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Jeri Estes describes her début novel Stilettos and Steel (Wordsmith Productions) as a “thank you note to God for coming out of the Tenderloin alive, and to honor my fallen comrades who did not make it out.”
Based on her experiences as a runaway teenager in San Francisco during the 1960s, the book immerses readers in a world of butch/femme gangsters and sex workers trying to survive in the only place where they have the freedom to be queer.
The main character is a young butch named Jesse who ran away from her suburban California home to build a life amongst other queers in the Tenderloin. Starting out as a sex worker, with the help of a street savvy femme named Bunny, Jesse quickly rises to power as a top pimp, employing an army of butch bodyguards and femme escorts, strippers, and streetwalkers.
Becoming highly successful, Jesse and her crew begin to arouse the attention and anger of a high profile male pimp who resents the loss of business, and also resents seeing a woman be successful. After two of the femmes are kidnapped an all-out-war ensues between the rival gangs, filled with violence, revenge, and plot twists.
There is no peace at home either, as there seems to be constant conflict between Jesse and her business partner Bunny. Not to mention the constant banter and battling between an inner circle of femme employees and Jesse’s long-term girlfriend Carmen who, to make things more complicated, is also an escort working for Jesse and Bunny.
I’m a sucker for any novel focused in on runaway queer teens, as well as butch/femme representation in books. I expected to fall in love with this book, however my feeling by that final page was somewhat more ambivalent.
Stilettos and Steel is certainly not without merit. Urban fiction, or street fiction as it is often called, is a growing genre, and I think Estes’ greatest strength lies in her crafting of a dyke-focused novel that captures violence, the construction of family, and the quest for survival on the streets. That said, I became increasingly uncomfortable and concerned with the way that, for many of the femmes, race became the primary identifying characteristic, not to mention the regular sprinkling of racial slurs throught the text.
I found the overall portrayal of femmes in general within the book to be quite offensive. They were mostly one-dimensional characters framed as shallow and manipulative. With few exceptions, the femmes were little more than sex objects, and toys for the misogynistic butch characters. Perhaps the most disturbing scene came as Jesse was angry that Carmen refused to see a particular client. In order to “teach her a lesson” she publically raped her in front of several other femmes. Later, she gave Carmen expensive earrings to smooth things over.
I don’t have to like the narrator in order to like the book. I think some of the most compelling novels have complicated, and unlikable narrators. In that way, the fact that I didn’t like the character of Jesse didn’t bother me. What did become an ongoing issue for me was the glamorization of violence and misogyny.
The premise behind the story is a powerful one. There are not enough books written from the perspective of a young butch, let alone a young butch pre-Stonewall who is on her own. Woven through the text are messages about the difficulties of being queer, and particularly visibly queer in the mid 1960s. Embedded within the book are also important conversations about the power of community in the face of homophobic institutional powers.
Stilettos and Steel is certainly not what I was expecting, but breaks interesting ground through its queer historical fiction, urban fiction genre blending.
Stilettos and Steel
by Jeri Estes
Paperback, 9780984517305, 322pp