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As this country again focuses on its endemic violence, David McConnell’s book couldn’t have arrived at a more apt time. By delving deep into the sexual brutality typically explained away with micro-waved Freudianism, he’s given us a work that is searing, personal and yet with a clarity that adds to the national conversation. McConnell takes us through Middle America, into small towns and across wide oppressive landscapes, to detail the murders of gay men (or those who were perceived to be gay) by men who felt threatened, or were gay themselves, yet had something to prove or nothing to lose. Powerful prose paints these scenes with the acute immediacy often only afforded adolescence (something gleaned from the criminals covered, maybe? All of whom come across as bewildered, bloodied children), and the best spots are reminiscent of the heady new truths one confronted the first time reading Jean Genet. (A cover blurb evokes Capote and I respectfully disagree; Capote played to the balcony, Genet gilded gutters, and it’s his insightful brush that McConnell picks up).
McConnell begins with a cursory review of the somewhat well known “Jenny Jones” murder, where a young, troubled straight man shot dead the gay secret crush who revealed himself on national television. After that the author reports on murder as committed by conspiracy theorist right wing Christian brothers, a former gay porn-starring tattoo artist, a group of African American high school football players, and a New York City Craigslist opportunist. The reportage concerning the former gay porn-starring tattoo artist, hustler, occasional go-go boy, in-the-closet-out-of-the-closet skinhead cum real estate agent, captures the remarkable high of Gary Indiana’s crime fiction, minus the candied cynicism. The killer, Darrell Madden, lived in an Oklahoma “suffused with (the) childish and intense boredom that is something of an American national characteristic, like quaintness in the Alps or grandeur in Paris.” His un-tethered life and conflict over homosexuality and masculinity speak to an arrested development that’s as much a national tragedy as it is a personal one. And several of these crimes are “fresh,” the dead only just buried, the trials recently reported on the news. American Honor Killings isn’t righting some past grievance with newfound perspective, but describing the brutal, ongoing present.
Little outside a few sensational paperbacks has been written about crimes committed against gay men, and even less by gay authors. (Documentarian Arthur Dong’s work demands renewed attention. His 1997 film, Licensed to Kill, offers chilling interviews with men who have killed men solely because they were gay). McDonnell does a commendable job pulling apart the terms “homophobia” and “gay panic” as woefully inadequate. In fact, dissect the title: by placing these crimes as uniquely American (and they’re not yet still they are), add the phrase “honor killings” and the bizarre, fatalistic masculine ritualism it evokes, and it becomes clear that homophobia is a subset of misogyny. It’s this truth telling, the sifting of sad ashes, that sets this book far above typical genre fare.
Reading American Honor Killings is like driving by a forest fire, one vast yet still secretive –a fire that’s been burning for a long time.
American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men
By David McConnell
Paperback, 9781617751325, 240pp.