Last Night I Dreamed I Went to Manderley Again
At first glance Greg Herren’s Timothy (Bold Strokes Books, 2012, www.boldstrokesbooks.com) may simply appear to be an entertaining gay rewrite of Daphne du Maurier’s darkly romantic classic, Rebecca. However, in Timothy, du Maurier’s questions about the subjection of female identity in marriage—du Maurier’s heroine has no name except as she is identified as Mrs. de Winters—cast a sinister shadow over marriage as the new gay paradigm. The housekeeper Mrs. Danvers’ fanatical devotion to Rebecca created a subtext of lesbian resistance to male domination in the original novel and, in Herren’s rewrite, houseman Carson’s obsession with the glamorous Timothy raises challenges to the new normal of homosexual monogamy. Those who found themselves secretly rooting for Rebecca in the original may discover a similar sympathy for Timothy, who represents the “evil homosexual” of classic pulp fiction.
Perhaps Rebecca’s biggest sin was that she actually had an identity that continued to dominate the life of her husband, Maxim de Winters, even after her death. For her attempt to control her own reproductive power, Maxim murders her. By placing his gay romantic heroes within this context, Herren also seems to cast doubt on the new homosexual paradigm of marriage. Herren’s unnamed romantic hero aspires to marriage so passionately that he is willing to murder and slander and perjure himself to obtain it. He degrades his own career as an assistant to a powerful editor with a major New York magazine to become the nameless spouse of sugar daddy, Carlo Romaniello, who nicknames him ‘Mouse.’ He is so helpless he doesn’t even know how to drive a car to flee Spindrift, his luxurious prison in the Hamptons.
‘Mouse’ is a sweet character and the opening scenes where he is serving as the assistant to magazine editor Valerie “Devil Wears Prada” Franklin are both funny and sad. When he manages to ring very eligible and wealthy widower, Carlo Romaniello, he cries to her, “Is it so hard for you to believe that he might actually be in love with me?” Herren writes witheringly, “She stared at me for a few minutes.” Apparently after having lived with supermodel, Timothy Burke, who drowned the previous year in a tragic swimming accident, Carlo is ready for someone a little more from Kansas. Resonating the famous line from Rebecca, “Promise me never to wear black satin or pearls, or to be thirty-six years old,” Carlo tells ‘Mouse,’“I hope you never stop blushing.”
A constant refrain throughout the novel is that the rich are different from you and me and once ‘Mouse’ arrives at Spindrift, Carlo’s robber baron mansion on Long Island, a deep sense of inadequacy begins to consume him as he finds himself constantly being compared to Carlo’s deceased lover, Timothy, and found wanting. Carlo’s sister says, “You’re quite a bit different than the last one, aren’t you? I suppose Carlo wanted something different. Lord knows he wasn’t going to find another Timothy Burke! That one was far too good-looking for his own good, if you ask me. But he certainly went pretty far in the other direction.”
The fastidious Carson is Spindrift’s chief of staff (apparently Herren intends to evoke the closeted and tightly-sphinctered butler on PBS’ “Downton Abbey”). Carson moves about the mansion as quietly as a ghost: “His face was cadaverous, and he was so pale it was like he’d never been out in the sun.” He immediately dismisses ‘Mouse’ but with such faultless manners that only ‘Mouse’ is aware of it. Carson has preserved Timothy’s blood red suite as a shrine to his dead master and views ‘Mouse’s’ presence as an usurpation. But soon ‘Mouse’ learns secrets about the dead Timothy’s numerous indiscretions with the hired help that begin to nudge his godlike image off of his pedestal. Particularly sinister is the unwelcome presence of Timothy’s former best friend, Taylor Hudson. ‘Mouse’ begins to wonder, could have Timothy’s death been something other than an accident?
The climatic scene of the reveal at the costume ball is moving, but here Herren begins to misstep in a perhaps necessary detour from the original storyline. Rebecca’s Maxim is “innocent” to the extent that Rebecca provoked her own suicide by murder. But Carlo’s crime is not so ambiguous and Timothy’s sexual peccadilloes pale in comparison to what ‘Mouse’ is willing to do for love. Murder, a frame-up and perjury are all apparently justified to uphold the sanctity of the heterosexual paradigm of marriage for gay men. By transposing the subtext of lesbian resistance to male domination in the relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca in the original novel into a gay “relationship” between Carson and the promiscuous Timothy, Herren seems to be challenging the normalcy of homosexual monogamy. Is Carson’s cadaverous appearance an allusion to AIDS as a “punishment” for gay hedonism? Herren’s convoluted ending is not very believable, even if the rich are different from you and me, and he deprives us of the satisfaction of du Maurier’s cathartic flames, but this is a sure and confident classic Herren page-turner and I can’t image anyone not enjoying it late past their bedtime.
