Lahr's biography was deeply engrossing and terribly sad, but it raised my appreciation for all Williams did for us gay Americans of any religious sensibility in liberating our flesh from guilt and shame. A bio of the year, really.
At the moment, however, I'm reading a children's 'gay story', Strange Boy, by Paul Magr, which was actually published in 2003 and excited quite a bit of controversy at the time, though it's hard to know why. The book explores the relationship between 10 year old David and his 14 year old neighbor friend, John, with whom he is infatuated. There is a brief boyish physical encounter at the beginning, which is so 'normal' and ordinary that one wonders why there was an outcry to ban this book. I certainly wouldn't call it sexual. Simply boys exploring and doing a bit of very mild experimenting - lasting less than a minute, so why all the fuss? Because the protagonist is so young and therefore the author must be intent on programming and recruiting young children into the 'gay lifestyle,' instead of simply chronicling a perfectly commonplace experience - one which mirrors events in the author's own life, as well as my own. Well worth reading for the bravery of the author in breaching this taboo and exploring the awakening sexuality of a ten year old 'gay boy' who already has a strong inkling of his true orientation.
I also polished off the Philippines National Book Award winner for this year, and the first Filipino crime novel ever written ( could that really be true?), Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H.Batacan.
This deserves a full-on review, but briefly I will say it was a superb, procedural crime novel with an original pair of protagonist-detectives, two Jesuit priests who are trained as forensic anthropologists. In other words, they are experts at examining evidence at crime scenes and in autopsy rooms. The victims are all thirteen year old boys, horribly mutilated, snatched at dump sites where they had been scavenging (most of them), then dropped back at the dump after their tormenter had finished with them. The Catholic Church's appalling cover-up of the sexual abuse scandal - right there in the Philippines - is given expert treatment, with a scathing characterization of the Cardinal at the heart of the scandal. But this is a peripheral side story, so to speak, since (spoiler alert) the author has chosen to make her perpetrator a layman with no association whatsoever with the Church. Is she making a point here? Don't know and can't say in this rushed review. But I found it puzzling that - with the exception of one line spoken briefly by one of the priest detectives (It's enough to make one question one's faith), the author never explores the issue of 'theodicy,' to use a clumsy word. It is implicit, however, in the storytelling, since the author's greatest strength lies in her depiction of the anguish of the families searching desperately for their missing children or - in the case of the parents of the murderer - trying to come to terms with the horrifying fact that they had raised a psychopath. The most poignant example, in my opinion (spoiler), the mother whose son was still born, the nurse telling her " you can hold it for a minute', before she takes the corpse away, the desperate attempts of the mother to warm the child next to her breast and the miracle of the boy's first breath! The next six years are hard ones, as the boy struggles with many physical handicaps. Then at the age of six, he achieves some kind of breakthrough, leaves all of his ill health behind and enters into a glowing, normal, healthy boyhood - only to be snatched away at the age of 13, horribly tortured and mutilated, then dumped onto a pile of garbage. We hear him crying to himself in terror and anguish and he realizes he is the next victim, "Oh, no, no, no, no, no." Nothing is more devastating to the life of faith than the torture of a child. No theologizing here from the author, simply the stark, bare facts - inserted into a novel that has a Catholic setting. That is enough to raise the most disturbing moral and theological questions. How could 'God' permit this? Well done, but I'm not sure what the point was of having two Jesuits as detectives if they are not going to engage in some degree of reflection on the religious dimensions of the situation. Their faith enters into it not a whit.
Also went through three of the Lambda Awards shortlisted best teen gay novels, all of them (I'm happy to say) sunny and bright and optimistic, with loving parents, tolerant friends, frisky, precocious gay protagonists coming to terms with their sexuality, and dealing with intolerance in a context of warm family and friends support. They are in no particular order, You, Me, Him, Adam Silvera's More Happy Than Not, and Will Walton's Anything Could Happen. Hope to comment on them later, but I was deeply touched at the way the authors assure us that happy, healthy, supportive families of gay kids do exist. We need such books, just as - or even more than - we need the stories that describe the suffering of gay kids trapped in unloving, bigoted, intolerant families.
