My Book World
APOLOGIES to my readers: At the last minute I substituted my profile of Garth Greenwell's book for Alison Smith's. I shall post one of Smith's Name All the Animals in the near future.
Greenwell, Garth. Cleanness. New York: Farrar, 2020.
I didn’t make one annotation on first reading of this novel (and I shall read it again), in part because it held me spellbound and in part because I wanted to experience vicariously the joyride the unnamed narrator (except for Gospodar, the Bulgarian word for Mister) is taking through his young life.
Gospodar (Gospodine to his pupils) teaches accelerated English at a high school in Sofia, Bulgaria, sometime in the last decade, and unravels his story of love and loss. At the same time, our Gospodar employs the powers of travelogue to acquaint readers with a post-Soviet culture still burdened with its corrupt architecture (crumbling worse than the geopolitical realm itself). The novel is part language lesson: Gospodar translates (upon first mention) each Bulgarian word or phrase and in such a way that one is acquainted with the word’s fullness. At one point, a male sex partner Gospodar has met online calls him Bulgarian for bitch. But the narrator doesn’t leave it there, massaging the meaning within the context of the indigenous culture. The novel is part love story, in which the narrator meets a man he only calls R (every character is reduced to a single initial, in some way protecting the identities of his co-characters, almost creating the feel that one is absorbing a roman à clef). I’ve never read such sensual yet meaningful sex scenes (for want of a better term). At one point, the narrator makes love to his lover, R, taking perhaps twenty minutes to kiss every part of the man’s body. When he is finished, his partner is attempting to hide his tears, the fact that perhaps no one has ever loved him so completely. These scenes, though graphic, serve a larger purpose, never feeling pornographic (if there is such a thing) or gratuitous.
Ultimately, the narrator and R end their relationship, because R hails from Lisbon, and cannot see finding a way to earn a living in Bulgaria. In the last major scene of the novel, the narrator parties with a few young men who have graduated from his school the year before. The three of them get very drunk, and the teacher, Gospodar, makes a play for one of the young men. He is horrified by his own behavior yet is willing to give into it at the same time, if enticed or encouraged by the student. He withdraws from the party just before making a fool of himself or endangering his reputation as a responsible adult. Gospodar does this throughout the book, brings himself to some sort of brink, only to pull back after exploring the full impact that the act is about to make (sometimes within a few seconds), thus making the character more like all of us, ready to jump yet waiting to defer to a better angel.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men
My Book World
Fellows, Will. Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1998.
This book has been on my shelf for over twenty years. If I had read it when it was new, it might have seemed fresher. As it is, the men featured here, born between 1907 and 1967, seem stuck in their contemporary argot. I wonder if gay farm boys are still experiencing the same universals, some of which dovetail well with so-called urban gays. Young farm boys seem to have more interest in growing beautiful things like gardens instead of livestock; they enjoy cooking more than being outside. Insofar as it is possible, given small rural school districts, they become involved in the arts and often excel in them. Over and over again, you see gay farm boys say they don’t care for picking up tricks or one-night stands, that they would prefer long-term relationships but that rural life makes that kind openness impossible. The reader cannot imagine the number of these men who have sex with male siblings and other relatives before they begin to engage with and marry women. Perhaps the most prevalent commonality is the harm religion, particularly Catholicism, causes young boys and men as they search for a way to express their sexuality and find a partner with whom they can share a life. Like the urban gay youth, they more often than not experience a sympathetic mother and a distant or hostile father because the gay son doesn’t fall into line. By the end, I almost felt as if I were reading the same four or five profiles over and over again. And yet I know I wasn’t. Every gay man’s story has something in common with others and every story has its differences, its unique qualities, which set that man apart.
