (and they're just examples) is that READERS will love them. Without the woof.


Anonymous said...

Hello there. I don't know how it would change your analysis of Terry Castle's piece to know that she is a she. Check out her web page here:

john said...

hey anonymous -- why in heaven's name would it?

Kevin Caron said...

Heh heh.

steve said...

Ah, but it DOES change things!

Knowing that Terry Castle is a fag hag, and therefore clinically unbalanced, puts the over-the-top moronic frothiness of her piece in perfect context!

Now I feel a little cheated, going to such lengths to refute it.

Note to Terry: just because you couldn't get a date to the prom and had to hang out with the glam kids instead doesn't mean you get to plug bad books (or worse, plug good books ineptly)!