And also, Lambda's award for best gay crime novel of the year, Blackmail My Love, by Katie Gilmartin, set in pre Stonewall San Francisco (my hometown) that conveys so brilliantly the visceral experience of living fearfully in the closet, in fear of associating publicly with like minded gay or lesbian friends, always looking over one's shoulder, vulnerable to blackmail. Funny in parts, sad in most, with a colorful cast of eccentric characters, most of whose 'eccentricity' is in reaction to and in compensation for the stifling walls of their social confinement. A great read.
Finally, the gay teen novel of the year for me wasn't even published this year, but in 2008, Tom Spanbauer's Now is the Hour. Spanbauer's I loved You More was actually this year's Lambda Award winner for best teen gay fiction, but a kind friend gave me a copy of Now is the Hour, so I set to it.
Now is the Hour is a true coming of age story, a true bildungsroman, about a young gay teen boy growing up on an Idaho farm in the 1970's, very close to my own youth, in a dysfunction, rigidly Catholic family, with all of the guilt and shame baggage such an upbringing implies. I wish I could do it justice here in this rush review, but bedtime calls with seven hours of teaching tomorrow. This was a profound work, a profound examination of the enormous damage caused by religious repression and the hollowness at the core of such religious belief. At times I feared the book was veering towards caricature, with the mother on her knees praying the rosary and reciting litanies and driving her son at breakneck speed into town and confession. But the author captured so perfectly the 'sense of the times', particularly the sense of a Catholic family adhering to all of the Catholic rules and prejudices. And in the midst of this stifling atmosphere, Spanbauer has created such a winning central character, Rigby John Klusener, who goes through so much, in such detail, through so many adolescent trials, breaking through so many barriers, making so many discoveries, and experiencing so much heartbreak along the way, particularly the shock of how cruelly adults who should be caring for the young can in fact betray them with all of the 'best intentions' in the world, self-righteously convinced they are morally correct. A great Indian love story at it's heart and a breathtaking sense of liberation at its end. Probably my 'gay book' of the year, even if the year was 2008.
Books on the 'to read' list include:
The Prince of Los Cocuyos, all about growing up gay and Cuban in Miami.
Bitter Eden, by South African author, Tatamkhulu Afrika, a novel based on the author's own experiences in the North African campaign of World War II, a poignant, heartbreaking love story set in a POW camp after the seige of Tobruk. A Lambda best gay fiction shortlisted book.
City of Palaces by Michael Nava, also shortlisted for Lambda's best gay fiction award. An epic Mexican family saga set during revolutionary times and a love story between a committed atheist and his devout Catholic wife, as they struggle to raise their gay son during the times of collapsing order.
Also on my list, Patrick Gale's A Place Called Winter, shortlisted for the Costa Book Award, yet to be announced. The story of a tormented British gay man, who leaves his wife and son behind in England to flee as a colonist to Canada in the wake of scandal in London.
Boystown 6: From the Ashes, by Marshal Thornton, this year's Lambda award winner for best gay teen crime novel.
Finally, I've saved what may be in some ways the most interesting book of all, Torsten Hojer's just published anthology of gay fiction, with an intro by Stephen Fry, Speak My Language and Other Stories. A rich compendium of gay fiction from across borders and cultures and age gaps that gives us a quick review of many of the above listed authors, a tour of contemporary gay experience unlike any other. I've already started it, and have gone through four of the stories, all of them terrific.
The richness on offer here is humbling and inspiring, testifying to the fact that 'gay fiction' is more than alive and healthy. It is thriving, vibrant, optimistic in the fact of intolerance and shouting to the rooftops the joy of being gifted as gay.