Book Lovers: Ban This! The Novels of Elliott Mackle
When acclaimed gay novelist Elliott Mackle asked the director of the University of Miami’s writers’ workshop if he had any talent, the director replied, “Talent? Of course you have talent but talent is cheap. You have to write and write and write and see what you come up with and where you can go.”
Where Mackle went was the United States Air Force. Mackle says, “Without the military I’d probably be dead and certainly would never have had any kind of a career as a writer. When I put on a uniform and started Officers’ Training School at Lackland Air Base in San Antonio, Texas in 1963 I was a combination spoiled brat and frat rat. Sexually experienced but closeted and a slave to my conservative family, a different
kind of life had been planned for me and I was ready to go along with it. Three years in another country—California—plus assignments in Libya and Italy helped turn me around. I became commander of a squadron of 200 men. In my spare time I read many of the books I should have read in college, including classics like Nightwood, The Stranger, The Red and the Black, A Passage to India and most of Evelyn Waugh, particularly Brideshead Revisited. I acted in little theater and stage-managed several plays and an opera.”
What Mackle came up with from his military experience are four highly praised novels, the award-winning Captain Harding’s Six-Day War and the recent sequel, Captain Harding’s Men, as well as the Lambda Literary Award finalist “why-dunit,” It Takes Two, and the just out sequel, Only Make Believe, all from Lethe Press.
Mackle says that his Air Force commander in California asked him to write a column for the base newspaper and acted as a mentor. The real-life adventures of one of his Air Force buddies, a career pilot decorated for valor in Southeast Asia, were “the fine clay out of which Captain Joe Harding was formed.” The two are still close friends and Mackle says, “I am blessed he is alive today and able to read my novels.”
Mackle went on to become a staff writer at The Atlanta Journal-Consitution and served as the newspaper’s dining critic for a decade, as well as reporting on military affairs, travel and the national restaurant scene. He covered the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta and his 2010 novel, Hot Off the Presses from Lethe Press (very hot cover photo by Nicolas Hansen, design by Alex Jeffers) is described as an “exposé of the racial and sexual politics” surrounding the games, which Mackle says were a “disaster” for the city. He says, “I was an accredited reporter for Cox Newspapers during the games with go-anywhere credentials and I witnessed the way Olympic sausage is made, not a pretty sight. I experienced the dishonesty and heavy handedness of the IOC and the Atlanta Committee first-hand. As a novelist, I also had information from a source very high up in the Atlanta Committee hierarchy. The games were a disaster for the city and nobody wanted to talk about why. We still have not recovered. It made me terribly angry.”
Hot Off the Presses follows the heroic efforts of gay newspaper editor, Henry Thompson, to maintain his journalistic and personal integrity: “I try to be an honorable man among honorable people. I view my editing career as a calling, not a job. I’m a dedicated man. I know it sounds a little pompous to say so, but I’d always tried to do the morally right thing.”
Unfortunately for Henry, the gay rag he edits, Outlines, is owned by a rich, white liberal heterosexual couple, the McClellands, who are more concerned that the paper’s critical coverage of homophobic African-American mayor Rawson Ramble will tarnish the city’s reputation on the eve of the Olympics than they are about journalistic integrity. Ramble opposes using Ryan White funding for minority outreach because “Atlanta blacks didn’t contract HIV, not according to the gospel preached by Pastor Rawson Ramble.” Unfortunately for Ramble, his son, Martin, is both gay and a needle user. Mackle insists, “The mayor at the time, Bill Campbell, was every bit as racist as I describe—and was later prosecuted and jailed for tax evasion and bribes. The character’s down-low son is based on the son of another Atlanta pol.” Mackle says, “I was trying to stir up discussion and pulled out all the stops. It didn’t work. Nothing’s changed.”
