Monday, March 16, 2009

TNG Flashback: Gay Fiction Pride!

The work day is almost over. We hope you use your last ounce of concentration to revisit this year-old TNG article. Originally published by Zack on 3/18/2008

A couple months ago, Ben posted "Gay Fiction Shame?" which summarized one author's unflattering opinion of contemporary gay fiction and ended by asking readers if they had any recommendations for homo writing that doesn't blow. Sorry this took me so long, but there are at least a couple books (and one graphic novel) that are worth checking out.

Between graduating from college and starting this blog, I thought it would be fun to take a self guided tour through the gay canon. Its far from comprehensive, and is entirely subjective to my own taste, but each of these books had some kind of effect on me. I can't promise you'll like all (or any) of them, but they'll give you something to think about.

(I'll also admit that these books skew toward the male perspective. Amy, Jenny— feel free to write a response on lesbian fiction that doesn't suck when you have some time. Zami, Passing, The Corrections and Mrs. Dalloway come to mind, but you'd know better than I would.)

Full list in alphabetical order below the fold:

1.Curbside Boys, Robert Kirby: This is actually a graphic novel, but it's thankfully different from the porn/soap opera mix that categorizes so many gay comics. Drew is a nerdy alterna-kid who falls in love with Nathan, his hot, ditzy new roommate. I began reading this book in a gay bookstore in Chicago and actually finished it on the premises. It now occupies a spot of honor in my bathroom, and I've added prunes and fiber to my diet so I have more opportunities to read it. I can relate to Curbside's characters more than any other's on this list, and I think a lot of our readers will too. My fandom is so thorough that I actually asked Kirby to contribute some new strips to TNG. Look for them soon. (2002)

2. Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran: People really love this book, but I don't think all that amazing. It's beautifully written but not all that much happens in the story of Malone, a "boohoo I'm beautiful" gay man who risks it all for love and sex, and Sullivan, the over-the-top old queen who introduces him to gay life in the '70s. "Dancer" could also be called "The Gay Gatsby" for the number of allusions it makes to Fitzgerald's most popular novel, most notably its main character's obsession with recreating a past that is entirely gone. (1978) [Note: It took me a while to realize this, but "Great Gatsby" is pretty damn gay too. Reread Nick Carroway's encounter with the man he meets after Tom breaks Muriel's nose and you'll see him in a whole new light.]

3. Death in Venice, Thomas Mann: The Publishing Triangle put this at the top of their 100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels list, and with good reason. Gustav Van Aschenbach is an elderly German writer who sees his overly mannered life begin to unravel when he takes a vacation to Italy and falls in love with a beautiful teenage boy. This book says a lot in under 100 pages and includes many references to Greek mythology, which are a sure-fire way to my heart

4. Faggots, Larry Kramer: Fred Lemish turns 40 in three days, and is pulling out all the stops in search of "true love." Problem is, its New York City in the late '70s and, what with everyone fucking everyone else all day and night, who can find love? "Faggots" follows a pantheon of memorably-named characters (Randy Dildough, Dinky Adams, et al) from NYC to Fire Island and gives a pretty in-depth look at gay sexual politics. It's a comedy, but given the AIDS explosion that happened soon after this book was set, it raises a lot of questions about sexual hedonism and gay self-segregation that are still relevant today. And I hate to say it, but the sex scenes are pretty hot. (If that doesn't get you reading, nothing will.) (1978)

5. A Home at the End of the World, Michael Cunningham. The Hours gets more love, but I prefer this one. Jonathan and Bobby are childhood friends (and awkward adolescent experimenters) who reunite in New York in the '80s. Bobby's sad childhood leaves him open to the renewed affections of Jonathan and the more viable advances of Clare, Jonathan's roommate. When Clare becomes pregnant, the three move to upstate New York to try their hand at an unstable, nontraditional household. If you're really lazy there is a great movie version of this book, but its nowhere near as vivid as Cunningham's actual writing. (1990)

6. The Lost Language of Cranes, David Leavitt: Leavitt's "Territory" was one of the first works published in the New Yorker to deal openly and realistically with gay life, (and his " A Place I've Never Been" is a pretty perfect short story too,) but those looking for something more substantial can check out "Cranes." It focuses primarily on three characters: Owen, a married man who has spent every Sunday of his married life at gay movie theaters; Owen's wife Rose, who is beginning to catch on that he has secrets; and their 25 year-old son Philip, whose first serious relationship with a man has given him the courage to come out to them both. (1986)

7. Martin and John, Dale Peck: This book blew me away, and I do not use that term lightly. The first sentence, "This is not the worst thing I remember" sets up one of the most horrifying tableaux I have ever read in a novel and the rest of the book grips just as tightly. The book's actual plot — young man escapes abusive midwestern father, falls in love, lover catches AIDS, they both move back to Kansas— is revealed only in short, italicized sections that alternate with "story within the story" pieces that feature a variety of characters named Martin and John in situations that fill in the gaps. I don't know how to say this without sounding cliche, but this book is unusually beautiful, sad and disturbing. It can take a bit to get into, but is so worth it. (1992)

8. The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories: This is a great jumping off point, and the reason I got so interested in gay fiction in the first place. Highlights include the aforementioned "A Place I've Never Been" and Sherwood Anderson's "Hands."And anyone who has ever even considered bare-backing with a stranger should read Alan Barnett's "The Times As It Knows Us," a depiction of of AIDS in the '80s that does not make the disease sound minor or treatable. (1995)

9. Troll: A love story, Johana Sinasalo: The most unusual book on this list, and a decent companion piece to "Death in Venice," "Troll" exists in a modern-day Finland where the titular creatures aren't mythical, but rather an elusive endangered species that are being pushed into cities by urban expansion. Gay photographer Angel takes in a troll cub that he finds in the alley behind his apartment building (an illegal act, as trolls are a protected species) and finds that its presence leaves him unable to control his base urges. Angel's story is cut with sections from the perspective of several other main characters, and encyclopedic entries on trolls. I think something was lost in "Troll's" translation from Finnish to English, but you should still read it. And if you read it, please let me know. I would love to talk to someone about what the hell this book is all about. (2004)

So there you have it, a list of books that won't make you embarrassed to be gay. If you think I've left something out, or just want to comment on what I put in, feel free to write a comment, send me an email or leave a flaming paper bag of troll poop at my front door.

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