‘The Creamsickle’ by Rhiannon Argo
Author: Faith Reidenback
January 25, 2010
It’s unusual to encounter literary lesbian fiction that’s also a guilty pleasure, but both terms apply fairly to this book. The Creamsickle itself is full of trash—it’s an unheated, lopsided flophouse in the Mission district of San Francisco that has an “ever-revolving door.” Over the years, it’s been occupied by revolutionaries, “hippie fags and fairies,” grunge lesbians, and now The Crew, three 20-something skateboarding bois who have made the house their “ultimate bachelor pad.” Their procession of lovers are not mere lipsticks lesbians but “fierce girls,” the “tough bunch of femmes with razor heels and sharp tongues” who can handle the neighborhood.
This novel is more about queer family–creating it and maintaining it–than about individual relationships, and the house plays a Mansfield Park-like role in the story.
Poetry-loving Georgie is the most romantic and also the most sensible of the three bois. We meet her when she’s lovesick over a heroin-addicted woman, but she’s smart enough and strong enough to move on soon. She makes wise-beyond-her-years observations about herself and her friends, often wry or hilarious, like this one that made me laugh heartily in recognition of myself and a previous partner: “Soda was the ultimate subletter of hearts . . . the first three months Soda was the best live-in lover a girl could possibly have. She usually didn’t have a job so whatever girl she was currently fucking became her part-time employment. Girls would try to promote her to full time or permanent status, but she made sure to keep herself at entry level.” Georgie’s literal transformation in the novel comes when, unemployed and broke, she adopts an outwardly femme identity and warily takes a job dancing in a strip club.
People in my demographic (50-ish, white, suburbanite) may need to read this novel with a cyberdictionary of urban slang and a cyberglossary of skateboarding terms at hand. The effort was worth it to me in order to get inside a world of young queer women who divide themselves into bois and girls, tops and bottoms—except when they don’t. Georgie sets a good example for readers in acknowledging that she doesn’t understand all the family dynamics, notably the feelings of my favorite character, a friend of hers who is considering transitioning. More than anywhere else in the novel, Georgie shows her colors as a thoughtful, sensitive soul through her discussions with that friend—and her reactions to people who have questions along the lines of “I don’t get dating a transboy. I mean, what’s the difference from a man?”
Most of these characters are working poor and are just getting launched in life. For example, the official end of Georgie’s relationships is simply “the divvying up of the sex toys,” and in an 8-speaker argument about same-sex marriage, no one comes close to imagining why many older couples want it. But the only thing that made me feel apart from the characters was their constant alcohol and drug abuse, which after a while just seems sad and boring. Georgie is not an addict, though, and she relieves the irritation with self-aware comments like “I find a direct link to the amount of coke everyone is doing to how dramatic they all are being.”
Argo avoids all the mistakes that too many lesbian writers make with regard to sex—saving it for one or two “dramatic” scenes, only alluding to it, describing it almost clinically, or ignoring it altogether. References to sex start on page 1, and Argo can often heat up the page in a single sentence. The book’s only major flaw is disjointedness. Some of it reads like performance pieces or stories strung together, with girls appearing on the scene and leaving again with no strong narrative thread.
I recommended this book to the members of my lesbian fiction book club, who share my demographic. Most had trouble with the slang but were interested in the sex club scenes and the chance to reflect on how the butch/femme “divide” has been depicted in novels over time. Two members of our group claimed not to like the novel but spent 20 minutes waxing nostalgic about their own struggles with living collectively, in the 1970s. Interestingly, the friend who liked The Creamsickle most is my 68-year-old straight neighbor, a former schoolteacher and also a former tomboy who hails from Kansas City, MO. Whenever she sees a skateboard she wishes aloud that she could steal it, so I told her about the book, never dreaming she’d ask to borrow it. She identified happily with the bois and articulated well the developmental stage they’re in: learning to be independent and also learning to be accountable to each other. Apparently, if as well rendered as it is here, the movement toward queer adult freedom and family can strike a chord with any reader.
by Rhiannon Argo
Paperback, $14.95, 264p