Mackle’s sharp pen also spears the IOC when fictional closeted Olympic hopeful Wade Tarpley is involved in a Greg Louganis-type incident. Mackle’s satire is particularly bitter when he shows gay community leaders indulging in unsafe sex at an after-party for an AIDS fundraiser. In a “Book Lovers” review of the novel, I criticized Mackle for making Thompson so obsessed with safe sex that he seems almost afraid of sex. But in an interview with Robert Jaquay on myQmunity, Mackle said that Thompson’s insistence on safe sex is a sign of his integrity. Thompson saw his lover, Mark White, die of AIDS. “Some people didn’t—and don’t—take it seriously. Henry and I do,” Mackle says. The entrance of sexy, but closeted Sports Illustrated writer, Brian Murphy, in Atlanta to cover the games brings romance back into Henry’s life, with the help of a little “Body Magic.”
Mackle says Joseph Hanson’s Dave Brandstetter mysteries and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series were the foundation for his “Dan and Bud” mysteries, the recently reissued Lambda Award finalist, It Takes Two, and the new Only Make Believe. After two false starts, Mackle hired “book doctor,” Jerry Gross to read the first draft of It Takes Two. Gross asked, “Where’s the sex?” Mackle replied, “Mystery novels don’t have sex scenes.” Gross had Mackle write a sex scene that Mackle says, “is the scene on the fishing boat in which Dan and Bud finally get naked together.” The scene is written from the red-headed Dan’s perspective:
I was mopping my face when Bud pulled off his golf shirt. The long, leather-edged scars that ran from his neck down his side hit me first, even before the understated USMC tattoo on his upper arm, and the dark, curly thicket of hair that ran from his throat to his waist. I didn’t say anything, but my mouth grinned. ‘Ran into a door,’ he said, touching his side with the towel. ‘Happened to be a Nip sergeant behind it’….I whistled, ‘Sounds like you didn’t spend the war on a parade ground.’ He shrugged, ‘You go where they tell you to go.’
The novels are set in Fort Myers, Florida in the late 40s and early 50s. Mackle says, “In the 1940s and 1950s, South Florida was every bit as politically and socially corrupt as Hollywood. When I was a teen, my family lived in Miami Beach, a town where everything was for sale and you could place a bet on the horse races at the police station desk. The parish school I attended was financed by loan sharks, made Mafia dons and retired Latin-American dictators. Al Capone, Jr. was an alumnus, as was Desi Arnaz. After classes, we didn’t go to a malt shop, but to a deli for pastrami sandwiches. Strippers and hookers would be eating breakfast in the next booth. The corner newsstand sold under-the-counter drugs. There was a drag bar next door. One of my closest friends at the University of Miami was an exotic dancer at one of the big hotels—meaning her costumes consisted mostly of imagination.”
Mackle could be describing some of the denizens of the Caloosa Hotel and Club, the setting for the action in It Takes Two and Only Make Believe. The Caloosa is a “discreet hideaway” that caters to an “open-minded, sophisticated” clientele that prefers 24/7 liquor service, poker, Cuban boleto, call girls, blue movies and stud waiters, as well as an integrated front-of-the-house staff, “a rarity in Florida in the postwar decade.” It’s as queer as a “fruitcake dive on the Frisco waterfront.” Former Navy Lieutenant and college swimmer, Dan Ewing manages the Caloosa for his former commanding officer Admiral Bruce Asdeck, a decidedly broad-minded and broad-chested boss, who understands the ways of the world. The Caloosa is an island of tolerance in a South Florida that, in the 50s, was still the Deep South and the hotel’s idyllic laissez-faire is shadowed by the Klu Klax Klan, moral busybodies and other red-necks. Ewing pairs up with former Marine Sergeant and Lee County detective Spencer “Bud” Wright both in bed and as sleuths to solve the not infrequent murders that threaten the sexual freedom that the Caloosa represents for Dan and Bud.
