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[550] Mapping the Territory – Christopher Bram

territory

” The human race is full of sin, but conservatives have somehow decided that the gravest sin is homosexuality. Since they’re not homosexual themselves, they can feel assured they are among the righteous, even if they sometimes think impure thoughts, cheat in business, cheat on their spouses, neglect their children or skip church on Sunday. ” (A Sort of Friendship: A Few Thoughts about Gay Marriage, p.225)

Mapping Territory is Christopher Bram’s first collection of non-fiction over his thirty-year career. These essays range through such topics as the power of gay fiction, coming out in the 1970s, the AIDS epidemic, gay marriage, and the vicissitude of lower Manhattan. As befit and instinctive of a novelist, into these autobiographical piece, arranged more or less in chronological order, imparted Bram’s love for books and literature and how they help him address his sexuality as well as allow him to read his own desires. As a young reader, I shared Bram’s experience in reading the way into homosexuality—something is that is both eye-opening and relieving. The literature assures Bram, and myself, that being homosexual is not being off the margin. Homosexuality should be connected with the rest of life. This is certainly a revelation to me who comes out two generations after the author did, but still confronting a society in which “culture at large regularly instructs people on how to be heterosexual.” (A Body in Books: A Memoir in a Reading List, p.22)

Sex is intensely subjective anyway, full of built-in guilt and anxiety. No matter what you do or don’t do, it often feels wrong. During my first years in New York, I felt that I’d failed as a gay man if I didn’t have X number of partners over Y span of time . . . Monogamy was considered a blind aping of heterosexuals, despite the fact that the sexual revolution made fidelity less mandatory for them as well. (Faggots Revisited, p.105)

Mapping Territory does not just reach out to real readers—hungry, curious, open-minded readers of fiction in particular and good books in general, although these people, gay and straight, Bram sadly notes, are a minority. Beside a didactic discussion on what contributes gay literature and a critical review of Larry Kramer’s sex-renouncing Faggots, which continues to hit a nerve of the gays and provoke anger, Bram writes about coming out in Virginia, his stoop in West Village, the life of Henry James, the different appeals between books and movie tie-ins, the egotistic straight male fiction, and gay marriage.

That is my chief problem with most straight male fiction: authorial egos are so insistently, domineeringly, present. In too many novels I feel locked in a jail cell with just one other person, either a solitary sufferer or all-knowing puppeteer. Other people, other points of view, barely exist—even other male points of view. (Can Straight Men Still Write? p.176)

It is not until Bram makes this observation of his reading blind spot that I realize the straight male authors have accounted for less than a tenth in my reading. Authors he named emotionally thin and stylistically opaque are ones I have also long abandoned! This collection of essays is so rich in anecdotes, humor, philosophy and literary critique. Amazing how many of his feelings and experiences corroborate to mine, even down to his craving for erotic literature written with seriousness and craft. What Bram’s essays do for me is exactly why gay men and women search out for such literature: to find the much needed mirrors of reality. Woven throughout this endlessly entertaining book is Bram’s elegant use of the English language. The book also gives me fodder for my reading list.

256 pp. Alyson Books. Hardcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Sexual Awakening

” The culture at large regularly instructs people on how to be heterosexual. Movies, television, popular music, and advertising are about almost nothing else. But gay men and women, at least until recently, have had only books to help them find or invent or test their identities. ” –Christopher Bram, Mapping the Territory
bram

