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Richard Labonte | August 14, 2006

Winkie, by Clifford Chase. Grove Atlantic, 256 pages, $16.95 hardcover.

Once upon a time, Winkie was a teddy bear, loved by a boy named Clifford. When the boy became too old to hug and lug him, the stuffed toy sat for several years lonely on a shelf – until, one day, bored, Winkie jumped down, broke through a window, and explored the world. He experienced his first poo (one of literature's most lyrical excretory descriptions). He gave birth to a Baby Winkie. And he was arrested as a terrorist, charged with more than 9,000 crimes – from conspiracy and treason, to resisting arrest and impersonating a woman, to teaching evolution in the schools, ritual Satanic abuse, and, lastly, acts of indecency with certain young men of London. Chase, author of the gay memoir The Hurry-Up Song, has written a hilariously subversive novel, an absurdist allegory that skewers contemporary America's acquiescence to the over-reaching of the Patriot Act, xenophobic fear of all things Muslim – including a lesbian cleaning woman – and fundamentalist paranoia about anything sexual. Winkie the bear is truly adorable; Winkie the book is an eccentric triumph.



Idaho Code, by Joan Opyr. Bywater Books, 332 pages, $13.95 paper.

A functionally dysfunctional family. Lesbian lust. Broken hearts. An antigay initiative. Faerie boys. Daring drag. Malicious gossip. Women sharpshooters. A colony of womyn. Closeted cops. Baristas with attitude. And softball games. Lots of softball games. Opyr's well-crafted debut novel, set in dichotomously town-and-gown Cowslip, Idaho, population 23,000, is a chewy stew of oddball characters. If it weren't for its sprightliness, Idaho Code is the sort of kitchen-sink story that might well have foundered under the weight of its subplots. There are many: The three most central concern a petty-thief brother with terminal cancer, the mysterious death of an abusive husband, and the emotional travails of baby dyke Bil, back in her childhood bedroom on the rebound from a love affair gone terribly awry. But quality comic writing carries the day; this is a very funny piece of fiction, flush with affectionate depictions of family life and small-town foibles. In an author's note, Opyr says the book was started more than a decade ago; let's hope the wait for another novel isn't as long.



Proust in Love, by William C. Carter. Yale University Press, 280 pages, $26 hardcover.

For the big picture on Proust, there's no better book than Carter's own recent biography, Marcel Proust: A Life. But for the homosexual skinny, he's now written about Proust in love – or, more to the point, and with just a couple of exceptions, about Proust in an ongoing condition of unrequited lust for straight men and unsatisfying liaisons with chauffeurs, tradesmen, and others from the servant class. Carter doesn't claim definitively that the conflicted author of In Search of Lost Time was exclusively gay in his romantic longings, sexual proclivities, and suffocating love. But this highbrow-gossipy biography leans strongly that way: The author's sense is that Proust, who lived in fear of public exposure as a queer – he even fought a duel to defend his honor – used flirtation with beautiful women to deflect suspicion. It helps to have read In Search to catch all of Carter's scholarly allusions, but there's enough historical dish here to both titillate and educate the "I've-been-meaning-to-get-to-it" gay reader.



Berlin Bromley, by Bertie Marshall. SAF Publishing, 208 pages, $22.95 hardcover.

When he was 9 or 10 and just moved into a cramped suburban London flat, Marshall answered the door to find a dowdy woman with a pint of milk in one hand and a 7-inch vinyl record – this was back in 1969 – in the other. She was welcoming them to the neighborhood; the disc was by her son, David Bowie. This was the author's early induction into the fringes of hedonistic and narcissistic fame. By 16, he was hanging out with the girl who became Siouxsie Sioux of the Banshees, throwing rowdy rocker parties while his parents were away – Johnny Rotten ransacked his bedroom for drugs – and working as a reluctant rent boy to pay for his cosmetics. Except for a scene-setting biographical overture, and a melancholy coda set a few years ago in Berlin, this chipper and unapologetic memoir focuses mostly on two years, 1976 and 1977, when a very queer young boy with no particular musical skill – but a fabulous sense of fashion and style – was at that nexus in musical lore where glam rockers like Bowie and Billy Idol met goth-punk rockers like Siouxsie and Adam Ant. And precocious teen Bertie Marshall knew them all.



Featured Excerpt:
The situation at home was getting worse. My mother's and my nerves were getting to the screaming point, it was very Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and I was Bette of course. She'd been reading my diary and by now its contents would turn her hair white. I'd taken to listing – by star sign, dick size, and general performance – blokes I'd gotten off with: Rod, Cancer, 6 inches, rough and passionate. One grey suburban afternoon, I was officially asked to leave. I packed two suitcases, one with my makeup and another with my clothes and my Teddy. –from Berlin Bromley, by Bertie Marshall



Footnotes:
Alyson Books, after a makeover that included relocating from Los Angeles to New York, shedding everyone from its publisher to its publicist, and then being bought by PlanetOut, has launched two distinctive new lines of books as part of the new crew's first list. The Q Guides to pop culture are coming in September, with a sharp standard design and catchy, if lengthy, titles: kickoff titles are The Q Guide to Soap Operas: Stuff You Didnít Even Know You Wanted To Know...about divas, hunks, and the best kept closets in daytime, by Daniel R. Coleridge; The Q Guide to Broadway: Stuff You Didn't Even Know You Wanted To Know...about the bars, hotspots, and theatres on the Great White Way, by Seth Rudetsky; and The Q Guide to the Golden Girls: Stuff You Didn't Know You Wanted To Know...about Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, & Sophia, by Jim Colucci. Coming in January: The Q Guide to Oscar and Other Awards Parties, by Joel Perry. And just published, in the new Fetish Chest co-sexual erotic series: Secret Slaves: Erotic Stories of Bondage; Ultimate Undies: Erotic Stories About Underwear and Lingerie; and Sexiest Soles: Erotic Stories About Feet and Shoes, all edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and Christopher Pierce. Another fall book is Love, Bourbon Street, edited by Greg Herren and Paul Willis, a post-Katrina celebration of queer writing.

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


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