What would be interesting now would be for Fellows (or some other courageous writer/scholar with boundless energy) to interview gay farm boys born between 1970 and 1995. Have their experiences been different than the generations before them? How does arranging for sex online compare to picking someone up at a bar or at some Interstate rest room? Are fathers still as intractable about masculinity and what that means? Has the world at large made any dent at all into the sequestered lives of rural Americans? This fascinating book seems to invite an ongoing discussion in which these and other questions are explored.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Aaron Smith's The Book of Daniel: Poems
My book World
Greer, Andrew Sean. Less: A Novel. New York: Little Brown, 2017.
While I admire a number of contemporary fiction writers, I don’t often envy one of them. This may be the book that many a gay author has wanted to write and been unable to do so, including me. It’s that good. So-called gay fiction, with this book, has joined mainstream. This novel is not a coming out story. Our culture is beyond that. Coming out is now something that every gay person must do—whether it takes years or a matter of minutes—the narratives and challenges so similar that how could one write a unique story about it? No, such fiction has advanced to a character named Arthur Less who is about to turn fifty.
Less is a self-described second-shelf writer. Nonetheless, he’s well published and in demand. When his former boyfriend of nine years announces he’s getting married (need I say to a man), Less suddenly checks his drawer for all the opportunities to lecture and teach internationally and RSVPs No to the wedding and yes to the offers. He then cobbles together a months-long tour to five or six countries.
Greer’s structure seems interesting at first. In each new locale, whether it is Mexico, Italy, Germany, or Japan, Arthur Less is thrust into a new life of sorts. At the same time, Less’s old life keeps returning to him in waves, sometimes rushing to the reader in the middle of other thoughts. Yes, suddenly you find Arthur wrestling with some momentous event out of his past. While I can certainly understand Greer’s receiving the Pulitzer Prize (funny, in one bit, Arthur makes clear how it is to be pronounced), I question this structure.
In several key spots in the novel, Greer informs readers that someone other than he is narrating the story. Who can it be? At first, the issue seems unimportant. The story unfolds in the third person, as told by this, as yet, unidentified narrator. I’m not as quick as others; I only suspected halfway through that the narrator was Freddie, the very boy whose wedding Less is avoiding. Okay, I think to myself. That’s fun. All along, Freddie is the one in the know, telling all about Arthur’s around-the-world trip in great detail, yet he has not accompanied Arthur. Oh, of course, at the end (spoiler) when the two men reunite, one assumes that Arthur will reveal all that has happened on his trip to Freddie, but that poses the question: Arthur presumably does not tell Freddie of his trip until after he returns to the U.S., so how can Freddie possibly know all that has taken place? I re-read the beginning to find the exact spot, page eleven, where Freddie begins, ostensibly, to refer to himself in the third person.
Why does Greer structure the novel in this manner? It’s clever, and, I suppose to the casual beach reader, the point of view probably doesn’t matter that much. But why doesn’t Greer just place the novel in the third person anyway or allow Freddie to narrate the novel by way of first person? Does Greer fashion it this way only to be novel, or does he have some other reason for doing so, one I cannot discern?
No matter what, I do love this book and envy it for its grand storytelling. I love Greer’s ease with the proper metaphor at the proper time, the deepening of a certain scene with the proper use of such metaphors. The blue suit. The concept that Less is a bad gay, not a bad writer. The literary allusions that don’t hit you over the head but are part of the fabric of the novel. The gray suit purchased in one country that arrives in the nick of time in another. All these combine to make not only a great read but something of a literary phenom. I now want to read all of Greer.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-46 South Dakota
My Book World
Chee, Alexander. How to Write an Autobiographical
Novel: Essays. Boston: Houghton, 2018.
This collection of essays is a staggering one. In the way that fiction writers link short stories, Chee links essays to explicate how he works as a fiction writer. His metaphors are simple yet profound. His advice is wrenched from the heart, and yet at no time does he allow sentimentality to interfere with his message. The entire collection—like a group of short stories, like a novel—possesses a narrative arc that is subtle, inching readers toward the climax, easing into a quiet denouement. The book seems nonlinear, but Chee glides readers from a few youthful months spent in Mexico becoming fluent in Spanish, to his older youth in college with Annie Dillard as a professor, to his maturation into an astute, caring professor of creative writing, to the publication of his first novel and how it explores and ultimately exposes the biggest secret of his life.
