Archive for February, 2013

The Lure – Felice Picano

TLIt is the sort of book some of us don’t normally read: a crime/detective novel. It’s not a world many of us know much about: rich crooks, violence, drugs, bent policemen, where you cannot trust anybody because nobody is what they seem to be.

One of our members thought that it was a typical detective story in that nothing important happens between the finding of a corpse and the  dénouement, the discovery of ‘whodunit’ at the end. Everything in between is ‘a plot disaster’. Another, however, thought it was a clever use of the detective genre to introduce the gay underworld at a time when most people hardly knew that it existed and to chart a voyage of self-knowledge which passes through choppy waters. (Though that would have been better portrayed had the book been written in the first person) It doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously but then, suddenly, it does. Is the cook who is into martial arts meant to reflect the author’s sense of humour?

‘A touching period piece,’ said one member of our group, ‘A lot better than some of the junk/trash we sometimes read.’

‘Not hard work,’ said another, ‘a ripping read. Lots of tension’

As one of our members said, “Despite being put off by the personality of the author as revealed in the Preface, I was surprised that I loved the book and perhaps for the following reasons:

1. Its pace seemed to match that of the time…i.e. speed and cocaine fuelled

2. The posh sluttiness of it all and how superficial it was (J G Ballard would have liked the empty decadence)

3. Heroic attempts to describe certain aspects of gay culture from sex to clubbing; especially the clubbing, it struck a ‘real’ note in terms of how I imagined Studio 54 culture might be – and what a country cousin British gay clubbing probably was in comparison…

4. gay businesses was interesting and could have been better explained

However,  5. The psychological stuff towards the end was daft…

6. having to suspend disbelief that he didn’t check out it was the police from the go get.”

There are some vivid descriptions: of an acid tip, of the vibrant music in a night club where you can feel the pulse coming from the speakers in your arteries. Straight sex is described better than gay sex

Some bits are unconvincing: that straight academic can transform himself within eight hours and pass as gay without anyone suspecting that he is a plant, a spy.

There are some less than felicitous descriptions, e.g. ‘’Her hair like a thick curtain of night sky.’ And a loose end: What happened to the motorbike?

Something I had to look up: an 86 – to refuse to serve an unwelcome customer, coined after Chumley’s bar and restaurant at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, New York City and not to be confused with an eighty-eight which involves doping something odd with a two-headed dildo.

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Man’s World – Rupert Smith

MW

(We considered this book as a group hut we haven’t discussed it because we were spoilt for choice with so many possible books.)

This book does not begin well. Fashion-conscious and practical joker Jonathan is one of those full-time queens who obsesses over trashy television programmes, clothes, style and talks endlessly about himself; the sort of person you could try telling all your problems too but who wouldn’t take any of it in but would reply with a monologue about something utterly trivial.

Fortunately, the book gets better when you are taken back in time to fifty years ago, to men doing their national service. It’s a totally different era, where the nearest homosexuals can get to porn is a menswear underwear catalogue and physique photographs sent discreetly by mail order and where the nearest that a sub can get to a dom is when the sergeant major barks, ‘Fall out for a smoke’. (Ah, those were the days before the smoking ban.)

What we then get is two parallel stories: ‘queers’ who have to hide because they might end up with a dishonourable discharge or prison and who may contemplate suicide, smoke of whom became politically active and fought for the rights of future gay men, including the right to be as vacuous as Jonathan. (Mind you, the older ‘queers’ had their moments: ‘My God, what is the world coming to? No gin? Call yourself queer?’

The underworld of blackmail, cottaging and avoiding arrest contrasts with the brash but superficial world of clubbing and dark rooms. In between these is the hope of a ‘cure’ by lobotomy or aversive conditioning techniques, involving electric shock and nausea-inducing drugs during presentation of same-sex erotic images.

The author pains a vivid picture of the two different eras and the book becomes particularly grace-filled when the two collide: someone from the present era moves into a flat and gets to know his neighbour, who happens to be one of the now-old men from the previous period.