When you were a 11-year-old boy who just arrived in America, who were surrounded by an incomprehensible culture, and who was gay, who could to you confide in all your fear and confusion? Despite the advent of civil rights for the gays, I’m surprised at how much Bram and I have in common our experiences of being a young homosexual. In Mapping the Territory, a collection of essays that falls into the autobiographical zone, Bram mentioned the books that made him as a person. Mr. Bram and I are two generations apart, yet we are both at the mercy of books, which offer the most diverse set of tools for an individual to find his self. I could be prejudiced here, but I believe literature provides a looser, broader, more varied medium in which to explore one’s identity than movies and television do—even now as gay and lesbian images make their way into mass media. A book has a delay factor, that is, the time taken to finish from cover to cover is way longer than watching a movie. Back when financial resources were limited, I read my way into homosexuality. I remember stopping by two bookstores on the way home from school, Doubleday on Sutter and Bretano’s in the San Francisco Shopping Center on Market, where I lost myself in a forest of books. I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a literary construct, but the love of books was already stamped into my being before I realized I was attracted to men. I loved books before I loved bodies—the bodies didn’t appear until junior high. Ina society where all voices are pro-heterosexual, homosexual thoughts are strictly taboo, let alone the lust. I don’t remember the title of the psychology book I stumbled upon in the bookstore, that gave me the first usual piece of information, about most adolescents go through a homosexual phase. Bookstores were heaven for this solitary and private, self-sufficient and bookish kid who wanted to read up for being gay. Books were magic: I found myself entering a dialogue with them. I use them to address my sexuality, a safe place where I can try out different roles. More important, I see through books the kind of life that I would have learned to want through my reading.

[543] Love In A Dark Time – Colm Tóibín

lovedark

Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar

” This, then, is a book in the main about gay figures for whom being gay seemed to come second in their public lives, either by choice or by necessity. But in their private lives, in their own spirit, the laws of desire changed everything for them and made all the difference. The struggle for gay sensibility began as an intensely private one, and slowly then, if the gay man or woman was a writer, or a painter or a filmmaker or a reformer, it seeped into language and images and politics in ways which were strange and fascinating. ” (Introduction, p.3)

Colm Tóibín, whose fictional works I have read and admired, may once have been uneasy about his sexuality, but this collection of essays suggests his critical faculties have always been assured. Love in a Dark Time is not a memoir, not is it polemics; and, to my relief, it is not a prescription of another queer theory. The figures who interest Tóibín are not gay writers whose works had “done so much to clear the air and make things easier for gay people,” but those from an earlier time, whose legacy was ambiguous, either by choice or by necessity.

Rather it is dictated by a narrative that is predetermined: any biography of a homosexual man who made no attempt to hide his sexuality must dwell at length on the untidiness of his personal life and the drama of his relationships. (Francis Bacon, p.146)

These essays, though in varying strengths in terms of details and profundity, while considering the influence of their sexuality, leaves readers a better understanding of these artists. Tóibín makes no secret of his fondness for Elizabeth Bishop and James Baldwin and his admiration of their works. He compares Bishop to Hemingway for her fierce simplicity: “A use of words in which the emotion appears to be hidden, to lurk mysteriously in the space between the words.” (Elizabeth Bishop, p.177) The calm surface of her poetry gives little indication that her life was troubled. Her literary métier became an outlet that allowed her to triumph over such familiar demons as emotional insecurity and alcoholism. Of Baldwin he also highly praises. Tóibín nails the root of the aura of intensity and seriousness that is James Baldwin. Not only the drama of his own life often echoed against the public drama, his being black and gay and an imaginative writer was such the triple burden he had to bear in that dark time. Only when he was full-hilt in the civil rights movement did he realize that the privilege did not extend to the gays. But like Tóibín notes, the adversity did not stop him. His works delve into the subject of flesh and sexual longing, and how the truth of the body differs from the lies of the mind.

His intelligence, the energy of his wit and his longing for love hit up against history and the hardness of the world, hit up against the prejudices which people had about a man who was black and a man who was gay. (James Baldwin, p.212)

The collection also touches upon painter Francis Bacon, who put off any interview irrelevant to his art work; Thomas Mann, who sublimated his homosexual desires at his desk; Roger Casement, whose homosexuality antagonized him to the consular service; Mark Doty, who wrote poems about AIDS without naming the disease, and Oscar Wilde, who went to jail for sodomy. Love in a Dark Time is highly readable and important, for it is only when homosexuality is removed from the margins and placed at the very heart of the cultural canon that society shall be free of discrimination. The progression of these pieces shows we are heading the right direction at the least, though the battle is still a long one.