The Publishing Triangle, a long-established organization for LGBTQ writers based in New York, recently awarded this work the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction. I hope, as a tour de force, it will win even more accolades in the coming months or years. Chee is a remarkable writer, and anyone who takes a seminar from him ought to feel fortunate.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-41 Nevada
My Book World
Faludi, Susan. In the Darkroom. New York: Picador,
One sign that a book may be spectacularly well written is that the author’s process seems inscrutable. In the case of Susan Faludi, she combines journalistic techniques of conducting interviews, whether recorded or not, along with long months, perhaps years of tedious research of all kinds, but finally she observes and interprets the relationship she has (or has not) with her own father. Yet how she weaves all these together remains a wonderful mystery.
Faludi’s memoir is comprised of many things: history of the tragic past of Hungary and Hungarian Jews, how that history informs her father’s life as Steven Faludi, her more recent life as Stefi Faludi; it is a journal of the author’s relationship with her father over many years, even years in which they neither speak nor see one another; it is a book about identity, how one can shapeshift to obscure oneself, whether it is her father’s masquerading as a young Nazi in order to rescue family members from being executed or whether it his change from male to female, whether it is changing one’s name from Friedman to Faludi. Ultimately, the book portrays the long, fraught journey that father and daughter take together, a journey that, at any time could be cut short, but because of some ephemeral formula, manages to continue until the very end, when Stefi’s very substantial constitution finally fails. This body—lying on a hospital bed in Budapest has sustained parental neglect, physical and emotional battles of war, marriage, and family life, abuse it has both endured and afflicted on her daughter, the physical and emotional rigors of gender reassignment surgery—finally succumbs to death. The author has flown from Portland, Oregon, to be with her father Stefi in Budapest, yet Susan sees that her father is resting, she decides she must get some rest at her father’s apartment. She is awakened by a phone call at six a.m. the next morning:
“Hallo,” the voice in the receiver said. “This is Dr. Molnárné.”
As with the entirety of Susan’s relationship with Steven/Stefi, this process has not gone as it should. According to Susan’s thinking, she was to have located a dementia specialist, and that act would perhaps extend his life. At worst, Susan was to have been at Stefi’s side; they were to have had one final word of reconciliation before he parted; one final hand-holding while blood still flowed through both bodies.
An astounding book, where echoing off the title, the author takes the reader through many dark rooms, including photographic darkrooms, but others more sinister, to limn the lives of an extraordinary father and her daughter. A must read.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-26 Wisconsin
MY JOURNEY OF STATES is a series in which I relate my sixty-year quest to visit all fifty states in the U.S. In each post I tell of my relationship to that state, whether brief or long, highlighting personal events. I include the year of each state's entry into the union and related celebrations. I hope you enjoy my journey as much as I have. This is the twentieth post of fifty.
FLORIDA (1968, 1984, 2003)
The first time I visited Florida, it was to pass through by way of Miami onto the Bahamas, a far superior spot, I believed. My plane, a two-prop job resembling a large goose, nearly went down in a violent thunderstorm, or so I was inclined to believe. I was head-over-ankles in love with a girl for the first time in my life, or otherwise I would never have traveled that far to stay in the home of strangers who just happened to be that girl’s parents. Two years later I would marry her and we would be given a large formal wedding in Trinity Methodist Church of Nassau and a formal reception at the Sheraton British Colonial Hotel. A friend from college would fly down to play the organ for the service. My brother, seventeen, would join the party as my best man and promptly get a bit drunk from drinking too much champagne.