In Dan and Bud’s latest adventure, Only Make Believe, the story’s just starting when the fat lady sings but unfortunately it may be Miss Diva Capri’s final performance: “The Diva was a man—a man dressed as a lady, an opera singer, only this wasn’t Halloween.” The cast of suspects includes the Diva’s sexually confused and handsome teenage son, his Catholic wife, Mafia dons and both straight and gay club guests who may have flirted with the wrong Floria Tosca: “What a man is and what other people believe he is—that’s not always the same thing.” As in It Takes Two, the real suspense is if Dan’s relationship with the closeted Bud (“I ain’t queer for anybody but you”) can survive the spotlight of police and press scrutiny. Dan reflects, “How did I get so lucky? He’s all I want. We got through the war. How much longer can we get away with this?”
Mackle, who did graduate research at Emory on “the clash of retail politics and alternative religion in Fort Myers and Lee County” and wrote his doctoral dissertation on “the creation of the image of Florida” as the “Eden of the South,” says he chose Fort Myers as the setting for his novels because “I wanted a setting to make my own.” The Caloosa Hotel in Fort Myers serves as a symbol of the emerging gay communities in the 50s in the Castro, Greenwich Village and Hollywood, communities born of the mass movements of men and women during World War II who—when freed from the restraints of small town and familial conventions—never went back. It is Mackle’s own story. He says, “I was supposed to go into the family business.” Instead he joined the Air Force. He says, “Being a gay man in uniform taught me to think for myself—and stay loose. Living in California and then overseas gave me a sense of a world that was greater and richer…Had I caved in and accepted the role offered by my family, I’d have driven my Lamborghini into a concrete wall before I turned 40. I’m still here.”
Mackle says, “My theory is that successful male-male partnerships need differences in order to make up for the human differentness in male-female roles and socialization…In Dan and Bud, I deliberately aimed at creating two men who are as opposite as I could make them: officer vs. NCO, college graduate vs. high school jock, city slick vs. country hick, sexually experienced vs. close to virginal, comfortably bent vs. bisexual and fighting it, shell-shocked after losing a ship and a lover in the war vs. accepting that the war was won and we survived.”
Mackle says that Bud, in part, was based on a boyhood crush: “From junior high into college, he and I were each other’s shadow, the whole string of guy-guy clichés. I thought we were going to spend our lives together.” But, says Mackle, “He decided otherwise.” Mackle says the two-time Mr. Florida weight-lifting champion drugged himself to death after failing to convince his father he was lovable and heterosexual. “Bud is my conscious attempt to create a happier ending for a man I deeply loved.” Mackle says he has had “forty mostly good years” with his partner, George, who is 15 years his senior. The couple met when Mackle was a student at Emory. George is a Harvard MBA and retired bank executive.
Already a gay literary classic, Mackle’s first Joe Harding novel, Captain Harding’s Six-Day War, is a gay M*A*S*H whose absurdity is based on the military closet. The novel takes place at Wheelus AFB in 1967 Libya and mixes satire with heartfelt tragedy. Mackle has the reader laughing through tears. Mackle’s integrity is reflected in his hero, Captain Joe Harding, whose survival comes at the cost of collateral damage to his friends and lovers, but who—in an ultimate act of courage—saves his country from a reckless involvement in the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War by outing himself (an incident with a basis in historical fact, as Mackle notes in an afterward). Mackle says, “Captain Harding’s Six-Day War was intended as my contribution to the fight against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Unfortunately, print publication of the book was stalled when Alyson Books restructured as an e-book publisher. Mackle withdrew the book, he says, “In time for Lethe to publish it officially on the day DADT was repealed, September 20, 2011.”
Mackle takes the high-risk of putting Joe’s love affair with the 17-year old James “Cotton” Boardman, son of Libya’s American ambassador, and introduced chastely in the first Harding novel, now fully consummated at the center of the recently published sequel, Captain Harding and His Men. At the center of a maelstrom of murder, treason, treachery, espionage, covert rogue CIA operations, terrorism and sexual assault, is this sweet love story between a man and boy, but it is that love affair that is the subject of the heterosexual characters’ moral outrage. The rest was just business as usual. Sarah Schulman has said that she has to paint her white male heterosexual villains absurdly villainous because the reader automatically gives them the benefit of the doubt in comparison to her lesbian protagonists. Similarly, to show the moral innocence of Joe’s love for Cotton, Mackle must surround them with a level of venality that reaches an almost absurd climax in the covert agent, Ted Fritsche.