There is a memento mori conversation that we do well to heed: `I suppose I seem terribly old to you, don’t I? No, don’t say anything. I remember what it’s like to be young. You don’t think about the past, and as for the future, it’s just the next drink, the next party, the next man. At least, it was for me.’

He sighs, and I try to picture him as a twenty-one-year-old.

`Oh, don’t you worry, I had my fair share. More than my fair share, as my proctologist can testify: You keep on running, running, running, and then suddenly one day you wake up and you’re sixty years old and you’re on your own and you wonder what happened to all that fun and all that hope, all those fabulous nights, the outfits, the camping, all….`When you’re young, you look at old people and you wonder why they’re still breathing and walking around. You just think they are waiting to die. You think we’re the past. But I’m telling you, boy, we’re your future……… ‘I saw the look on your face when you walked in here, my girl. Oh God, look at the old queen, how disgusting, what’s she doing here, shouldn’t she be in a home or something? You just think of us as the sad old bastards who missed out on the party. Well let me inform you that without us, there wouldn’t have been a party. You with your drugs and your clubs and your hair looking like a haystack and your trousers hanging round your arsehole, you think you invented it, don’t you? But you didn’t. You just bought it. You had it all handed to you on a plate and you never stopped to wonder who put it there. Your generation seems to have lost the ability to love or to care or to fight for change, or to do any­thing other than fuck each other and shop. You treat Robbie like shit, you’re jealous of his boyfriend, you’re bitter as hell because you’re lonely as hell and you’re drinking and snorting your way to an early grave. And don’t give me that look, daughter, because I’ve done it all myself and I can read you like a fucking book.’

Oh, and I didn’t know what a proctologist was until I read this book and now I wish that I still didn’t know.

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Nothing Pink by Mark Hardy

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

The opening of this book reminds me of my teenage years and a Don SummerNPs (Billy Graham evangelist-type) Crusade where there was an altar call with the song ‘Just as I am’, the organ playing tremulant to whip up a devotional atmosphere and nobody comes forward. I am an adolescent who is scared that an involuntary erection might make my journey embarrassing. Nobody comes forward so the preacher prolongs the altar call, claiming to have been told by god that there are those in the audience who are intending to come if given some injury time.  There, the similarity stops. The preacher in the book is a Baptist pastor. Then reluctant convert is his gay son who looks at the men’s underwear in mail order catalogues in the days before there was easily available pornography of a more graphic nature. His parents only allow him two hours of watching television today (as did my Godson’s parents!)

I can also relate to his nicking a magazine from a shop and then worrying that the checkout assistant might get his wages docked for the discrepancy in the till’s record.

Poor son – he is given loads of chores to do which he would be lucky to accomplish ‘before Jesus comes back.’ He is Vincent, the narrator, whose mum dresses him in pink until somebody mistakes him for a girl.

What a dysfunctional family this guy comes from. He notices that his first boyfriend and he have a time of not talking and silence but that is very different from the silence between his parents.

The climax of the book is his mother’s finding a gay pornographic magazine. His parents pray for him to be healed: ‘I’m afraid. Scared their prayers won’t work; scared they will. But Momma and Daddy are more scared than I am. That’s what I hear now, in Daddy’s praying: how scared they are. And I know they’ll keep praying over me until they get a sign I’m delivered, until I get slain in the Spirit or speak in tongues.’

Their prayers don’t work or, at least, they don’t get the ‘answer’ they seek: ‘God’s loving arms are wrapped tight around my shoulders. He has built an invisible shield between me and the prayers of my parents. Daddy sags like a flat tire. He pushes his glasses up on his nose and kisses me on the forehead. He’s all the way on the other side of the den, getting ready to go upstairs, before he turns back and says, “God loves you, son.” Momma kisses my forehead too. Her lips stay pressed tight there for an eternity before pulling back……”Pray your heart out,” I say, not even under my breath. I can’t believe the words that just jumped out of my own mouth, but I keep going. “The Bible says, ‘Ask and it shall be given,’ Momma ‘Seek and ye shall find.’ But God’s got to be bigger than the Bible. Because you and me, we’re asking for opposites.’

An interesting word association; ‘commit’ might go with ‘suicide’ or ‘’murder’ but with ‘an homosexual act’ which the teenager has not yet committed?

There are some inaccuracies: would a Baptist church have candles and confirmation classes? And would the pastor/father wear Brut? Well, yes, we are all guilty of fashion mistakes.

Talking of fashion mistakes, this guy liked Barry Manilow. But, fair enough, he hears an insistent voice just as strong as an altar call, urging him to come out and be true to himself.

Some slight innuendos – ‘riding bareback’ is an unsafe sexual activity but here it refers to riding a horse.

The book ends as it begins: with an altar call but: ‘Every other year, I have been the first person confessing and repenting. But tonight, no matter what the Bible says, I know things between God and me are okay… Somehow I can’t bring myself to do it. I used to think God would save me from my homosexuality, but after the laying on of hands, after spending the night in Robert’s bed and almost every day of that week with him, I realize God did hear me pray to be delivered. He didn’t answer the way I thought he would, but He did answer….. I know what’s written in the Bible and what my Daddy preaches about homosexuality. All have sinned. I have many sins. But in this moment, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that being gay is not one of them.

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Writing a Jewish Life: Memoirs – Lev Raphael

wajl(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

To misquote Lady Bracknell: To belong to one minority group may be regarded as a misfortune; to belong to two looks like carelessness. The author explains it thus: ‘I was afraid of outrage and retribution both from non-Jews for being Jewish and from Jews for being either bisexual or gay.’

Worse than belonging merely to two minority groups is to belong to two minority groups who seem to be at war with another, despite both having been victims of the Nazis. He describes an ugly scene at Yad Vashem. This is a shrine to those murdered in the holocaust and it struck me, on each occasion I have been there, as a very holy place where hushed voices or silence is the only befitting response to is awesomeness. He writes thus: The short ceremony (a wreath laid by LGBTs) started with singing of the Song of the Vilno Ghetto Partisans and chanting of prayers, but it was almost immediately interrupted by a hysterical demonstrator who …….shrieked, tore his hair, and rolled on the ground, calling us “evil,” saying we were “full of shit” and worse, accusing us of blasphemy, of desecrating the site….. many of the gays and lesbians I spoke to felt inspired by facing their critics, which is somewhat new, because gays in Israel are very closeted.’

This ugly scene turns out to be a Stonewall movement in Israel: ‘Most inspiring was the reaction of fiery Knesset member Yael Dayan, who made it very clear that this attack on gays was linked to other hatreds: of Arabs, of secular Jews, of women. Dayan wrote in the Jerusalem Post that “anyone who believed in [Israel’s] future as an egalitarian, democratic, humane society, one which accepts those who are different and supports their rights as a minority, ought to wear a pink triangle, next to the yellow star and blue-and‑white.”

I have frequently organised Holocaust memorial events but I have never encountered hostility from Jews like this: ‘In one city, I learned that organizers of a Holocaust memorial commemoration absolutely refused to allow a non-Jewish gay man to light one of the six memorial candles. The reasons were many but overlapping: it was not his place to be there, it was not appro­priate, how could you say what happened to Jews and gays was the same? But the rage underneath these assertions was telling. How dare he put himself forward, how dare any homosexual claim the right to participate in this ceremony! I have attended Holocaust memorial ceremonies where a number of groups are listed along with Jews, but never homosexuals….. One rabbi said that homosexuals “define themselves by their sexuality.” Another said that same-sex Jewish commitment cere­monies would promote “a lifestyle of instinctual gratification which is not channelled or sublimated toward a greater objective.” In other, cruder words: all that gay people think about or want is sex; they have no life outside of sex.

‘This charge is exactly the same kind of vicious calumny that anti-Semites have historically directed at Jews: they say we’re only interested in money. Both claims are absurd, disgusting, and dangerous, because they lead from stereotyping to violence of attitude and action. Furthermore, calling gayness a “lifestyle” trivializes something very complex (sexual identity), reducing it to faddishness.’

His family was dysfunctional, which is not surprising since his parents were holocaust survivors. For them, ‘it’s all about the war’, a war before he was born. So he gets criticised for pouring too much milk on to his breakfast cereal. My father was bipolar and I used to get punished severely for the slightest thing, long after I’d forgotten what it was. His relationship with his father seems similar to mine. We both made ‘too much noise’ as healthy children. Whenever he created something: a work of art, some writing, it was a time of ‘unpredictability and shame.’ Something he reads strikes him as a good description of his family: ‘”The house of dumbness, the house of deafness, the house of suffocation.”’ It is not until he receives acclaim from his writing teacher that he can say: ‘I was terrified—I was alive.’ (This insecurity mirrors mine – we both wrote reviews for ‘learned journals’ which took over a year top be published and we both wondered what we’d done wrong, not realising that the world doesn’t revolve around us.)

Typical of some in minority groups, his parents looked down on others from the same background: ’ Even though my father kept his store open on Saturday, he and my mother made fun of the Reform rabbi who drove to the shul down the block and mocked the ungemacht (overdone) hats of the women going to services. “It’s an Easter parade!” … When my consciousness of Israel started to develop, I asked .why they hadn’t gone there after the war, and the answer was unswervingly angry from my mother: “Live with all those Jews! I had enough of them in the ghetto and the camps!” So—being with Jews, being Jewish itself did not seem something to be proud of.’

Like many authors, as a teenager, he read everything as favourite author had ever written.

I enjoyed his Dancing on Tisha B’av (short stories about growing up gay and Jewish in America.) some years back

He describes a previous professor who pronounced his work as being worthless. The story about this incident won a prestigious writing prize ‘and was published in Redbook, which had four and a half million ‘readers. I made a lot of money and I received fan mail, realizing for the first time the power of being able to touch someone with what you write.’ He sees the role of his writing ‘as serving a larger social purpose, as opposed to being my individual path to success….. For me, writing has proven to be a catalyst, a laboratory. It has led to a deepened Jewish consciousness, profound connections with my people, building bridges between Jew and non-Jew, gay and straight. It has healed my own inner world and it has been tikkun olam.’ (tikkun olam = healing the world’s brokenness/putting broken pieces back together again) He also won the “Best Gay Male Debut” prize in the Lambda Literary Awards 1991.

As someone coming from a liturgical (Christian) background for whom traditional worship often goes stale, I agreed with his comment about a modern liturgy put together by his stepson:’ I felt the transcendence that I hope to feel at services, but seldom experience except at nontraditional Jewish groups like Simcha, the Detroit-area organization for Jewish gays and lesbians Gersh and I belong to. Even more, the story of the shepherd, for me, included all those Jews who either don’t have the Jewish edu­cation to feel fully comfortable at a service, and those who feel, as I did that morning, the futility of words.’

His credo for a reformed Judaism echoes mine for a reformed Christianity: ‘Our attitude towards gays and lesbians is a true test of the depth of our commitment to the Torah’s human values. Judaism’s moral strength is tested not by how narrowly we may define its parameters, but rather how broadly we can draw its circle….Rabbi Michael Sternfield of Con­gregation Beth Israel in San Diego has dealt beautifully and clearly with outrageous and destructive Jewish claims about homosexuality. In an Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, he urged his congregation: ‘We need a Judaism which includes; a Judaism which is expan­sive and outreaching; a Judaism which recognizes the inherent dignity and worth in life of each person. This means that as a community, we must do our very best to include not only gays and lesbians, but also single Jews, poor Jews, divorced Jews, Jews with physical and mental disabilities, Jews who are intermarried—in other words, all of those of our people who seem not to conform to the theoretical model…. Jews, better than most, should understand the bitterness of ostracism, sus­picion and phobias for we have been strangers in many lands. Our attitude towards gays and lesbians is a true test of the depth of our commitment to the Torah’s human values. Judaism’s moral strength is tested not by how narrowly we may define its parameters, but rather how broadly we can draw its circle.’

The author was once mistaken for fellow Jewish and gay author David Leavitt, whose work our group has enjoyed. “I’m Lev Raphael.” Plunging ahead, the woman said, “Oh, but both of you are gay and Jewish, right?” Someone else at the table piped up, “Well, that’s true, but in Lev’s fiction, you can tell.”

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