After spending more than two months in the Bahamas, I got a little sick of island life. It had never occurred to me, a landlubber, that I would tire of seeing the same people every day, that if all you had to do at the beach was grow browner, the experience might wear thin. That a city with only one movie theater was probably a little devoid of culture. I was too young to accept life as it comes to you, that the Bahamians have a unique culture going back hundreds of years. Though I would later divorce one really beautiful Bahamian, I would always recall the island’s inimitable treats: broiled crawfish, conch salad, peas and rice, and, oh God, baked grouper! Water skiing and hand trawling from a seventeen-foot outboard boat over swells larger than some hills in Kansas (see my catch above). And always aquamarine waters, a hue from which people concocted the idea to paint swimming pools.
Key West would be my destination in 1984, when I would tag along with two scuba-diving fiends, uh, friends. We stayed at an ever-popular gay establishment, The Pines bed and breakfast. Enough said. Again, got browner. Gorged myself on seafood, and, though my life partner was not with me, I behaved myself and only flirted with men gathered around the B&B’s tiny pool. Ten years later, one of the friends would die of AIDS, but I shall always recall the gales of laughter the three of us could create via those tiny in-jokes that only intimates can tell.
In 2003, I attended a writers’ conference in Key West. A famous gay writer I’d always admired conducted our seminar, and I was pleased to be part of the group. I went in January thinking that the weather would be pleasant. I arrived in a gale of wind out of the north, and at the hotel I was placed in a freestanding cabin with no heat. No heat. I piled a couple of quilts on my bed, and that seemed to do the trick. In the remaining time, weather remained cool, almost like bright autumn days in New England! I purchased a heavy sweatshirt because I’d failed to heed the email warning sent by the conference’s leader. It was anything but a fun-in-the-sun event I’d anticipated. Note to self: never take another January trip to Florida. It may be just as nice in West Texas at that time of the year.
Florida, the twenty-seventh state, celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1995.
If you missed earlier My Journey of States posts, please click on a link:
NEXT TIME: My Book World
My Book World
Aciman, André. Call Me by Your Name.
New York: Farrar, 2007.
This novel is a romance, both with a capital “r,” the kind that emphasizes subjectivity of the individual, and the small “r” kind, the Harlequin type that you must devour page by page, word by word, until you come to the final sentence of this desperate love affair between two young men.
I found the first half tediously slow. But then I thought, Aciman must want us to be inside the head of the protagonist narrator, Elio. These are the mind and heart of a seventeen-year-old boy who can’t decide who he is whether it’s with regard to sexual orientation or his prodigious musicianship (he transcribes manuscripts from one instrument to another and sells them). His mind belabors everything including the appearance of a young graduate student, Oliver, who comes to live in his family’s Italian villa for the summer of 1983, a tradition Elio’s father, a professor, has begun years before: the summer intern.
Both Elio and Oliver waste half the summer semi-rejecting one another, making love to girls, until finally Elio becomes more aggressive and discovers Oliver has wanted him since they first met. Their first kiss doesn’t occur until page 81. But for a short, intense two weeks they become so close that they almost become one, wearing each other’s clothing, Elio especially in love with a red swim suit of Oliver’s. The very idea of calling each other by their own names—taking the name your parents have given you and calling your lover by that name—is a mental flip the reader must make to understand the depth of their intimacy:
“Perhaps the physical and the metaphorical meanings are clumsy ways of understanding what happens when two beings need, not just to be close together, but to become so totally ductile that each becomes the other. To be who I am because of you. To be who he was because of me. To be in his mouth while he was in mine and no longer know whose it was, his cock or mine, that was in my mouth” (142-3).
Aciman carries the development of this intimacy, which in the form of a deep friendship is to last forever, to the very last sentence of the book:
“If you remember everything, I wanted to say, and if you are really like me, then before you leave tomorrow, or when you’re just ready to shut the door of the taxi and have already said goodbye to everyone else and there’s not a thing left to say in this life, then, just this once, turn to me, even in jest, or as an afterthought, which would have meant everything to me when we were together, and, as you did back then, look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name” (248).
Through the specificity of this scenario, Aciman reveals a universal story of desire and love. We’ve all been there, and wow, should our lives turn out as exciting as those of the two men characterized in this romance.
NEXT TIME: My Literary World
My Book World
Furbank, P.N. E. M. Forster: A Life.
