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Unified only by their excellence, these twenty-one selections are resounding proof of yet another banner year for gay fiction.
Imagine an unrisky 1996 best-of-queer-fiction list, and this anthology, the first in an annual series, is probably what would emerge: Bouldrey has Edmund White celebrating Paris ("His Biographer"), Scott Heim writing about kids in Kansas ("Don't or Stop"), Michael Cunningham on pubescent whores and wise drag queens ("Cassandra"), and Christopher Bram summarizing the nature of sexual extortion ("Posterity"). The stories of R.S. Jones ("I Am Making a Mistake") and Jason K. Friedman ("The Wedding Dress") are luminous, the former dealing explicitly with AIDS, the latter with a surreal event that leads to an unplanned sexual awakening. Dick Scanlan weighs in with "Banking Hours," about a young man who experiences his first betrayal and begins to contemplate the inevitable flight from his straight family. Robert Glück's "The Early Worm" adopts an iffy experimental stance that holds few surprises in its obscure transformations ("Individual voices take big chances," writes Bouldrey in his windy introduction, but that's not always demonstrated here), and Jim Provenzano's "Split Lip" confuses brevity with incision. Adam Klein's "The Medicine Burns," however, represents the collection at its finest: A boy suffering from acne gets a multifaceted education from an aesthetically "superior" fellow student. The multicultural contribution is supplied by Ernesto Mestre, along with the purplest prose and breathiest title ("His eyes were...the color of boiling honey" comes from "Monologue of Triste the Contortionist"). Joe Westmoreland, in "The Spanking," offers a standard coming-of-age tale, and Michael Lowenthal covers the serious postHIV positive, postAIDS boffing ("Going Away").
A thoroughly middle-of-the-road gathering that doesn't utter the last word but still manages to canvass the year in gay scribbling.
As the century and the millennium wind down, there's a kind of bewilderment in the collective psyche: what is going on here and now? It's an artificial pivot point, but artifice can often seem more real, in terms of what it can reveal to us, than reality.
In the writing classes I teach, all of my students are creating two kinds of stories: ones that take place more than a hundred years ago, or ones that take place ten minutes into the future. It's too troubling to write about the here and now, for there is no apparent movement, just a stasis, a fog.
All the movements are running out of energy: grunge in music, new narrative in literature, the Kate Moss waif look in fashion. We recycle things so quickly now that seven-year-old music is played at retro dance clubs.
What's left is a grab bag of broken-down pieces. They call it mannerism in art, the self-conscious exaggeration of what was once genuine. We are tapping our toes impatiently, as if we can resume our creative lives only after the ball drops and ends the century. Well, we tap one toe, anyway, because it feels like the other one is nailed to the floor and we're capable only of walking in circles-pivoting, at best, in this direction and that.
Gay men, especially, feel the pivoting. We are turning about but not, apparently, moving assuredly in any particular direction: protease inhibitors help some HIV-positive men live longer, but not all, and they're not a cure. Born-again queers such as Gabriel Rotello and Larry Kramer think gay men should start behaving like heterosexual couples and settle down, while younger gay men feel they have the right to sow their wild oats just as Rotello and Kramer did. Legal issues such as gay marriage and partner benefits get caught in internal debate. Rather than presenting a united front, gays are discovering that they have the luxury of disagreeing.
Gay-rights groups such as ACT-UP and Queer Nation-and all sorts of other previously strong coalitions-have drifted even as they have succeeded in making real progress in gay rights. There's infighting, even scandal and misuse of funds, in some of the most prominent philanthropic organizations. Things fall apart.
Maybe "fall apart" is too harsh a description. "Become porous," perhaps, is more accurate. After years of huddling in groups, gay men are going back into the world, living side by side with heterosexuals of every flavor. The wounds of homophobia heal, and we discover that on top of all the pitfalls of being gay in America, we are also prey to all the pitfalls of being American in America.
Like all other Americans, for instance, we crave privacy. It was once a fact that the iconic American household had a wraparound porch with a big front door where people met one another and talked. Now we have back patios protected by high fences, and architects build houses with huge, hideous garages in front, the symbolic opening to the house being a windowless, locked-down garage door that can be opened only by the owner with a remote control clipped to the sun visor of his or her car.
We are tremendously private, but we bottle it up; when we finally do see people, we are confessional. We divulge our secrets to utter strangers in therapy and on talk shows. The whole world is ours to study, in our private rooms, and the only way we can describe the world is in the way it shows how it affects us. Our stories are told too often in the "I" point of view; how can that be anything but self-absorbed?