278 pp. Picador UK. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[505] The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst

” It was true of course that the lyric of grief was often attended, of followed soon after, by a more prosaic little compulsion, the unseemly grasp of the chance to tell the truth—and since the person involved could no longer mind . . . There was a special tone of indulgent candour, amusing putting-straight of the record, that wandered all too easily and invisibly into settling of scores and something a bit shy of objective life. ” (Part 5, Ch.1, p.412)

Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel in seven years since The Line of Beauty is about the life and legacy of a gay war poet, a minor one who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many great masters. The book, which consists of five parts and each occupies a different era over 90 years, shows how truth is compromised by the erasures of remembrance and history. The Stranger’s Child deals with the short but dramatic life and posthumous reputation of Cecil Valance, a Georgian poet whose lyrical outpourings are given huge poignancy by the carnage of the trenches.

Freda Sawle did say that Cecil had made a terrible mess in his room, and it had sounded petty of her, to say such a thing of a poet and a hero who had won the Military Cross. She alluded, in addition, to his ‘liveliness’ and the various things he had broken—widow’s mites, again, pathetic grievances. What she couldn’t begin to say was the mess Cecil Valance had made of her children. (Part 2, Ch.7, p.144)

In the summer of 1913, George Sawle brings Cecil Valance, a classmate from Cambridge with an aristocratic root, to his family’s home outside London. Cecil has an atmosphere and appeal of the unmentionable lust. The socially confident lad soon mesmerizes the entire family, including the servant who attends to him. he is George’s lover but soon after his arrival in Two Acres, George’s sister, Daphne, is equally besotted. She longs to be in Cecil’s company, but wanders off with George to the privacy of the wood. Hints of their fumblings become known to George’s mother when a bundle of letters arrive. The attraction between George and Cecil is amplified by its illegality in a way that makes it more powerful. The entire novel, as it unfolds over the next 90 years, hinges on that one weekend when Cecil Valance visits Two Acres and composes, for Daphne, on whom he takes a shine on, a poem that, after he is killed in the Great War, elevates him to fame.

Daphne always fell for different men who couldn’t love her properly—they couldn’t give her what she wanted. (Part 4, Ch.7, p.355)
Paul pictured George with the half-naked Cecil on the roof at Corley, and smiled distantly, at a loss as to how much of this she believed or expected him to believe; and to how much she might quite willingly have forgotten. (Part 4, Ch.8, p.370)

The Stranger’s Child is elegant, erudite, but also difficult and demanding. As Cecil’s slim reputation is fought over by scholars, ex-lovers, and a mother who makes a cult of him, an ambitious biographer emerges to unearth a tragic story that is spun over time, and its truth is known only to mother, daughter and son behind the door at Two Acres. The mysteries of the story focuses instead on the delusions of people around him. The true contours of lives—how they were truly experienced, disappears into haze. Daphne’s three marriages also render the paternity of her children mysterious. Hollinghurst recreates the life of Cecil through reminiscences of family and friends. He leaves readers to fill the vague well-intentioned space between those spoken memories and imaginings of them. I find his writing on buried homosexuality very repressed; and the book gets flatter as it paces steadily toward its revelations.

435 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Stonewall Inn Editions

I have only been enlightened to the Stonewall Inn Editions when I recently read The Coming Storm by Paul Russell. Stonewall Inn Editions is a trade paperback line founded at St. Martin’s in 1987 by editor Michael Denneny and to this day it remains the only gay/lesbian imprint at a major publishing house. St. Martin’s is one of the 10 largest book publishers in the United States. One part of St. Martin’s overall publishing program is a long-term commitment to quality gay and lesbian interest titles.

Since A Different Light, the GLBT bookstore, went under two years ago, books in this genre lack a central venue for publicity. Back in the days A Different Light would feature staff recommendations and new titles on the wall immediately to the left when you enter the store. Now bookstores claim to have LGBT titles but they are buried to the back of the store and most titles are either out of stock or out of print. I’m glad to discover this series devoted to the subject matter. Among the more generally known authors they have published include Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On and The Mayor of Castro Street.