Herren is the best-selling author of two popular gay mystery series, as well as the YA classic, Sleeping Angel. Along with J. M. Redmann, he has edited an anthology of gay male noir fiction, Men of Mean Streets, and an anthology of gay horror fiction, Night Shadows. Both are constants on my night reading stand.
Men Find Their Beauty in Sodom
In Dark Sorcerer Threatening (Regal Crest, 2012, www.regalcrest.biz) Damian Serbu has written an action-packed allegory of the pilgrimage each gay man makes in coming out of the shadowy heterosexual world into the bright kingdom of gay men. In an opening evocative of Hamlet, young Prince Titian’s ghostly predecessor, King Constantine appears to him on the eve of his coronation to give him warning about three threats to Elysium, the mystical kingdom of male love. Chief among these are the constantly prying agents of the Catholic Pope trying to find the kingdom to destroy it. Fortunately, the kingdom is shrouded in a concealing magic. In the face of his failure to destroy the kingdom, the Pope’s alternative strategy has been to cause the men of the world to believe Elysium is a myth. Here Serbu evokes the real history of the Church’s repression of the gay medieval Knights Templar. Nonetheless, gay men find their way to Elysium by way of a semblance of death from the heterosexual world and Elysium’s own scouts “scoured the world in search of new citizens.”
Meanwhile, as the handsome young Titian is crowned King, his chief royal councilor, Miguel, who used a little bit of magic to ensure Titian’s ascendency to the throne, is thwarted in his attempt to play Cupid with the King’s heart and concludes that “The magic of love will do.” As indeed it does, for amidst all the splendor of the royal coronation ceremony, Titian’s eyes fall upon a poor, shy young poet, Phillippe:
No physical attraction had ever hit Titian with such force, and the sheepish demeanor of this man made him more alluring. When [Bishop] Emeric coughed slightly, Titan remembered himself and continued about the ceremony, glancing back one more time when the beauty in the back pew looked up again.
But an unrequited lover of the king, Fyodor, spews forth lies and venom against Titian and his new love. Miguel explains to Phillippe, “It’s just his broken heart’s bitterness.” The royal courtship of the commoner, Phillippe, makes for many amusing moments amidst the growing darkness that begins to surround the kingdom.
Serbu tells the stories of how each of these men found the land of Elysium and each gay pilgrim’s tale is a fascinating story within the story. Some men though have come with darkened hearts, ashamed of their love for men, and one such threatens to destroy both Titian’s kingdom and his love, but it is love’s own sacrifice that saves both.
Serbu’s enchanting story of a magical kingdom of gay love seems bittersweet when we must lay the charmed book aside and return to the world of heterosexual men and the women who love them. You will want to revisit Serbu’s kingdom often.
For more about this charming young author—he must have based the handsome poet, Phillippe on himself—find him at www.DamianSerbu.com. Many will be delighted to discover his gay vampire series. Donna Pawlowski’s striking cover for Dark Sorcerer Threatening should be an award winner if they gave awards for such things and they should.
From a Chef’s Heart
The Sushi Chef (Kokoro Press, 2012, www.kokoropress.com), a first novel by sushi chef, David De Bacco, has a masterpiece at its core, but unlike De Bacco’s professional philosophy as a chef–a passion is to create exquisite dishes from the simplest ingredients– the novelist De Bacco has allowed his delicious creation to be smothered in a far too heavy autobiographical mush. De Bacco’s autobiographical central character, John Clute, is just not that interesting in himself except through his relationship with his lover, the sushi chef, Toshio. When they are on the page together,there’s nothing else you’d rather be reading, that is if you can focus on the page through your tears. Unfortunately, De Bacco cannot get out of the way and simply tell Toshio and John’s story, so the reader must force himself to dig through the leaves of this artichoke to get to the love story at its heart.
Some digressions in the book are more appreciated,such as De Bacco’s asides explaining the art of sushi that frame the action of the book. Whether one reads these asides as ironic commentary upon the story or just enjoys them for their fascinating culinary information, they are delicious side dishes.
The startling beauty of the romance between Toshio and John that takes place in New York during the height of the AIDS crisis lies in its mostly non-sexual but powerfully charged eroticism. John’s long lost soul mate, the handsome Mexican-Eskimo, Steven, tells John the truth about his relationship with Toshio:
You can’t sit around and wait for people to love you, but sometimes it’s just easier to pretend that they do. Better than no love at all, huh?
