by Michael Upchurch -
Special to the SGN
What Happens at Night
by Peter Cameron
Catapult, 299 pp., $26
A Saint from Texas
by Edmund White
Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $26
Does gay subject matter have to be front and center in a novel for it to qualify as gay fiction?
New novels by gay writers Peter Cameron and Edmund White suggest that a homoerotic sensibility can slip in through the side entrances of seemingly hetero narratives. In Cameron's case, the central story concerns a straight couple from New York trying to adopt a child in troubling circumstances. In White's, the divergent paths of twin Texan sisters - one a Catholic nun in Colombia, the other a social climber marrying her way into highest ranks of Parisian society - provide the parallel narrative strands of the novel.
Cameron's What Happens at Night, as its title suggests, is a shadowy affair set in a "frozen little city" in a fictional country located somewhere in the vicinity of Finland and Russia. The time is midwinter. The sun, scarcely rising above the horizon, sheds light for only an hour or two each day. But inside the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel, where the couple are staying, a paranoia-inducing hothouse atmosphere flourishes.
It's here that "the man" (he's never named) and his cancer-stricken wife (also nameless) are making one last desperate attempt to become parents. Nothing goes according to plan, however. Various hotel guests are certain they know what the couple needs better than the couple themselves. Bizarre rules of etiquette and acts of deliberate misdirection keep throwing them off their intended path. The couple's efforts to connect with the local orphanage lead them into the embrace of a local healer, Brother Emmanuel. In this strange place and in this strange company, this couple - already on the ropes - become totally unmoored.
Cameron's descriptions of his baroque setting have a certain drag extravagance. The hotel's reception desk is a "high wooden counter, on which perched two huge bronze gryphons, each holding a stained-glass iron lantern in its beak," while in the hotel dining room the walls are covered in "frescoed triptychs illustrating scenes from what appeared to be a belligerent mythology." The orphanage and Brother Emmanuel's spiritual headquarters are, in their own way, just as outlandish.
The intrusive manner of the hotel's guests is unsettling as well. Elderly actress Livia Pinheiro-Rima - who claims, preposterously, to have danced with Isadora Duncan - carries herself with an addled grandeur and is full of startling opinions. "I've never believed in God," she declares, "because I think men's and women's anatomy is all wrong."
Another key figure is a pushy Dutch businessman who insists that he and the man had a more-than-casual acquaintance in the past. "You were good. Very, very fine," the Dutchman says fondly. "We enjoyed each other, didn't we?"
Cameron's bewildered protagonist remembers nothing of this. It perhaps doesn't help that his encounters with these oddballs are fueled by swigs of lichen-flavored schnapps, a local specialty "tinged with the silvery blue glow that snow reflects at twilight."
Humor, threat and dreamlike complications all pile up until What Happens at Night takes you utterly out of this world. Cameron lured readers into similar terrain in his 1997 masterpiece Andorra, in which the landlocked country mysteriously acquired a Mediterranean coastline. In Night, Cameron's chilly, fanciful setting serves as a latticework around which all sorts of uncertainties accrue - sexual, spiritual, medical, logistical - and identities exist only to be shattered.
At the same time, Cameron's arch dialogue infuses this crepuscular tale with a note of screwball comedy. The man, defending his marriage to the imperious Livia Pinheiro-Rima, insists that he and his wife have "always been honest with each other."
Her reply: "That sounds rather dreary."
Ominous and beguiling in equal measure, What Happens at Night delivers a nightmare you may want to savor more than once.
White's A Saint from Texas is, by contrast, an out-and-out romp. It takes place in a world more recognizable than Cameron's, although in locales to which most readers won't have had access: oil-rich Texas, rural Colombia, the dizzying heights of Parisian society.
Yvette and Yvonne - pronounced "Why-Vet" and "Why-Von" - are identical twins with a deep psychic connection but utterly different characters. Yvette is a bookworm and do-gooder with a budding religious vocation. Yvonne, the book's narrator, is a more typical teenager who just wants to "dance and make out and smoke every afternoon."
Their crude but wealthy father, recently widowed (and almost as recently remarried), dotes on his daughters - in Yvette's case, a little too intimately. His new wife, Bobbie Jean, has social ambitions for the whole family and soon moves them to a fancy neighborhood in Dallas. There, as Yvonne's horizons expand, Yvette's religious ardor grows deeper.
The time is the 1950s. Casual racism is endemic. The seriocomic twists and turns of this family's life are seen in long retrospect by Yvonne after almost everyone involved is dead.
The idea of White (A Boy's Own Story, The Farewell Symphony) taking a turn as a Southern writer may come as a surprise to some of his devotees. But as readers of his nonfiction know, his Texas connection dates to his boyhood. Both his parents were Texans, and he visited the state periodically while growing up.
He captures the twins' nouveau riche milieu with wicked wit and accuracy. But he doesn't linger there for long. Yvonne heads to Paris as soon as she can, determined to marry into the aristocracy. She has no trouble pulling that off, though it doesn't lead to the happiness she expected. Yvette, in the meantime, performs a "miracle," enters a convent, and is soon doing good works in the wilds of Colombia.
The novel's irony stems from how the sisters' have so much in common despite their stark differences of personality and behavior. Yvette's faith has a sensual-ecstatic side to it, while Yvonne's social climbing is so intense it's almost incandescent.
More surprisingly, both women have a covert appetite for the ladies.
"Who," Yvonne wonders, "wanted a man, with their rough beards, their big, awkward hands, the charcoal squiggles on their chests, the barbed wire encasing their legs like fishing waders, their big yellow feet with dirty blue nails, the hair on their backs, their nipples like dried currants, those absurd penises that were always poking their wet, dripping noses in everyone's business, their leathery ball sacs carrying unevenly hung balls like back-up ammunition, spare cannon fodder?"
This, of course, is pretty rich coming from the co-author of "The Joy of Gay Sex."
By the time it's over, A Saint from Texas is more recognizably White-like as it touches on adultery, voyeurism, menages à trois, S&M, child molestation and other transgressive antics. The pell-mell pace of the novel sometimes feels slapdash, but the action is always lively.
White's writing is spiced with zingers, even when addressing something as seemingly solemn as the logistics of beatification. "[T]o be named a saint, it's like anything else," Yvonne informs Yvette, "you need people with money and influence lobbying for you at the Vatican."
The connecting threads of the book are the sisters' unquestioning devotion to each other and their uncertain forging of their own identities. As Yvonne puts it, "I still didn't understand this inconvenient stranger I was yoked to: myself." Yvette, after performing her second miracle, can't help exclaiming, "I feel like a total fraud!"
It's a tall order, but by the time A Saint from Texas hits its final stretch, White has convinced you that his passionate devotee to God and his amoral Parisian sensualist are just "two very different sides of the same coin."
That's a delectable feat.