Upon consulting the fiction list I have added these titles to my acquisition:

Another Mother by Ruthann Robson
“Angie Evans–an attorney specializing in lesbian legal issues, partner in a committed relationship, and mother to an adopted daughter–seems to have the best of all worlds. But she is caught in the contradictions that make up her life. As she fights to make sense of the labels that have been applied to her, Angie finds her crisis of identity boiling over.” –Book description

Boys Like Us by Peter McGehee
“A genuinely delightful gay domestic comedy so full of tangy dialogue and wacky situations that it screams for the stage or, better yet, the screen.” –Booklist

The Dream Life by Bo Huston
“Told in alternating narrative voices, this is a daring novel about love between a man and a boy by one of the finest writers of the past decade.” –Book description

Joseph and the Old Man by Christopher Davis
“The flamboyant town of Cherry Grove, serenely situated along the beach of Fire Island, is the setting for this unusually poignant and joyful love story. In this cozy little summer community, the old man, a world-famous novelist, young at heart and beloved by everyone, lives with Joe, some thirty years a younger man, sleek and tan, who loves the old man and considers himself lucky to be living with him for the last ten years (unaware that friend consider the old man just as lucky).” –Book description

Tangled Up in Blue by Larry Duplechan
“A story of three people bound together by ties of love, passion, and friendship until a crisis for one threatens to destroy them all.” –Goodreads

Valley of the Shadow by Christopher Davis
“With simple clarity and undeniable power, Davis tells a story of great love and great tragedy; of AIDS and of two young men; of flawless summer days and starlit nights; of parents and children; and of the tangled web of love and loss and loyalty that is life itself.” –Goodreads

Winter Eyes by Lev Raphael
“Loneliness, separation, desire and the struggle with gay identity are the leitmotifs of Lev Raphael’s new novel. What distinguishes [Winter Eyes] is Raphael’s handling of grand themes, and his ongoing exploration of worlds both Jewish and gay and how they intersect, daring himself and his readers to contemplate wholeness.” –Jenifer Levin, Forward

[500] The Coming Storm – Paul Russell

” If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the unfortunate thing about life is that everything’s mixed. There’s no absolute good and there’s no absolute evil. There’s just a lot of confusion. ” (IV, p.117)

The Coming Storm tells the story of four interconnected lives, and is set within the claustrophobic world of a traditional boys’ prep school in upstate New York. The intricate narratives, told from the alternating perspective of four characters—Louis Tremper, the headmaster; his wife, Claire Tremper; Tracy Parker, the newly hired 25-year-old English teacher; and Noath Lathrop III, a 15-year-old student struggling with his own sexuality—are both elegant and eloquent in style.

But with that thought, Louis was the one skating on treacherously thin ice. Without another glance in that dangerous direction, he headed back for the safety of solid ground. He refused, these days, to live dangerously—if, indeed, he ever had. (XIII, p.246)

The novel is a complicated one that exposes the closely held secrets of the human heart. Russell tackles the delicate, and politically inflammable, issue of pedophilia, as he traces, in a non-stereotypical manner, the complexities of a sexual relationship between Tracy and Noah. Between them there exists an invisible but undeniable connection, and outside the classroom, in clandestine meetings, their socially forbidden relationship gathers both depth and focus.

Listening to Tracy’s litany of misery. [Louis] found himself secretly disappointed in this young man who, having dared make of his own errant dreaming a reality, now grew so quickly frightened of the beautiful disaster he had created for himself. Such love as this, tragic, criminal, impossible, a dream meant only to be dreamed and never, never to be lived . . . (XVII, p.327)

Though no one is more upset about betraying Noah’s trust than Tracy himself, and Noah wants for what happened to happen, their affair alarms and ruffles Louis Tremper, a repressed homosexual with a love for German opera. He has long resorted to a safe life that chooses morality over sensuality. He makes attempt to a pure friendship with Tracy and his former mentor. This is why, at the beginning of the novel, which proceeds in a natural arc of pertinent biographical information, Louis seems unrevealed, sequestered, and hemmed in. He is to me, by far, the most interesting character in terms of complexity of feelings. There exists a part of Louis’s self that is even impenetrable to Claire, who attributes her husband’s aloofness to his unfinished dissertation back in graduate school. With no knowledge of Louis’s secret affection for men, when confided in by Tracy, she adopts a milder view to the teacher-student affair.