Yet, for John, Toshio is “the most handsome man I have ever seen” and even though he disappears from John’s life for months at a time, refusing even to answer his calls, all he has to do to come back into John’s life is to bring him pickled Japanese plums:
I hadn’t seen Toshio in five months, but in he walks, gives me plums and I start to see him again. Eat a plum and you could be back in love.
Their relationship is ukiyo, floating, “the feeling of getting lost, all things erotic”:
Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maples, singing songs, drinking wine and diverting ourselves in just floating – floating, caring not a whit for the poverty staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.
But John wants more. After a heart-wrenching fight—this page in my copy of the book is literally tear-stained—John flees:“I couldn’t believe how this was turning out. This incredible evening had suddenly taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Moments ago we were quiet, still—floating—but now I was fully dressed and we were either shouting, or crying.” He shouts bitterly, “Don’t try to find me with your fucking plums.” But more heartbreak is ahead for these two sushi-crossed lovers.
De Bacco’s writing at its best is poetic and mystical and erotic all at once. When John recalls an anonymous sexual encounter, De Bacco makes you almost smell the other man’s foreskin:
‘How can you till if an avocado is ripe?’ I asked him. ‘When you take it home and pull back its skin,’ he flirted back with a thick Puerto Rican accent.
In the book’s tear-jerker ending, De Bacco writes a haunting haiku on the transience of love. Or it should have been a tear-jerker ending if he had ended the story where it ends—but again he thinks his own story a la John Clute is more interesting than the love story between John and Toshio, so he meanders on for another thirteen or so pages about his not that interesting career struggles as a writer. He concludes the book with a too-long epilogue that would have been more poignant by half. Ironically, when John’s Australian friend, Trudy, criticizes his first screenplay, I found myself agreeing with her advice, “Simple is always better, mate.”
“Talker” in Audiobooks
Amy Lane’s recent Sidecar (Dreamspinner Press, 2012, www.dreamspinnerpress.com) has been lauded as one of the best m/m romance novels of 2012. But when I was looking for an audiobook for my commute it wasn’t available, so I pulled up her 2010 Talker novella series, also from Dreamspinner, and bought it in one-click thanks to Reese Dante’s (www.reesedante.com) amazing cover.
In Tate and Brian, Lane has created two of romance’s most real and likable romantic heroes. Though her plot, set in California’s Sacramento Valley, contains many of the contrivances typical of pulp romance, we believe every moment of it because we believe in these two guys. This is one of those romances of confusion where the ostensibly “straight” Brian is in love with his gay best bud, Tate, but Tate thinks that Brian’s protestations of love while genuine are no homo and Brian can’t exactly gainsay Tate’s misapprehension because he has his girlfriend up in his bed. She gets the clue when Tate comes back from his first gay date broken and Brian spends the rest of the evening comforting him, leaving her to chill. But Tate still doesn’t get it.
Meanwhile, Tate begins to explore getting guys off in men’s room stalls by using only the seductive words of his fantasies—he’s avoiding face-to-face encounters because he was scarred in a fire set by his abusive mother when he was a baby. Now he has hidden his scars and half his face under a complex pattern of tattoos. He also sports a black Mohawk and several facial piercings. Of course he looks totally cool despite his understandable insecurities about his appearance. He overcompensates by incessantly talking and wins from Brian his nickname, “Talker.” Brian on the other hand is the golden track jock, unpierced, untattooed, with wheat blond hair—Talker calls him “Granola.” Brian decides that if he can’t fight him, he’ll join him in playing his game in the men’s room stalls—the results are romantically satisfying and highly erotic. Which is maybe why Lane has these two guys, whose emotional age makes them sound more like high school kids, living together as college-aged best buds. This book actually reads as more of a YA novel than an adult gay romance and that is the chief part of its charm.
Lane’s real interest is in exploring Tate’s painful physical and emotional scars through Brian’s strong love and acceptance. The love these two guys show for each other is beautiful and very sexy and Lane thankfully doesn’t shut the bedroom door on the reader. Reader David Kaplan does a good job narrating the story without any attempt to voice the characters. That’s good because Brian and Tate are too real in the listener’s mind for any such playacting. The only problem is that Kaplan doesn’t modulate his voice to cue the listener that we are moving forward or backwards in time during one of Lane’s frequent flashbacks.
Especially as a reviewer I tend to pop romance in and out like candy, but I have found myself listening and re-listening to “Talker” on my daily commute just so I can hang out with Brian and Tate again. They are two guys you will want to keep close to your heart.
The culture shock of m/m romance cannot be more vivid than clicking on Amy Lane’s blog site devoted to…knitting…and gay erotic romance novels. Check Lane out at: http://writerslane.blogspot.com/ or www.greenshill.com.