Well, it can be a lot of other things, actually. Look at how Allan Gurganus climbs into the head of a widowed preservationist in "Preservation News"; how Tom House splits the "I" into two (very) different characters when a self-described blueblood meets a decided blue-collar at an art museum; how Dennis Cooper's "I" is so distorted by mind-altering substances and desire that it seems egoless, or else nothing but ego. And the others in this collection using the "I" are more interested in what others are thinking: the "I" of Robert Glu,ck's consideration of his father, Eric Gabriel Lehman's "I" that looks with a kind of wonder and sympathy on a man who seems worse off than he. We are looking out into the world, and it's ours, once again, to "make queer."
What other pitfalls do we face as gay Americans? Like other Americans, we are waiting for our lives to become perfect, whatever that means. And because human life is not perfectible, it creates great disappointments among us. Perhaps one of the real atrocities of what is called pornography (besides its lame misuse of language) is that it portrays sex in perfectly choreographed ballets of bodies.
How does a really good writer talk about sex-or anything else-without slipping into the tired language of porn? Some of the best writing here, such as J Eigo's "Nomads," almost bruised in its purpleness, takes on the stuff of smut and turns it into a spiritual experience, one not void of humor and a relish for all that is imperfect and fumbling in sex, rather than for what is blandly (and incorrectly) laid out as a perfect moment. Eigo raises a bathhouse into the realm of myth, and he does so by avoiding cliche+. The language is clean, but the bathhouse isn't. There are false starts, hurdles to jump, enemies to confront.
Life is not tidy, nor is the good fiction that depicts it. Keith Banner's characters bide their time in crummy jobs; Matt Sycamore's queens have to dodge the bashers; people die; relationships end. Everything falls apart. Rather, everything is made porous.
Even in the literature category.
In a bleak mood, readers like you and me can feel as if entropy has sucked the heat energy out of the literary world, or that our writers have worked the material far too much. It's all pie dough that's been overhandled; a child has mixed too many tempera paints into one big gray muck, and she has to wait for her birthday to get a new set.
Look at all the true-confession biographies. Writers have turned to nonfiction as if in an ever-escalating competition to outdo each other in horrific experience:
"I had sex with my dad!"
"I had sex with my dog!"
Another writing teacher I know offers a course in "creative nonfiction." His waiting list is a mile long: everybody is discovering that fictional constructions and forms both afford for more room to tell some kind of truth that is more important than facts, and give a reader an enjoyable way to receive this truth.
Writers subtitle their works unabashedly with words that seem, at first glance, a kind of waffling: "A Novel in the Form of a Memoir," or vice versa. Fictional biography, biographical novels.
Where does all this come from?
The line between fiction and nonfiction has been crossed and recrossed so many times that even Truman Capote might raise an eyebrow at the numbers of fictional memoirs and autobiographical novels being pumped into bookstores.
No, there's nothing wrong with it-there's nothing that brings writing more vividly and emotionally to life than personal experience, whether dressed up or understated. But it doesn't always have to be in the first-person point of view, and the best writers are discovering that there's more than one way to spill one's guts.
That's what makes the stories in this collection different, what marks them as something new and part of this strange, murky time.
Don't worry, it's all here: the big names, the new names, the rediscoveries, the confessionals, the comings-of-age, the erotica, the multicultural diversity, the drag queen's campy bitchery and the sorrows of AIDS, the families that understand and the ones that don't, the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll.
The stories, in general, never do really change, as Pound put it; only the rhythm of the times does. You can see the 1920s in the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald. You can see Hollywood in the '60s when you watch Elizabeth Taylor play Cleopatra. And you can hear the great gong of the late '90s sound when you read stories of puzzlement and conflict in this collection and elsewhere. Fiction today is doing one of two things: either breaking down into smaller and smaller special-interest genres or raising its head, seeking outside of itself commonalities and sympathies.
Yet this anthology is more than just a time capsule or a dusty archive to show what we were thinking about as the new millennium approached. There are great movements afoot, signs that gay men have grown tired of navel-gazing and are beginning to integrate themselves into the culture at large. Much as we sometimes hate it, we are American as well as gay.
But what's really exciting, what's really new and not muddy and not tapping its toes impatiently, is the number of authors who are using formal innovation to find new ways of expressing the truth. There are stories in this volume that give voice to heretofore inexplicable emotional states. Thomas Glave's "Whose Song?" is set up and told like stream-of-consciousness crossed with African-American skaz, while Dennis Cooper's "The Freed Weed" is written in the stripped-down, drugged-up style of somebody trying to get at the truth through sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Allan Gurganus's "Preservation News" begins in the form of a historic preservation newsletter.