Life, meaningless life, was at times fraught with fear symmetries. (XVII, p.338)

As Tracy and Noah’s relationship becomes known to Louis, and the school is threatened to be on the cusp of a scandal, past histories begin to unravel, including the notorious history of what happened with Arthur Branson and Jack Emmerich, the former headmaster. That affair was seamlessly covered up but it ruined both Arthur and the headmaster’s lives, as well as Louis’s. Louis stepped in to stop the relationship, but turned his back on Arthur when he declared his homosexuality. Forty years later, as history repeats itself, Louis turns his back on Tracy for the same reason—for he is wallowed in his own homophobia.

All but Noah are left pondering their regrets and mistakes. Louis feels once again he has failed the person in the situation who needs protecting most, Noah. Russell is adept at elucidating the emotional desert that comes from denying passion, from being dishonest with one’s feelings. I enjoy the ease with which Russell reveals the past of his characters to fully depict their psyches. This book is an intense scrutiny of humanity we all possess and the power of desire.

371 pp. St. Martin Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[494] Forbidden Colors – Yukio Mishima

” Yuichi did not believe in what is called tasting happiness; in his heart, it seemed, he secretly feared it. When he saw something supposed to be lasting, terror gripped him. ” (Ch.11, p.143)

Mishima’s allegedly autobiographical novel happens to be somewhat verbose, despite his skilled wording and numerous passages that are both lyrical and philosophical. Finishing at over 400 pages, Forbidden Colors feels unnecessarily long, consider it embraces many familiar themes attempted by other contemporary writers: sexual identity, homophobia, and moral confusion. This novel is very complicated, its prose full of tucks and pleats like the texture in sculptures. It has all the classic Mishima elements: beauty and the power it holds, and the misery one feels from such beauty. Only the beautiful emerge relatively unscathed—and they are usually men because men are what matter compared to the helpless women. The men’s shortcomings in other areas are obviously unimportant placed next to their aesthetic value.

Yuichi did not love a woman, and the woman bore Yuichi a child. At that time he saw the ugliness, not of Yasuko’s will, but of objectless desire in life. (Ch.26, p.330)

As much as the novel concerns with a character whose dazzling beauty turns many a head in both men and women, Mishima focuses on the notion of ugliness, and he associates old age with ugliness. Forbidden Colors initially focuses on an aging novelist, Shunsuke Hinoki. Embittered by a string of failed marriages, he has come to hate women, seeing them as creatures devoid of a soul. While pursuing his latest mistress to a hot-spring resort, he encounters Yuichi Minami, a handsome young man tortured by his desire for other men. The old novelist is so entangled in intellectualism as to be capable of despicable acts and self-deception. He sees in the attractive Yuichi a perfect instrument to exact his revenge on womankind and to mete out his punishment. He instructs the young man in misogyny, and binds him to his will by offering much financial succor.

Someone once said that homosexuals have on their faces a certain loneliness that will not come off. Besides, in their glances flirtatiousness and the cold stare of appraisal are combined. Although the coquettish looks that women direct at the opposite sex and the appraising glances they direct at their own sex have quite separate functions, with the homosexual both are directed at one and the same person. (Ch.7, p.96)

Out of filial duty, Yuichi is locked in a loveless marriage. Although he doesn’t love his wife, but later pondering her face at the pinnacle of suffering during childbirth, he develops a tenderness for her. He feels responsible for her suffering but she resolves to live in an impenetrable indifference. Throughout the novel, Yuichi struggles to maintain his dual life. While being a husband to a pregnant woman and an ailing mother, he carries on with a string of lovers—a former count who is a master seducer, a motor industrialist who later fears his ruin, and a skein of bar flames—who grow increasingly infatuated with him. They gay characters are miserable not because they are immoral; they are miserable because of their internalized homophobia. They impress me as being narcissistic and self-destructive. Yuichi’s callousness strains the barriers between the two worlds until his exposure seems inevitable. The repugnance that Shunsuke has built up inside him further complicates his pain. It’s almost too difficult for him to distinguish between his passion for determining the source of the repugnance and a desire, motivated by appetite and lust for the flesh to seek out the fountainhead of pleasure. This tension fuels the entire novel, stitching together different characters’ outlook and philosophy and offering a universal theme in LGBT literature: the struggle between expressing one’s true self and presenting a counterfeit self to the world to survive. To live within the society’s moral constraint, that is, a construct based upon heterosexual norm, is to be stripped of one’s dignity. This is what the novelist meant by “subtle evil is more beautiful than coarse goodness, and is therefore moral.” (336) Forbidden Colors is bleak and challenging, offering only the hope of freedom in conformity.

