Two splendid novels, both brilliantly written and researched to unimaginable depth, explain a very long silence from two of the very best fiction writers among us. (more…)
Almost everyone, interested in psychology or not, knows who Sigmund Freud was, but Iâd venture to guess that fewer people, unless theyâve studied psychoanalytic child psychology, know who Anna Freud was. I certainly didnât, until Rebecca Coffeyâs new book, Hysterical: Anna Freudâs Story (She Writes Press), landed in my lap. (more…)
Look Whoâs Morphing (Arsenal Pulp Press), Australian author Tom Choâs debut book, bills itself as âa fresh, hilarious, and dazzlingly contemporary collection of micro-fictions that explore the slipperiness of identity, race, and gender.â While this may be the case, it reads more like a dream journal being kept by someone with an overactive imaginationâin the most somewhat-exhausting-but-mostly-interesting-and-entertaining way possible. (more…)
Elizabeth Earleyâs novel,Â A Map of Everything, which containsÂ supplemental illustrations by artist Christa Donner,Â explores the aftermath of a tragedy and its effects on a family. The story is told in fragments, several of which focus on the experiences and whereabouts of the familyâs five children, though the primary protagonist is Anne, the youngest. When Anneâs sister June is involved in a car accident that leaves her with severe physical disabilities as well as permanent traumatic brain injury, Anne begins down a path marked by neglect, self-destruction, abuse, and addiction. The novel not only pieces together a portrait of Anne and her family before and during the event, but shows their progression over the course of two decades, tracing the ways in which their lives continue to be affected by a single traumatic event.
Before delving into any of Tom Spanbauerâs books, it is best to take note of the two central principles of his school of Dangerous Writing:
1) What makes writing dangerous is something personal, very small, and quietâŚ to go to parts of ourselves where there is an old silence, where it is secret, where it is dark and soreâŚ to go to where we’ve never gone before, writing down what scares the hell out of us. Eventually to the very foundation and structure of how we perceive, and in this investigation, we can challenge old notions of who we are.
2) When you meet someone for the first time, be kind, and look them in the eye. Everyone has a battle raging inside of them.
—Spanbauer, quoted at a Dangerous Writing Workshop, Esalen Institute, June 2007
In I Loved You More, Spanbauer deftly executes these two Dangerous Writing principles. Compared to his previous novels, one senses that I Loved You More was the most difficult and painful for him to write. For the first time, Spanbauer expresses his personal struggle coping with HIV/AIDS through narrator and main character Ben Grunewald. It is also the first book where Spanbauer addresses bisexuality. Unlike Spanbauerâs traditional naĂŻve, sweetly bashful protagonists, Ben is an unapologetic sixty-year-old who admits that sometimes he hates people who donât have to worry about dying. While Ben is no angel, Spanbauer gives him grace and soft eloquence, with a touch of burnt tongue, that will make the reader want to be kind and look him in the eye while he reminisces.
Spanbauerâs main characters typically fall in love with people who are often seen as culturally âtabooâ in some wayâan African American drag queen in The City of Shy Hunters, a Native American man accused of pedophilia in Now is the Hour. While out and proud Ben Grunewald cannot resist telling the story of his first love and blood brother in Idaho, Native American Ephraim Owlfeather, Ephraim remains in Idaho while Ben moves to New York City. It is there, while working odd jobs and taking writing classes, that Ben encounters strikingâbut straightâauthor and writing teacher Hank Christian. Spanbauerâs writing advice, inherited from his mentor Gordon Lish, now is channeled through the macho, working class Italian Christian, who shouts âLatinate!â when Ben tries to hide behind fancy words when describing the complexities of love, sex, and relationships. No good old Anglo-Saxon word will do for Ben when he wants to talk about attraction; only âpropinquityâ will do. Propinquity delights and challenges; it can lead to pleasure or trouble. Ben spends most of his life negotiating his propinquity for men as well as women.
Ben has three âmenâ inside of him who guide his behaviorâthe macho Big Ben, the anxious Little Ben, and the Running Boy when he is overwhelmed by fear. Hank, while he never says so outright, is guided by similar spirits. Both Ben and Hank must negotiate all the ins and outs of gay and straight male etiquette, from figuring out who holds the door open for whom to how to dress when you go to a gay bar. While Hank is willing to step over some heteronormative boundaries with Ben, he is still primarily attracted to women, and so Hank and Ben bounce in and out of their relationship. Hank marries, has a son, and gets divorced, while Ben meets different men, engages in casual sex and substance abuse with them, and gets sick. At the lowest point in his life, Ben meets Ruth, a beautiful woman who cares for him while he is sick. Ben falls in love with Ruth. Then Hank, dying from cancer, shows up again. How will it all end up? Totally gay Ben Grunewald opens and closes his looping narrative on love, relationships, and survival with this simple equation:
More than likely, youâre like me and think that something like this could never happen to you. That you could love a man, then love a womanâtwo extraordinary people, two unique ways of loving, from different decades, on different ends of the continent, and what happens is something you could never in a million years have planned. There you are the three of you, dancing the ancient dance whose only rule is with three add one, if not, subtract. If three doesnât find four, three goes back to two.
—Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More
Bisexuality is one of the last taboos in the LGBT and heterosexual worlds. Religion, the media, and the American legal structure only recognize committed relationships between two people, with the assumption that each person is only attracted to one sex or the other, but not both. Although Kinsey had established long ago that a significant percentage of Americans are bisexual, those who identify as bisexual are often condemned as âexperimentersâ who are incapable of commitment, or ânot really queerâ if they are engaged in monogamous heterosexual relationships. A clumsier writer would clutter up a story about a gay man simultaneously in love with a âstraightâ guy and a woman with denial and angst; Spanbauer simply unpacks imagery, events, and dialogue without judgment, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions. If anything, I Loved You More provides an empathic view of bisexual relationships as the most natural in the world, perhaps the most generous expression of love and shared strength for the survival of humanity.
Tom Spanbauer. (2014).
Wexelbaum, R. (2008, Spring). Dangerous writing. Lambda Book Report, 16 (1/2), 44
Wexelbaum, R. (2009). âTom Spanbauer.â Encyclopedia of Contemporary LGBTQ Literature of the United States, Volume 2, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson.
I Loved You More
By Tom Spanbauer
Hardcover, 9780986000782, 468 pp.
In âThe Coast of Indiana,â one of five stories in Dan Lopezâs short but impressive collection Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea (Chelsea Station Editions), Cam spends an âimpromptu beach dayâ with his lover Peter and a young woman named Abigail. Peter and Cam have flown to Chicago so Peter can explore a graduate school. While the three are sunning on the shore of Lake Michigan, Abigail asks Cam when he is heading back home. Cam, resentful that she would assume he and Peter wouldnât be going back together, puts on his sunglasses to âproject a cool ambivalenceâ:
âTomorrow evening,â I said. âOur flightâs at six.Â We leave from OâHare.â
âWeâre just visiting the school this time,â Peter said, smiling in a way I immediately recognized as patronizing.
I couldnât decide whether something larger wasnât being communicated between them, some judgment passed, some silent understanding beyond my purview.
The scene is hardly the most startling of the collection, but in some ways it may be the one that best exemplifies the quiet drama of Lopezâs writing. In these stories, it isnât necessarily the big events that are the most revelatory: itâs the glance, the nod, the two men sitting on a boat while âneither of them was making an attempt at conversation.â
The sea is the backdrop for many of these stories. In the title story, two men, one gay and one straight, find each other in a support group for those suffering loss, and when one accompanies the other aboard a boat, they share a quiet yet moving few moments together. âAndrew Barbieâ explores the emotional landscape between the narrator and his new lover, Lorenzo, and Jeremy, the narratorâs older ex-lover, who takes them on a boat trip. In âThe Cruise,â the narrator becomes transfixed by a young deckhand. When in a moment of rage the boy tears off his shirt, the narrator notes that âwe saw for the first time in the naked light of day the battered body weâd so willingly hitched our desires upon. All that weâd built up around him seemed to suddenly burn away.Â He was just a boy, we realized, incapable of anything.â And in the final story, âVolumes Set Against a Twilight Sky,â Lopez shows us how our relationships with others continue to evolve, even after death, as an architect reads the journals of his deceased lover, Michael.
Whatâs fascinating about Lopez as a writer is that he chooses to dramatize such intimate moments when the sea has often been the setting for so many larger than life struggles. (It wouldnât have been a stretch to call some of the high school English classes of the 1970s âHeterosexual White Men in Boats.â) Dan Lopez peoples his sea narratives with gay men, both white and of color, and in doing so reexamines the genre, not unlike Annieâs Proulxâs reexamination of the cowboy narrative in Brokeback Mountain. And when a genre is shaken up, its focus shifts. In âThe Coast of Indiana,â Abigail tells Peter that his dog, Lucky, is âfriendly to a fault.â âItâs because heâs never known any danger,â Peter replies. In Lopezâs world, the dangers characters face arenât always where youâd expect them to be.
Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea
By Dan Lopez
Chelsea Station Editions
Hardcover, 9781937627164, 51 pp.
Frog Music opens with a songâfitting, given this music-filled narrativeâand a murder. Jenny Bonnet, frog-catching, cross-dressing, loveable misfit, meets an untimely demise in the first scene; Blanche Beunon, her new friend, is bent over unlacing her gaiter at the time the mysterious shots shatter the window and pierce Jennyâs body. (more…)
A blurb from Janet Fitch graces the back cover of Dia Felix’s debut novel, Nochitaâwhich seemed appropriate, at first. When I was a teenage fiend for fiction, Fitch’s White Oleander was a prime piece of evidence toward my conclusion that wild and beautifully damaged girls must sprout naturally from the soils of California. (Francesca Lia Block’s books were another.) In this glitzy-gritty, weatherless realm, youth equaled beauty equaled tragic backstory equaled effortless creativity. I lived in the Midwest; I wanted to go. Â (more…)
The other day, I Googled “slug sex.” It was and wasn’t my faultâwasn’t, because I was reading Megan Milks‘s debut collection, Kill Marguerite, and I wanted to check some facts. But, also, I should have known: of course Milks got all the slimy biological details right. Throughout these phylum-hopping tales, truth is consistently stranger than the fictions we typically construct around desireâperhaps even as strange as desire itself. (more…)
Itâs June 1998. Teresa has terminal lung cancerâsheâs got to figure out how to die. Edmund has HIV. Eighteen months ago, he looked like a cadaver. Rebounding with the help of anti-retrovirals, he must discover how to live again. Twenty-year-old Joel, Teresaâs son, has moved from the remote town of Kenora to big-city Torontoâhis fumbling journey toward adulthood punctuated by affairs with older men, ideally those with big strong hands to hold him. (more…)