by Richard Labonte
SGN Contributing Writer
Fellow Travelers, by Thomas Mallon. Pantheon, 360 pages, $25 hardcover.
Offbeat American history, with mere hints of homosexuality, has long been novelist Mallon's fictional playground. His 2004 novel, Bandbox, was a hilarious homage to 1920s magazine publishing, with attendant fops; 1996's Dewey Defeats Truman, with a benignly effeminate male teacher as a minor character, was set in presidential candidate Thomas Dewey's Michigan hometown during the 1948 election. But Mallon finally makes his own Queerness clear in this seventh novel, noting in his acknowledgment that he is "venturing further into my own life's fundamentals." Fellow Travelers is about the fraught and feverish romance between a mid-level State Department careerist and a young, guilt-ridden Catholic man at the height of reactionary U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's most frantic and furious anti-Communist, anti-fairy witch hunts. Their affair is doomed by the older man's ambitions and the younger man's self-doubts, but Mallon's account of closeted trysts in the midst of homophobic hysteria, and his evocative depiction of crass, backstabbing Washington politics, grandly fictionalizes an important slice of factual Gay history.
Greetings from Jamaica, Wish You Were Queer, by Mari SanGiovanni. Bywater Books, 264 pages, $13.95 paper.
Marie is the black sheep of her lovingly dysfunctional Italian family. She's a dyke, and her old-school parents disapprove. She's an unfulfilled, povertyicken screenwriter. She's trapped in a rotten relationship with a self-centered lover who brings other women home. And she's melodramatically obsessed with - she stalks, in fact - an apparently unattainable Hollywood starlet. Life sucks - until her cranky grandmother dies, unexpectedly leaving Marie her millions. Emotional slapstick ensues, as family members vie for Marie's favor, and the heiress tries to buy them off with a chaotic all-expenses-paid holiday at a Jamaican resort - an exercise in hyperbolic hysteria that only intensifies when the Hollywood actress arrives for her own holiday getaway. SanGiovanni's capably comic first novel - runner-up in a Bywater Books fiction contest - artfully folds ethnic-Italian humor (lots of shouting, and meatballs are a motif) into a happily-ever-after Lesbian romance.
Fried & True: Tales from RehobothBeach, by Fay Jacobs. A&M Books, 268 pages, $17 paper.
This second collection of newspaper columns and other jottings from Jacobs is every bit as sardonic, witty, sarcastic, and insightful as her first book, As I Lay Frying. With this difference: a thread of melancholy runs through it. Many of the otherwise chortle-inducing essays center on the lives of Lesbian publishing pioneers Anyda Merchant - who wrote 14 novels as Sarah Aldridge - and her partner, Muriel Crawford, co-founders with Barbara Grier of Naiad Press. The couple, who died within months of each other, were by the time Jacobs met them the beloved (if occasionally imperious) grand dames of Rehoboth Beach, running A&M Books - which Jacobs inherited - out of their home. Fried & True is peppered with columns about their lifelong love, their vibrant weekly salons, their declining health, and their passing - adding up to a moving mini-biography of two genuine Lesbian heroes. The mood lightens when Jacobs brings her easy comic touch to the everyday travails of life in a small (and quite Queer) resort town, but her memories of Merchant and Crawford give this book real heart.
The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, by Martin Duberman. Alfred A. Knopf, 736 pages, $37.50 hardcover.
Not so many decades ago, a long-overdue biography of a complex figure like dance impresario and ballet visionary Lincoln Kirstein might well have glossed over how very homosexual he really was. That's not the case with this impressive - even gripping - exercise in cultural reclamation. Though Kirstein was married for more than 50 years, he started sleeping with his peers at Harvard in the 1920s, and well into his 60s was surrounding himself with pretty young men. Duberman digs deeply, and compassionately, into his subject's Queer core, illuminating how Kirstein's sexuality - he was "no slouch at sexual slumming" - shaped his impact on American arts, from the New York City Ballet to Lincoln Center. Dance fans will delight in Duberman's astute, unsparing critical summation of his bitchy, brilliant subject's relationship with dance choreographer George Balanchine - though even the most enthusiastic dance devotee might be overwhelmed by some of the minutiae the author includes. And anyone interested in Manhattan's Gay demimonde will have great fun connecting the homosexual dots.
I can still see Anyda walking slowly to the kitchen, pouring from a jug of scotch into two cut crystal glasses and bringing them both to Muriel for inspection. Muriel would determine which one had a micro-milligram more of the golden liquid, taking it for her own - and then she'd sip a tiny bit from the other glass before handing it over. As their friend Tom said at Anyda's memorial service, it was a very intimate and charming tradition. It lives on in our house, mostly with the morning coffee.
-from Fried & True, by Fay Jacobs
Don Weise, the senior editor at Carroll & Graf who launched the most extensive line of Lesbian and Gay books in recent mainstream publishing, is out of a job following the decision by the imprint's new owners to eliminate it, along with another Gay-friendly imprint, Thunder's Mouth. Both were a part of Avalon Publishing, which was sold a few months ago to Perseus Books. The elimination of his line of books came as a surprise to Weise, who in the past three years has published work written or edited by Noel Alumit, Cheryl Clarke, Leslie Feinberg, Kate Clinton, Michael Musto, John Rechy, Michelle Tea, E. Lynn Harris, Aiden Shaw, and Michelangelo Signorile. Books released this spring include Samuel R. Delany's novel, Dark Reflections; Felice Picano's memoir, Art & Sex in Greenwich Village; Edmund White's novella and short story collection, Chaos; and Sarah Schulman's novel, The Child. Gay titles in the pipeline include a second novel from Blair Mastbaum, author of Clay's Way, and a collection by Queer writers under 30, edited by Mastbaum and Will Fabro. A bit of good news: Seal Press - the one-time independent Lesbian/feminist press acquired by Avalon several years ago - was spared, with publisher Krista Lyons-Gold still in charge. "What really shocked me was the press release explaining the decision to kill C&G as being due to the imprint's lack of a clear identity," said novelist Dennis Cooper, whose book The Sluts, a Carroll & Graf title, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award for Gay fiction. "Uh, being the only large mainstream publishing house whose concentration is on putting out Gay and Lesbian books, and frequently high quality ones at that, doesn't constitute a specific identity?"
Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about Queer literature since the mid-'70s. He can be reached in care of this publication or at BookMarks@qsyndicate.com.