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Book Marks


Richard Labonte | October 12, 2004

The Line of Beauty, by Andrew Hollinghurst. Bloomsbury, 448 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

Hollinghurst's fourth novel is exquisite on every level. As gay storytelling, it charts the four-year arc of 20-year-old Nick Guest's sexual coming of age – from virgin in love with his closest straight friend, to lover of a man dying of AIDS – with passion and compassion. As political commentary, it eviscerates the economic cruelty of the 1980s reign of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Maiden, with sharp insight and unambiguous loathing. As social satire, it eyeballs the born-to-the-manor insouciance of the wealthy and well connected, conservative both with their emotions and in their politics, with unsparing perception and elegant wit. The writing is poised and pitch-perfect, Proustian in its elegance and Jamesian in its eloquence; The Line of Beauty is tragic and comic, breezy and deep, so very queer and yet impeccably mainstream. It's as close to dazzling as a book can be.



Love Letters in the Sand, by Sharon Stone. Alyson Books, 221 pages, $13.95 paper.

How dumb a book is Love Letters in the Sand? This dumb: impossibly accomplished Sydney Sanders, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, was a celebrated high school gymnast, then an acclaimed dancer, then a groundbreaking physical therapist, then a successful newspaper reporter, to say nothing of a frustrated wife – all before her 40s. And she's never heard of a dildo? She blushes to the roots of her naturally golden tresses when rock-star temptress L.C. Hackett hauls a box of sex toys from under the bed? Sure. That's just one of the many improbable characters, implausible scenes, and irritating cliches in this cheesy romance. Among others: the backstabbing backup singer, the tempestuous recording session, and the celebrity name-dropping. (Oh, look: there's Tracy Chapman in the living room with Sheryl Crow, and there's Joan Osborne in the den with Natalie Merchant!) The first novel of Sharon Stone (not the actress, by the way) is silly, formulaic fun, the lesbian equivalent of a Danielle Steele potboiler simmering with much vulva.



Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard, by Ron Padgett. Coffee House Press, 360 pages, $17 paper.

Biographies written by best friends often deny hard truths. Not so poet Padgett's conversational remembrance of Joe Brainard, who, years before his 1994 AIDS death, retreated (artistically, though not personally) from the community of artists that energized New York's scene in the 1960s: twice gone but, thanks to this unflinching book, not forgotten. Padgett, comfortably straight, and Brainard, unconsciously gay, connected in their teens in conservative Tulsa's tiny hipster underground, then moved to Manhattan, subsisting by shoplifting food and selling their blood. Brainard eventually gained fame with his imaginative collages, comic drawing, and smart writing (most notably, I Remember), an eclectic artistic output that Padgett assesses with astute affection. In his early years, Brainard overused speed, ate poorly, and exulted in his promiscuity, a period Padgett recounts with pained frankness. Later on, he packed muscle onto a skinny physique, maintained a complex but affectionate relationship with writer Kenward Elmslie, and gradually stopped drawing and writing, a transformation Padgett explores with puzzled empathy. Brainard is one of too many gay artists whose early death erased him from queer history; this generous book restores his presence.



Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America on to Sex, edited by Regina Marler. Cleis Press, 209 pages, $16.95 paper.

The "Beats" – constituting a scant couple of dozen writers, boyfriends, sex partners, wives, and hangers-on - have been autobiographed, biographed, anthologized, and otherwise critically analyzed near to exhaustion. For all that, Queer Beats adds something fresh and vital to the Beat canon. Marler, an acclaimed chronicler of England's Bloomsbury literary circle, has compiled a crazy quilt of queer sexual exuberance from the work of Beat daddies William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac; colleagues Neal Cassady, John Giorno, Harold Norse, Diane de Prima, Brion Gysin, Herbert Huncke, and John Wieners; and even such bemused observers of the scene as Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. The boy-loving poems of Ginsberg are obviously included; more interestingly, so is Vidal's hilarious account of his sexual encounter with Kerouac – though, elsewhere in these cleverly selected writings, the author of On the Road denies having sex with men. Young queer kids exploring their sexuality have long been drawn to these authors, whose celebration of sexual fluidity shocked America in the 1950s and continues to entice today. How handy, and dandy, that this passionate primer has excerpted the juicy queer bits.



Featured Excerpt:
I don't know if saintly is the best word to describe a person who is kind, generous, loving, and compassionate, whose spirit has moved continually toward honesty, openness, and clarity, and whose fascination with reality has ultimately led him to an acceptance of who he is and the way things are – even of his own terminal illness – but I do know that Joe, with his aversion for inflated pronouncements and his awareness of his own foibles, would hardly have thought that saintly applied to him. I just don't know what other word to use. –from Joe, by Ron Padgett



Footnotes:
BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: The Queer Movie Poster Book, by Jenni Olson with a foreword by Bruce Vilanch, is out this month from Chronicle Books; it offers a visual history of gay film as depicted in coded promotional art. Olsen created Planet Out's rich film resource, Popcorn Q...LIGHT BEFORE DAY, Christopher Rice's third novel, coming in February from Miramax Books, is about a 25-year-old journalist whose former lover has vanished and whose investigation uncovers a serial predator targeting young gay men in West Hollywood... FELICE PICANO, whose several acclaimed memoirs have chronicled his sexual life from boyhood to middle age, now recalls the cat he befriended in Greenwich Village in the 1970s, in Fred in Love, also due in February, from Terrace Books... IN MAJOR CONFLICT: A Gay Life in the Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell Military, a March memoir from Broadway Books, retired Major Jeffrey McGowan discusses his queer military years; he commanded troops in the first Gulf War with Iraq... A PLAY TO WATCH OUT FOR: Farm Boys, Will Fellows' oral history of rural gay men in the Midwest, has been adapted for the stage by Amy Fox and Dean Gray; it's running through October in New York, starring David Drake (The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me).

Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s.


Previous edition Book Marks [21/09/2004]

 

      

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