Mackle says, “It’s all about the closet and the forced application of straight-male Judeo-Christian moral standards of behavior on those not so inclined.” When I suggested to Mackle that he risked ending up on some library book ban list by writing about man-boy love in our post-gay America, he laughs, “Ban my book. Please ban my book.” He says that in first draft of Captain Harding’s Six-Day War Cotton was actually a year or two younger. Mackle says, “It’s symbolically important that Cotton be younger.” He points out that the first overheated sexual collision between Joe and Cotton takes place in the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna, evoking classical patterns of male-male love but with a modern twist, “Note that it is the eromenos Cotton that takes the lead, not the erastes Joe,” he says. The classically educated young Cotton argues with Joe, “For the Greeks, men and boys getting together was ritually approved. Practically mandatory.” Amidst the Roman columns, he pulls Joe to him:
One of his big hands was planted on my ass, pulling me toward the hard knot in his crotch. He was taller than I was, with longer arms and surprising strength. When I tried to pull away, he gripped me tighter, kissed my neck and thrust the knot against my hip. And what was going to happen did happen. Just like that.
I was as embarrassed as the boy. I’d halfway seen it coming; I hadn’t prevented the contact or fought hard enough to stop it. Clearly the buddy-buddy situation had gone too far… “It’s OK, Shorts. It’s OK. We both got overheated with all those dicks on parade out there. Naked gods and goddesses…I’m not made of marble, pal.”
That becomes all too apparent when Joe meets Cotton in Switzerland for the Christmas holiday from his boarding school in the sequel Captain Harding and His Men: “We hugged and slapped each other’s backs. And laughed and hugged again. The slaps became caresses, the hug an embrace, the welcoming words an unstoppable flood of sighs and kisses. He’s almost eighteen, I told myself as I unbuckled his belt.”
Mackle doesn’t gloss over the pain of getting one’s cherry popped, which to me brought out the essential innocence of the scene, especially in contrast to the brutal attempted assault that takes place in the book’s climax:
“I love you, but you’re hurting me. Fuck. Stop. Ow, Jesus. Take it out. Please.” I should have gone easy. The boy didn’t know how to relax and I didn’t know to teach him. Hell, in those days, many gay men, myself included, knew next to nothing about warming up another man, stretching him with fingers and tongue, readying him for what was considered real lovemaking. No, it was usually just grease-and-go, if that. Or spit.
Mackle says that real-life proto-types for Joe’s love for Cotton include a “near-miss” with the 18-year old son of a colonel in the Air Force as well as “that my partner is fifteen years older than I am.”
The Libyan backdrop of the Harding novels is convenient—a writer writes what he knows and Mackle served at Wheelus AFB near Tripoli while in the Air Force in the 60s—but moreover, Mackle says, “Dropping an innocent American hero into an exotic, unfamiliar setting is about as fool-proof as rubbing two Boy Scouts together.” Neil Plakcy’s Tunisian setting for his very sexy, Have Body, Will Guard series is a case in point. Mackle says, “Tripoli was a fascinating city, a remnant of the Turkish Empire, the crown jewel of the Barbary Coast.” He has the classically trained Cotton quote Shakespeare on their host country to Joe when they first meet: “‘He hath an argosy bound to Tripolis.’” Mackle says, “Libya’s history as a Roman outpost, and America’s history with the Barbary states also figure in the novels.” Mackle points out that Joe’s full name is Joseph Decatur Harding. He says, “According to a Navy biography, Stephen Decatur,” the handsome 19th century American Navy captain, “was ‘Conspicuous for gallantry in the War with Tripoli, 1803-1804,’” against the Barbary Pirates. Mackle, quoting the same source, says, “He later ‘secured the final treaty of peace with the Barbary Powers.’” Mackle says, “It is believed that Decatur preferred the company of men”—like his namesake Joe.