Here is a way that queer writing is queered in a more subtle way: not just in showing gay men in gay sexual situations, but in providing a means of looking at the whole world through pink-colored glasses.
What makes a story gay-the author or the content? Is there a queer language? Is there something that is inherently "queered" about the books gay men bring into the English language? Yes, and in an exquisitely subtle way, a way that can teach anybody, gay or straight, how to speak that language.
Any good writer, after all, teaches the reader a new way of reading within the course of the storytelling. Some of the classic American novels-Toni Morrison's Beloved, for example-have early chapters that resemble a kind of schooling. You must read slowly at first, as you learn the story's alphabet, then its grammar, then its vocabulary, and then you're up and running, you never want that language to become silent.
Each and every writer has her or his own language to teach a reader, and maybe that's what we call style, or originality, or genius. A writer who describes panty hose as "itchy fickle leg jails" is somebody who has spent a lot of time wearing panty hose. Those of us who have not worn panty hose can learn what it's like to wear them, even if we've never put them on.
In the same way, great writers can give new insight into the most exotic, impossible-for-others-to-experience things, such as lesbian sex or giving birth or dying of AIDS, as well as put a new spin on ordinary objects we deal with every day. That's what queer writers can do, too-make the world new through our own, original desires.
Some of my favorite writers have written thoroughly queer books that have few or no gay characters in them. Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries, for instance, or Art and Lies, in which Winterson defamiliarizes heterosexual relationships by familiarizing them to the queer sensibility.
Similarly, Dale Peck's Law of Enclosure makes but minor references to gay themes as it maps the rise and fall (and fall and rise) of a heterosexual relationship of many years. And yet I'd call this, too, out-and-out gay fiction.
William Haywood Henderson's The Rest of the Earth, excerpted in this volume, is a novel that follows a man from a starting place in San Francisco as he travels east into the Wind River Range of America's heartland during the great migrations of the 1800s. Henderson's book is queer from tip to toe, though the word queer is never uttered (or not, at least, in the way we use it). Walker Avery, the hero of the novel, heads east against the general "Westward ho!"; he is a silent man taking his knowledge from women he meets along the way, yet he feels such an intense attraction to men he encounters that he trembles-as does the story's narrative style-when they appear naked before him. I would even suggest, though I can't quickly say how he does it, that the way Henderson has written about terrain, landscape, and geography is bent, queer, gay original style.
And once again, a queer author has taken a genre, in this case the Western (arguably a hackneyed form with a tired language, like that of pornography), and revitalized it by looking at it through new, queer eyes.
You can also see this in "The Future of the Flynns," a story by Andrew Sean Greer. First published in Esquire, a magazine that tends to panic around homosexual material (as it did when it pulled David Leavitt's blow job Pridden novella during the same year), Greer's story may be the most subversive of all, hiding its obvious queer content behind something only a little subversive-who is that quiet little boy at the dinner table? Imagine all those rugged straight men reading and loving that story and then finding out the truth of it-it's like finding out that the chef served you muskrat when you thought you were eating chicken.
What I'm trying to say is that gay men write inherently gay stories, which may never have to have a queer character in them.
What makes a story gay, then-the author or the content? If it is indeed the content, then the content is much bigger than what we may think it is. The whole world is a rather queer place.
Excerpted from Best American Gay Fiction 3 by Brian Bouldrey Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|"His Biographer," from Skinned Alive||3|
|"Split Lip," from Queer View Mirror||26|
|"I Am Making a Mistake," from Walking on Air||29|
|"The Wedding Dress," from His||37|
|"Don't or Stop," from Mysterious Skin||59|
|"Banking Hours," from Does Freddy Dance||80|
|"The Early Worm," from Contact, the 114th Annual Exhibition of the Walter/McBean Gallery||98|
|"Monologue of Triste the Contortionist," from The James White Review||104|
|"On the Mound," from Dream Boy||119|
|"The Medicine Burns," from The Medicine Burns||130|
|"Allan Stein," from In a Different Light: Visual Culture, Sexual Identity, Queer Practice||151|
|"Posterity," from Father of Frankenstein||166|
|"Arson," from His||194|
|"The Spanking," from Mirage/Period(ical)||211|
|"Going Away," from Flesh and the Word 3||220|
|"After the Change," from Modern Words||237|
|"Distortion," from Men's Style||243|
|"ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds," from Pen N Sword||256|
|"Running Shoes," from Christopher Street||267|
|"Hot Lights," from Gerbil||281|
|"Cassandra," from Flesh and Blood||290|