429 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[491] The Object of My Affection – Stephen McCauley

” Maybe I love you because I know I can’t have you. But maybe I just love you. ” (Ch.26, p.306)

This is a classic romance comedy that is McCauley’s forte. Like his other works, The Object of My Affection is largely about relationships and the family in the context of the changing parameters of gay-straight relations. Toward the end of a calamitously imperfect relationship, George, a kindergarten teacher, was kicked out by his selfish, philandering lover, Robert, George found himself at the door of Nina, a feminist who is working for her dissertation in psychology. George and Nina seem a perfect couple. They share a cozy but terminally cluttered Brooklyn apartment; they go to dancing lesson together—they love each other. The only hitch is that George is gay. Moving in with Nina is the perfect arrangement for lovelorn George, but he would never expect a more complicated relationship in store for him.

Of course, she was right: a love affair can be wonderful but a courtship is far more enduring. And our courtship endured, right through the love affair, until Nina became pregnant and raised the stakes somehow, tipped the delicate balance of our relationship. (Ch.5, p.74)

Nina is pregnant but she has no intent to marry her overbearing boyfriend. She instead finds in George, who is still reeling from the wound of his breakup, a perfect companionship in which they become best friends and make plan to raise the child. Their similar experiences—both have led lives that are shallowly rooted and marred by relationship woe have laid a solid foundation for this platonic courtship. In a sense they both try to evade further relationship mishap and find comfort and refuge in one another. Nina’s pregnancy prompts George into second thought about whether he will be a surrogate father. The arrangement seems compatible until he meets someone that George thinks would be the last person he goes on dates with.

Betraying her. And why? I’ll tell you: because you have taken on an obligation you’re not willing to admit to. (Ch.20, p. 224)

Richly nuanced with quirky humor and sarcasm, The Object of My Affection explores the meaning of relationship and interpersonal dynamics of a society that seems oppressive to both homosexual and heterosexual. Both George and Nina share a determination not to repeat the truly stunning mistakes of their parents, but, confounded as they are by the twin shipwrecks of the past and the present, it seems impossible. Throughout the novel, they grimly observe the foibles of society around them but feel hopeless to implement changes. Their desperate search for love (and safety) leads to the reinvention of courtly love. This book leaves me in contemplation of what the best approach to relationship might be. They neither find meaning nor a safe harbor, but happiness in a friendship that is a long and unconsummated courtship between two people with no expectations. What seems ideal must remain at a safe distance because all expectations are (probably) doomed to failure. The book really captures the confusion of our lives today: how to to strike a balance between self-interest and commitment, to reconcile principles with emotions.

316 pp. Washington Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[490] The Man of the House – Stephen McCauley

” Like a lot of basically unfulfilled people with too much time on their hands, I’d fooled myself into believing that A Perfect Life and I were separated by nothing more substantial than a postage stamp. Maybe there was money in today’s mail, or an offer of a job in…Rome, . . . Or, equally likely, maybe Gordon, my ex, had come to his senses and written to tell me he’d made a mistake in leaving, the very words I’d been waiting to hear from him so I could finally forget about him and move on. ” (8)

This pretty much sums up the novel, which maintains an air of ennui and provides no clear resolution. The reading is like breathing through honey. Clyde is the inert, lovelorn gay man in his mid-thirties who finds his life stalled and unfulfilled. The numerous graduate programs, from humanities to arts, that he dabbled in but never completed earn him the perfect credential to teach at a posh but flaky (amateurish) adult learning center, where rich and well-heeled students bring their marriage problems into discussion of literature works.

Two years have passed since his lover walked out on him. Clyde is still reeling from Gordon’s departure, trying to figure out a way to patch his wounds. Although he’s not so thoroughly deluded that he’s keeping himself for the ex-boyfriend physically, I do sense that he is deluded about feeling unresolved about a relationship that is over for good. Why? I have experienced the same and everyday for two years I have pined for a sign of resolution, in terms of an explanation, if not resurrection. To pin this feeling of unease and refusing to let go McCauley is right on the dot.

In the next hour, Agnes and I picked our way through a minefield of topics that produced only minor invitation when we veered too close to anything real or significant . . . It was probably ridiculous to think that Agnes and I might ever develop a truly open and intimate relationship . . . It was as if all the things we shared, all our common longings, formed a wedge between us instead of drawing us together. (213)

As much as Clyde wants to dodge his family, Agnes, maddeningly insecure and scarred by a failed marriage, bears the news of his irascible father’s being in love. While Clyde tries to confront his father’s mysterious romance, his friend from college, Louise Morris, an eclectic writer, breezes in to his house with her son and a dog in tow. The question of the boy’s paternity nudges Clyde back to the terrain of his own father. As he strikes a friendship with the boy, he also becomes concerned with his roommate, who has spent ten years in his dissertation and too many fizzled relationships.

I’s said it to be polite, because he was taking up an increasing amount of time, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized they were true. Perhaps that was why some people need children and pets and spouses, to bring order to the chaos of their lives. (128)

I always gravitate to McCauley’s writing because he is a keen observer of relationships and their dynamics. I can always relate to his gay protagonist(s) who is less than perfect, is either wallowed in romantic woes or slightly jaded by the lack of fidelity in the gay dating world. The snippy and self-deprecating Clyde would keep himself in check and he knows his life has fallen short. McCauley’s depiction of Clyde’s intertwining relationships demonstrates his grasp of the bonds that connect the straight and the gay in the maze of life’s daily dealings. That said, the narrator’s sluggishness in the face of these concerns can make readers impatient. McCauley should have tightened up the rope.

287 pp. Washington Square Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[479] Perfect Agreement – Michael Downing

” Most of my colleagues had reacted squeamishly to the Spelling Thing and the rift it caused, like prepubescent children subjected to a film about boys’ and girls’ blooming bodies. They didn’t like either of the two available options. They said nothing. It was easy to condemn them. I assured myself that their refusal to sid with me proved they were against me; that they were passive and guilty; that not to decide is decide. ” (52)

Mark Sternum is a grammarian—the guardian of the English language and its usage. His love of order extends into his meticulously constructed life, even though love and family cannot always be made to agree as easily as subject and verb. Downing’s gimmicky novel revolves around spelling, grammar and corrct usage, as intercalary passages of cutesy grammatical humor are inserted at the end of chapters as though they were insights.

A case can be made that these tutorials, both practical and humorous, are actually sly underlinings of subjects and themes brought up in the chapters themselves. The book’s protagonist is a college professor in Boston who is fired for not passing an African-American single mother who failed a spelling test. Mark, who is full of droll observations about the rules that govern the English language, claims that he is only doing his job and the job is not a cause. But the student accuses his standards being discriminatory.

In his estimation, everything was eratz, inauthentic—my garden, American history, his marriage, the Sjaker museums, the Catholic church, box cereal, and even his own best book of photographs. I believed more than ever in the utter truth of his death in 1982. I did not doubt that the force of my mother’s will had been enough to keep him alive, if only just, for forty odd years. (167)

As Mark monitors the ensuing academic skirmish from a distance, he turns his affection instead to history of Shakers community and his father, a famous photographer for his pictures of empty Shaker buildings, who disappeared many years earlier and is thought to be dead. But an old man who claims to be a Shaker named Brother Thomas turns up at Mark’s house and appears to be the long-lost father himself. Then we are directed to the relationship between Mark and his lover, who after ten years decides to move in with him. The narrative is delicate but not sentimental, focusing on the mundane matters of their relationship.

Then comes the major subplot—a long historical flashback about a Shaker girl who sees a dark-skinned man that the community, in the midst of its decline, wants to believe is a mystical vision of a black Jesus. This story is interwoven with the contemporary goings-on. Thw Shaker stretch steals the limelight, and the material is first-rate, making up the strength that the rest of the book lacks. While I enjoy the dish of academic politics and America’s obsession with race, my problem with Perfect Agreement is that far too many story lines, and styles, are trotted out, played with and then more or less abandoned.

288 pp. Berkeley Trade. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]