Book Lovers: April
Au contraire, Mr. Eliot, April is the most romantic month and we have a shower of new romances that will soften the hearts of even the romance wary (or weary).
Every Time I Think of You
Every Time I Think of You, by Jim Provenzano (CreateSpace/Myrmidude Press, 2011)–a 2012 Lambda Award finalist in romance–achieves the delicate balance of allowing its disabled teenaged protagonist to have a realistic sexual experience without fetishising “gimp” sex. Provenzano ably accomplishes this feat by focusing on the sweet relationship between our two teen heroes, Reid Conniff and Everett Forrester, within the larger theme of the naturalness of gay love. Provenzano brings out this theme through Reid’s interest in forestry. The two boys’ first coupling is in a snow-covered winter woods:
A thick blanket of snow lay at my feet, sleeves of it bending the limbs of shrubs. Bluish whites contrasted the dark limbs of the evergreen branches above…Then I saw him…Despite his pale skin, I saw how colorful he was. Most prominent was the red flush on his cheeks, fore and aft, the various tans and light browns of his backside, the green buffered light between his arms and along his almost stocky legs, and the nearly bluish-black of his hair…
Reid jokingly wonders about “the possible genetic side effects of orally ingesting the DNA of a loved one.” A long-distance runner and a thinker by nature, Reid tells Everett, “I remember asking my dad how something that existed on earth could be unnatural, when if it was a life form, didn’t that make it natural?” The boys once again find themselves in the woods in one of the book’s most intensely sexual scenes and Everett comments, “‘There are so many things we can’t do, places we can’t be ourselves. Here,’ his upward glance drew me to the dark tree branches, oaks mostly, canopied above us, ‘God sees us and likes it.’”
Even the boys’ names evoke the woods. The more physical, less cerebral Everett is dark and swarthy (Reid nicknames him Monkey), his love and attraction to Reid is spontaneous and natural, whereas the tall and somewhat gangly Reid’s response is more reflective. Their love is a force of nature. We are spared the clichéd motifs of the “coming out” story. While the boys’ families do play both positive and negative roles in their relationship, the difficulties that they face are not based primarily in familial homophobia.
Provenzano also artfully works in the theme of nature to suggest hope for Everett’s physical recovery, as well as, in a difficult moment in Reid’s and his relationship, the recovery of love:
Everett’s haircut looked odd, as if he’d been shorn. ‘Regeneration.’ I blurted. ‘What?’ Some random science fact had popped into my head. ‘Nothing, I just…Plants and trees can grow new branches even after they’ve been cut down, sometimes even after a fire.’ ‘Okay,’ Everett replied warily. ‘So, I should think like a tree?’
Provenzano’s sweet humor throughout the book is what makes it such a moving and satisfying read. While he certainly brings the reader to a deeper understanding of being differently-abled, he never resorts to preaching his message. These boys are too real for that.
Other Provenzano romances about young gay love include Pins, Cyclizen, and Monkey Suits. For more on his work go to www.myrmidude.org.
Contemporary Gay Romances: Tragic, Mystic, Comic and Horrific
Gay master storyteller Felice Picano truly does create Contemporary Gay Romances (Bold Strokes Books, 2011) in this marvelous collection that breathes new excitement into a genre that can get to be a bit formulaic. Picano’s collection opens with “Gratitude,” a story about a quadriplegic that surprises the reader like a spontaneous ‘Thank you’ to God. Like Jim Provenzano’s longer work with a disabled protagonist, reviewed above, Picano rescues us from sentimentality or sermonizing by the sheer sweetness of his humor.
Victoria Brownworth noted long ago that in classic gay romance, like in Gordon Merrick’s An Idol for Others, the woman/wife often serves as the bitchy obstacle to gay male love. Picano shatters that stereotype with “True Love…True Love…” where a woman’s innocent love for her husband enables him to live freely as a gay man.
Each of these stories would reward detailed study by students of short fiction, but all I can do here is touch briefly on a few with the pleasure of an amateur. The last line in “An Encounter with Sibyl” is like the ending of an O. Henry story that leaves the reader pondering the meaning of the whole. Likewise, in “Gift,” Picano channels Flannery O’Connor’s use of the grotesque to probe a misfit’s yearning for physical love. “Imago Blue” is an exploration of the twists of gender and sexual orientation on love that is satisfying as a stand-alone short story, but it reads as if it might be a study for a full-length sci-fi novel. “Hunter” serves as a sexy metaphor for the writer’s “promiscuity” of ideas.
The last stories in the collection were less satisfying to me as stories, although each contained captivating elements. “The Acolyte” is a mini-novella that is amusingly overwritten to create a Victorian opacity that makes it difficult to understand exactly what sexual misdoings are going on—which is, of course, the point. “The Geology of Southern California at Black’s Beach” and “Everyone Has a Shazam!” seem to be outtakes from Picano’s novel Like People in History, and catch the story media res. The two stories form a continuity of setting—the beach—and the character of Mark, a man who is transitioning from being positive to full-blown AIDS. I enjoy stories that share characters and setting, forming a novel from parts—like Nisa Donnelly’s “The Bar Stories: A Novel After All”—but, unfortunately, I found the emotional struggles of the men in these two stories to be soap operaish, although “Black’s Beach” ends with a scene of harsh emotional realness. Perhaps Picano’s strategy in the stories of these men’s histories is captured in the character Roger’s reflection on life:
It’s like I’m in an Antonioni movie…This whole thing today, Roger thought, is exactly like one of those movies: not meeting who they were supposed to, wandering around without any goal, plotless, nothing explained, all sorts of odd happenings, strange people suddenly coming together with them while others didn’t communicate at all, even though they were together hours on end.
The final story in the collection, “In the Fen Country,” would have profited from the humor that Picano shows elsewhere. “Fen” is a futuristic tale that reads like a Flash Gordon serial, but attempts weightier, perhaps too-weighty, ideas. Nonetheless, the powerful moment of the two men, Locke and Finn, locked in a total synthesis of being, is a startling turn-on. Unlike in William Gibson’s novels where I always feel a sort of let down when I realize all the “action” is happening virtually inside the character’s head (or computer), Picano includes a very real physical as well as mental melding of his two protagonists. Nonetheless their external ‘reality’ is wholly unreal. I enjoyed that the story takes for granted the reader’s familiarity with the future, although occasionally this assumption left me confused as to what was happening or when.
The only thing I disliked about this collection is that even though Picano provides an interesting foreword about his creative process, he does not contextualize the stories by providing where and when each was originally published and the publisher doesn’t provide that information in the copyright page. I would have liked to have known if a particular story came early in his career or was the fruit of years of experience as a writer and a gay man. Whatever, the case, these stories will live on as beloved classics that get read and reread and serve as a measure of our own self-understanding.
Captain Harding’s Six-Day War
Elliott Mackle is gifted at creating novels set in recent history that capture the living details of the period so that we have a true sense of what it meant to be a gay man in the post-WWII South (and in an interracial relationship) in It Takes Two, or a gay newspaper editor in 90s Atlanta before the Olympic Games in Hot Off the Presses, or now, in Captain Harding’s Six-Day War, (Lethe Press, 2012) what it meant to be a closeted career military officer in the sixties.
Sarah Schulman warns in her thought-provoking new book, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, that we must not forget the cost of the struggles of the past in the apparent victory of the moment. Schulman points out that hard-fought LGBT victories are often passed off as the inevitable, if gradual, awakening of the goodness of straight America’s heart to the injustice LGBT people face on a daily basis. But in reality, Schulman insists, our rights are won only by our own demand for justice, not bestowed upon us by the benevolent tolerance of the straight majority. DADT has been removed, but what of the lives destroyed, what of the cost that was paid? For example, have the dishonorable discharges of the gay linguists under the current Obama administration been revoked? Have they been restored to their previous rank with full restitution for lost pay?
Mackle doesn’t let us forget. In his suspenseful novel about gay life on a USAFB in Libya just prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Mackle shows us how, in the closeted military, gay relationships were perverted into instruments of self-oppression. Mackle uses closeted gay military life as a synecdoche of the impact of the closet in all of gay life. Every gay person is a potential enemy to another. Mackle shows that it is no accident that the collateral damage for allowing the white gay protagonist, Captain Joe Harding, to stay safely closeted is the death of his Asian lover, the court martial of a black military career woman as a lesbian and the self-destruction of a gay black enlisted man, who in an effort to survive is forced into playing the role of ‘Prissy’ to white military superiors, as a cough-medicine-drinking junkie. In the closet, the ‘happiness’ that comes to the white gay male protagonist comes at the expense of these expendable minorities.
The closet creates an irrational Dr. Strangelove universe when a closeted pilot, grieving over the suicide death of his lover and flight commander, threatens to go rogue and entangle the United States in the Six-Day War. To redeem himself and to save his country from an inadvertent war, Captain Harding must choose to come out. Parallel to this act of courage is the hope of love that Captain Harding finds in the teenaged son of the American ambassador to Libya. This “inappropriate” relationship is held only in promise of a tomorrow when all closet doors are opened, a promise of Stonewall. Mackle similarly used the “inappropriate” interracial gay relationship in It Takes Two, to serve as a sign of hope for a better future, a future that is not given, but must be gained.
Don’t Shoot the Piano Player
The acclaimed Desert Run by Marshall Thornton (Torquere Press, 2011) deserves all the buzz it has received. The compelling protagonist, Don Harris (not his real name), is hiding out in 1973 Palm Springs, posing as a piano bar player, after having lost it in a bar fight with the son of a Chicago mob don. After a foolish one-night stand with a blonde who turns out to have Chicago mob connections, Don finds himself on the lam again across the Mojave Desert in a pink Rambler Ambassador.
Hoping to pick up some money shooting pool in a gay bar, Don shows his flexibility when he allows himself to be sharked by a young gay guy named Harlan. Harlan is the kept boy of a closeted movie star and sequesters Don in their lavish Palm Springs compound. But the movie star has mob connections of his own, and both Don and Harlan find themselves bound and gagged on a one way run into the desert.
Don Harris is one of the most charming rogues I’ve met in a romance. Sexy without being particularly handsome, he reminded me of Bogart in looks and manner. He’ll kill a man, but not like it. Unfortunately, I can’t say that Harlan is his match. I tried to imagine Harlan as Bacall to Harris’ Bogart, but unlike Bacall, there is no there there. This is particularly telling in the sex scenes. Harris’ one-night stand with the blonde Shelly makes the motel pool steam:
“Water tickled my hips, and my semi-flaccid cock bobbed in the water. Shelly took hold of me and slipped the end of my dick into her mouth. Her tongue made a trail around my mushroom head. I began to stiffen. In the moonlight, I watched everything she did. I like the way my fat dick looked in her tiny mouth. As I thickened, her small hand seemed like it barely made its way all the way around my shaft.”
Contrast his first blowjob by Harlan:
I should be panicking. I should be pulling him off of me and screaming at him to stop. Instead, I closed my eyes and concentrated on what he was doing. His mouth was warm, and he went down on me until his lips were at the very base of my cock, the top of my dick being bent and squeezed into his throat. I gasped. I couldn’t believe he’d gotten my dick that far down. I was already close to coming.
A blowjob is subjective but this reads more clinical to me, less visceral.
But what excitement was lacking in bed for me was more than made up by the several action sets throughout the novel. Thornton knows how to write action. Sometimes action scenes in novels read like the dust busters in cartoons—looks busy, but you don’t really see much of the mayhem. Thornton makes sure we feel the rope around our neck while he’s garroting us:
Quickly, I reached my arms over the headrest and slipped them over Andy’s head. The rope caught under his chin when I pulled back. Andy began to squirm in his seat. He still had a gun in his hand, and in his surprise he discharged it. A hole appeared in the windshield, and a spider’s web of cracks flashed across it. ‘Holy fuck!’ screamed Bull. Air whistled through the bullet hole. Bull reached over and tried to disengage my hands, but his tugging only tightened the rope around Andy’s neck. Andy continued to struggle in his seat, attempting to twist around so he could shoot me. I could see the gun between the seats over the armrest. It was aimed right at Harlan. I pulled as hard as I could in the opposite direction, hoping to disrupt Andy’s aim. The gun went off…
This is not the first punishment that the bumbling hit men, Andy and Bull, receive from Harris’ hands in the novel, and in the context of an out-of-control car barreling down a hot desert road, I found this scene laugh-out loud funny.
If Thornton could flesh out Harlan a bit more, I’d love to see this duo return in a sequel. Other Thornton works I look forward to reading are the picaresque novel The Perils of Praline (the cover model’s bubble butt alone is worth the price of admission), Boystown, his Nick Nowak private dick series, and the intriguing The Development, a collection of stories set in the mid-sixties in upstate New York and featuring Jan Birch, a housewife who lives in a planned development and solves murder mysteries. For more about Thornton’s work go to http://marshallthornton.wordpress.com/.