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The maturation of LGBT literature provides a vast array of authors, genres, and styles from which a reader chooses what books to enjoy. What a pleasure to see such diversity for our community, which once struggled to publish even the best of writers. New authors abound, coming from a solid amount of publishers. Yet within the new and unique, I often long for the familiar, the safe and sure hands of a polished writer known for creating literary classics that will always remain important works of gay literature. Picking up Felice Picano’s latest volume, 20th Century Un-Limited, provided this kind of comfort and assurance. I can’t imagine being in the hands of a better storyteller.
Picano journeys down a daring and dangerous path in these two novellas, which take up time travel as their principle subject. In the first, Christopher Hall begins in the current era, enjoying life just past middle age, when a strange encounter leads him on an expedition back to the 1930s. The second story introduces the mystery of disappearing people, all somehow connected through different ages by a plot of land in Wisconsin. Thank the writing gods for Picano’s skill because in a less adept hand, these time-bending scenarios could confuse the reader or prove so maddeningly unrealistic that even the most fervent science fiction enthusiast’s head might spin. Instead, Picano weaves in and out of different decades, centuries even, with ease, explaining the plot and setting so effortlessly that it reads as clearly as a chronological history.
I especially loved his art for describing imagined futures, while quickly thereafter thrusting the story back in time and then detailing the past as accurately as a historian. To further twist the story, he has these players from the future change the past to fit their liking. This complexity reveals the masterful craftsmanship it took to keep the reader from becoming lost. He invents unique ways of amassing wealth and surviving across time periods, and of grappling with the onslaught of global warming and its meaning for the past, present, and future. But the beauty extends beyond the mere skill of a clearly written tale. The real splendor lies in the depth of thought one is left with as Picano guides you along.
Wonder City of the West forces you to consider what you might change from the past if granted such power, as Christopher Hall must do upon landing in 1930s California. Within that, Picano contemplates the notion of arriving in the past with the knowledge and experience at retirement age but the body, vigor, and looks of someone in their twenties; not just to advantage one’s self, but also those around you, and, indeed, humanity across the globe. The twist at the end of this novella will seriously leave you grappling with the world around us today.
The same ruminations fill the pages of Ingoldsby, but in an even more courageous and exciting format. With the skill of Stoker in Dracula, Picano tells this story through newspaper articles, letters, and journal entries. This approach reads like a page-turning mystery, where again past, present, and future collide in a kaleidoscope of intrigue and ambiguity. What begins as the simple question of a missing graduate student on an old estate in Wisconsin spirals into a more esoteric dominion of ghosts and unknown realms.
Picano makes both stories so compelling for a gay audience with his exploration of gay life, past, present, and future. We experience bygone eras of the closet, contemporary worlds after Stonewall, and an array of sex, love, and gay sensibilities. This combination ends with astounding insights and lessons about the real world in which we live, astounding the reader to see that Picano accomplished such lessons with a journey into these imagined worlds.
And in this entire review, I hardly mentioned the humor he infuses in both novellas. As in, laugh out loud funny stuff. It’s hard to give much more description or analysis without some serious spoilers. I’m always loath to even hint at them in a review, but more so than ever this time. Because you need to pick up this book. Experience once again the genius of one of the LGBT community’s best authors and see for yourself where he leads you. You and the history you know will never be the same.
20th Century Un-Limited
By Felice Picano
Bold Strokes Books
Paperback, 9781602829213, 264 pp.