New York: Harcourt, 1977.
After reading Christopher Isherwood’s entire oeuvre in 2015-6 and seeing what an influence Forster had been on the man, I felt compelled to read this Forster biography, as well. Isherwood credits Forster with, among other things, providing him with a creative mantra: Get on with your own work; behave as if you were immortal. Isherwood reminds himself, page after page in his journals, that he must remain industrious. Since Furbank does not provide a complete list of Forster’s titles but offers them up in the narrative (and index) instead, it is difficult to realize that Forster, too, produced a broad variety of works, well over twenty. So, a generation apart, Forster provides the model for Isherwood’s ethic. They seem to share similar ideas on literary quality, standards, a certain fussiness in regard to everything. Yet there exist differences between the two men born a generation apart.
Forster, though he does write about sex between men, does not allow it to be seen, particularly Maurice (which is written in 1913-4 but published posthumously in 1971 and made into an Ivory-Merchant film, in 1987) until after his death. Though he becomes sexually active with men at one point, it is not to the degree, I believe, that Isherwood does, the latter claiming to have had over four hundred partners, and yet sharing his last thirty-three years with one man. Forster is never able to find that one man, though I believe he would have liked to. He did have close emotional relationships with other men, but they were mostly married, and in no way did he wish to interfere with those, or gay friends to whom he was not physically attracted, such as his peer, J. R. Ackerley. Isherwood made a break with British culture by making his home in America in 1938-9. Though well-traveled throughout the world, and though he empathized with a great many others, Forster’s being was too deeply rooted in Britain ever to leave. Just the story of the home he lived in with his mother for so many years is enough to complete this picture. When finally vacating West Hackhurst, a rather large estate, it takes the man many months to categorize all the collections of things that had come down to him, and, that as an only child, he now must be rid of: decades, if not centuries, of useless family letters and documents, furniture, clothing, carpets, dishes, art.
Personal writing of Forster, in which he goads himself to improve his lot:
Furbank’s biography combines two volumes with separate pagination, totaling over six hundred pages, a slog of a reading but well worth the time if one is interested in how a particular author writes, his opinions, his family, his friends and lovers. If one is searching for, as Isherwood does, a literary hero, E. M. Forster possesses a generosity of spirit that, dead or alive, is difficult for one to reject.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
NOTE: I wrote this post a year ago. For reasons I can't recall I decided not to put it up. Today Ken and I celebrate our forty-first anniversary together, and I share last year's post belatedly!
Ken and I met forty years ago, in 1976, at a rather notorious bar, late at night on Valentine's Day. Located off Marshall, David’s Warehouse of Lubbock, Texas, was a foreboding place, like a remote outpost of a foreign land. Eerie fluorescents contributed to an apprehensiveness, almost a fear, and patrons' cars were clumped close like horses with their reins loosely tied around a hitching post. Inside, amid the warmth and the steady thump of disco music someone introduced us. Ken asserts that I had been snubbing him for weeks. I maintain that I was just shy. In those days I felt compelled to pound down three beers at my apartment before heading out to face the meat rack at David's.
Well, we now talk as little about that as possible—just what followed. Seeing each other every day—Ken would bring little gifts like tiny potted cacti—we became acquainted rather quickly, and by June made the decision to move in together. We had an open house, and a few of the items we received—some dessert plates and four blue plastic glasses—are still part of our daily use.
Not long after that we made the trip to Kansas and Missouri and Michigan, to introduce our newly formed union to, respectively, my family, Ken's family, and friends where he’d taught in Kalamazoo. It was like a honeymoon. We even took a mini-cruise by placing our yellow Datsun on a ferry that transported us from northern Michigan to Green Bay, a pleasant four-hour voyage.
Our first seven years were the most difficult. It was the 1970s! Open Marriage, the Sexual Revolution, and Gay Liberation all conspired to make us think we could have it all—that is, have every man we saw, plus the one at home. AIDS, whose clutches we were fortunate enough to escape (don’t think that we don’t still suffer some survivor’s guilt), made us stop and think. Once we committed only to one another, what, I suppose, history had been trying to tell us, we became much closer, committed.
