Book Marks

Richard Labonte | October 13, 2003

Becoming Bobbie, by R.J. Stevens. Kensington Books, 244 pages, $14 paper.

Bobbie is a tomboy and a loner. She's sexually precocious, hates her rigidly religious mother, and adored her mechanic dad before he vanished. She can repair a car more intuitively than any boy in her high school shop class, and has a crush on her closeted English teacher. She's a familiar dyke stereotype - even her name is gender-neutral. From a less-skilled writer, these familiar tropes would herald glib storytelling. But Stevens' debut novel, about the struggles of a defiant blue-collar lesbian to survive and thrive, is exquisitely nuanced. The use of a first-person narrative voice preordains a happy-ever-after ending, but that predictability doesn't diminish at all the pitch-perfect tone of Bobbie's emotional downs, ups, and eventual even keel. Becoming Bobbie traverses the terrain of teen-adult sexual attraction, physical and emotional family abuse, schoolyard bullying, and on-the-job homophobia - everything that's awful in a young dyke's life. But it's ultimately about everything that's awesome in an adult woman's life - Bobbie is blessed, at book's end, with a loving partner (that same English teacher), reconnection with family, and the joy of parenting.

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Monkey Suits, by Jim Provenzano. iUniverse, 222 pages, $15.95 paper.

Lives there a gay man in his early 20s with good looks, black trousers, and a white shirt who hasn't waited a table while awaiting his big acting break? Well, some - but not the sexy lads of Monkey Suits, a nostalgic Manhattan-set novel about unfocused youth, mercurial boyfriends, and the early days of ACT UP anger. The characters are all cater waiters - thus, the "monkey suits." Their underclass perspective on the upper class they serve at society functions is part sneering and part servile, a nervy imbalance that gives this novel a subversive, comic clout. If Provenzano wasn't himself a waiter, he must have slept with some - his behind-the-scenes details are a hoot. The novel's realistic energy is further heightened by the author's invocation of thinly veiled facts: there really was a mayor accused of being in the closet - think Ed Koch. And there really was a conservative editor who demanded the HIV-infected be tattooed - think William F. Buckley, who is further fictionalized, provocatively, as a perv who gets off by pouring blood on blindfolded hustlers.

Homosexuality and Civilization, by Louis Crompton. Belknap Books/Harvard University Press, 640 pages, $35 hardcover.

Before this exhaustive but completely accessible study, a long shelf of books considered the intersection of homosexuality and civilization. This hefty survey does it all. Crompton's lifetime of academic gay activism powers his erudite, entertaining distillation and assessment of same-sex persecutions, politics, practices, and passions across centuries and through cultures. Chapters about the Han Dynasty of China and the samurai culture of Japan add breadth to the book's primary focus on Europe from the era of Homer to the early 18th century - and highlight the author's thesis that the Judeo-Christian abhorrence of homosexuality is in many ways a geographic and cultural anomaly. Crompton, an emeritus professor of literature who has championed queer studies since before Stonewall, was born to write this book; generations of queer scholars yet to inscribe their first footnote will draw inspiration from it. _Homosexuality and Civilization_ is a monumental work of interpretive scholarship - as well as a deliciously readable account of the "rich and terrible" stories of men who loved men (and, less so, of women who loved women.)

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    Chelsea Boys, by Glen Hanson and Allan Neuwirth. Alyson Books, 112 pages, $13.95 paper.

    Some cartoon collections are for reading on the fly - or in the bathroom, a few pages here, a few pages there. Pick up Chelsea Boys, though, and you'll be hooked from start to finish by its wry humanity, insightful hilarity, and dazzling artwork - this is a one-sitting read, guaranteed. The "boys" sharing an apartment in trendy Chelsea are Nathan, a dumpy, cuddly, and neurotic Jewish everyman with Daddy moments; Soiree, a brittle African-American drag diva whose snap and sass mask inner pain; and Sky, at first (luscious) glance just a golden-haired, buff-bodied, Chelsea-boy clone - but under the surface he's really a yoga-practicing, commune-raised, sweetly naive Canadian gentleboy. That charming twist on expectations is a hallmark of the astute and acerbic strip, launched in 1998 by collaborators Hanson and Neuwirth. Early on in the cartoon's career, sight gags and one-panel satire were the norm. But the storytelling quickly becomes more complex, as Sky finds a boyfriend, Nathan donates sperm, and Soiree deals with his dying dad - narrative depth that makes this as satisfying a read as any decent novel.

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    Featured Excerpt:

    He looked over at me. "What are you, a dyke?" I looked back at him and smiled as sweetly as I could. "I really prefer the word lesbian, if you don't mind. Dyke is so crude, don't you think?" The guys all guffawed at that, and he turned red enough to match his hair. "You stay away from my girlfriend. I better not catch you talking to her again." That was too much. I mean, I'd just said hello to her. What, he thought I'd steal her away and recruit her to the other side by just saying hello? I found him ignorant and cruel, and I got angry. "Buddy, if I was the least bit interested in her, she wouldn't be your girlfriend, she'd be mine.

    -from Becoming Bobbie, by R.J. Stevens


    Books to watch out for: Clarkson Potter, the publishing home of books on crocheting, Pillsbury Doughboy recipes, and quotations about horses, bid $1 million for rights to a tie-in book, set for early in 2004, based on the crossover TV hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; the same company also publishes decorating books by the more low-rent makeover mavens Martha Stewart and Christopher Lowell... Gay marriage is good for gays, good for straights, and good for America, argues Atlantic Monthly correspondent Jonathan Rauch in Gay Marriage (nothing coy about that title), due in spring 2004 from Times Books...

    A book titled The Autobiography of Andy Warhol: boring! Hence the provocatively titled The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol, by John Wilcock, based on "interviews with Warhol's friends, superstars, art dealers, and critics." That's according to information from Christopher Trela of Trela Inc., a new publisher; no mention in the release of sex partners spilling the beans, though. Wilcock was a co-founder of Warhol's Interview magazine. Treva contributed to several of RE/Search Publications' "Incredibly Strange" books (a series about oddball movie, music, and other cultural moments) and edited Pranks!; he then produced two irony-laced Virgin Music collections of lounge and cocktail music - a genealogy suggesting the February 2004 autobiography will shy away from the serious.

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