Mackle says many writers have influenced him. Fellow Georgian, “Flannery O’Connor is always looking over my shoulder.” Only Make Believe is dedicated to Ensan Case and Mackle says Case’s underground classic, Wingmen, first published in 1979 and recently reissued by Cheyenne Publishing, “has been a huge influence on my fiction.” Katherine V. Forrest is a friend and mentor and Mackle says she “taught me to pare down every bit of dialog to the most essential points.” Mackle’s staccato dialogue seems to leave so much unsaid, yet everything is there.
The recently deceased Dudley Clendinen, his editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and co-author of Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America (Simon and Schuster, 1999), told Mackle, when he was the paper’s dining critic, “Don’t walk into a restaurant as a critic. You are a reporter.” Mackle applies this advice to his fiction writing. He says, “I imagine myself in Bud’s rooming house backyard. Dan begins grilling Bud about their missed play date the night before. Dan describes what he sees, the grass and the wood fence and the newspaper and the Regal beer he’s drinking for breakfast—and we’re off.” Mackle says, “John D. MacDonald told me that the most important thing about writing a novel is locating the exact instant the story begins and starting there.” “Taking off on that,” he says, “The two most important paragraphs in a novel are the first and the last. I have these at least drafted before I start filling in the details.”
Mackle says, “Working for a daily paper taught me that schedules and deadlines count a lot more than inspiration…I write in the morning just until I’m almost to the point where I’m about to run out of steam and then quit. I reread and edit later in the day.” Mackle says he starts out with an outline and spreadsheet of characters and action. His writing fuel is two mugs of Peet’s coffee in the morning and Hess chardonnay at night. He says when he is in the middle of a novel, “I guess the word ‘monk’ does apply…My much older, frail partner is in charge of watching television and caring for the dogs.” When he finishes a book, “I chill out at a retreat center in Sonoma…I have led a writing-for-non-writers workshops there.”
“Alyson Books was eighty percent nightmare,” Mackle says. “Lethe Press is a whole different story. Publisher Steve Berman is probably my biggest fan.” The sexy and evocative cover art for the Harding novels is by Ben Baldwin with design by Toby Johnson. Johnson also designed the beautiful noir covers for the newly reissued It Takes Two and the new Only Make Believe, with art by Niki Smith.
Mackle says that publisher Berman “supports what I’m trying to do as a story-teller and he understands the tensions created by writing literary and selling genre.” Editor and reviewer Richard LaBonté was an early fan of It Takes Two and rooted for the book to win the Lambda Award for gay mystery. It was a finalist. Mackle says his friend, “Katherine V. Forrest said it didn’t win because it’s not really a mystery.” Although Captain Harding’s Six-Day War was nominated in Romance for the 2012 Lambda Awards it did not make it as a finalist. Romance writer, Josh Lanyon, who’s written the go-to-guide for how to write romance, loved the book but said, “It’s not a romance.” The book won the 2011 TLA Gaybies Award for Romance and was named a Best Book of 2011 by the review blog Speak Its Name. Mackle acknowledges that his fiction can’t be neatly categorized. While his work may transcend genre, Mackle points out, “On the other hand, if you throw Captain Harding into the general gay fiction pile, it’s going to come up against all sorts of big-house, big-promo, big-name, newest-singular-sensations of the year and then it might well be tossed aside.”
Mackle says he is working on another Dan and Bud mystery, “working title Sunset Island, but it’s in pieces and goes in several directions. I’ll pick it up once I get Harding 3 in print, hopefully next summer…The next and possibly final Harding story begins when Joe returns after 18 months in Vietnam.” He says, “Because I never had my boots on the ground in Vietnam,” a PTSD-afflicted Joe will re-visit the war scenes in flashbacks.