In 1986, for our tenth anniversary, we threw a party. Ken gave me a ring with a fire agate as the setting. Funny story: years after his Grandfather Dixon died, Ken watched as his Grandmother cleaned out a drawer. He eyed his grandfather's gold dental work and asked if he could have it. His grandmother was more than glad to be rid of a ghost's smile. Prior to our special day he asked a jeweler friend to shape the gold into a ring. In the future, whenever Ken's relatives would comment on my beautiful ring, he and I would exchange winks. I even think you could hear his grandfather chuckle. In a similar vein, the ring I presented to Ken was made, in part, from my discarded wedding ring.
BELOW: Left, the ring Ken gave me and his Kappa Alpha frat pin. Right, the ring I later gave Ken and my Phi Mu Alpha pin. We occasionally wear the pins on a night out, our little joke.
In 1996 we celebrated our twentieth anniversary with a Hawaiian cruise. The eight-day voyage was only marred by the day on which we left Honolulu, the very morning the bomb went off in Atlanta. At the airport, everyone’s luggage was dump-searched, and we arrived home exhausted. What survives, however, are great memories of cruising the peaceful Pacific.
Having never traveled much by train, we celebrated our thirtieth in 2006 by taking Amtrak from Fort Worth to New York, by way of Chicago. During the forty-eight-hour trip in First Class, we reminisced about our first thirty years, some of the same things we’d always reminisced about when we got sentimental: our beginning at a tawdry bar in north Lubbock. But what else? Art. Music. Literature. Film. Gossip. Very little ever seemed out of range for our discussions. And as with all good friends, we daily seem to pick up where we left off last time we talked.
So here we are again, Sunday night, February 14, 2016—our fortieth anniversary, the same night of the year as always. We usually avoid eating out—selecting an adjacent evening—not finding it very festive to celebrate such a special day with the hoi polloi and their sentimental frills like chocolates and roses. That’s just not us. I take charge of glasses. Oh, get the doorbell, would you. It is our pizza! Then an episode of Downton Abbey. Later, we raise our glasses to the next ten years, and the next! We, same as Mr. Milne, can hope, can’t we!
BELOW would appear some photos from our fortieth-anniversary trip, a Caribbean cruise to Aruba, Panama, Columbia, Costa Rica, and the Caymans . . . ONLY WE NEVER GOT TO GO!
Due to a health crisis in our duo, we were forced to cancel our October trip at the last minute. When Ken would share with the nurses and doctors at University Medical Center that we were to have celebrated our fortieth on the cruise, most emitted an authentic "Awww." Gee, how the world has changed. Forty years ago we wouldn't have even shared such information with strangers, especially those holding needles. Since our travel insurance check arrived, we are determined to go SOMEWHERE for our forty-first year. Now the fun comes in deciding WHERE?
NEXT TIME: My Book World
New Yorker Fiction 2017
Rating the Story
***February 13 and 20, 2017, Curtis Sittenfeld, “The Prairie Wife”: A married woman with two sons becomes jealous of the success of a woman she once knew when both were young. ¶ What a perfect Valentine’s story! Yes, Kirsten is jealous of someone she once worked with at a kids’ camp when she was nineteen. Now the woman, Lucy Headrick, has an insanely successful career as “The Prairie Housewife,” a Christian persona that is a far cry from the less-than-angelic girl Kirsten knew in 1994. For a number of spoilerish reasons, I will only say that her jealousy forces her to recall her past and reevaluate her marriage to her spouse, Casey. This story is cleverly devised, written à la the following riddle:
A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”
Figure this out and you'll have a leg up on Sittenfeld's story, which you should read now and enjoy! Her collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, comes out next year.
Photograph by Grant Cornett.
NEXT TIME: A Valentine's Anniversary
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
See my profile at Author Central: