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18 March 2008, 2:35 pm 11 Comments

Books: Gay Fiction Pride!

A couple months ago, Ben posted “Gay Fiction Shame?” which summarized one author’s unflattering opinion of contemporary gay fiction and ended by asking readers if they had any recommendations for homo writing that doesn’t blow. Sorry this took me so long, but there are at least a couple books (and one graphic novel) that are worth checking out.

Between graduating from college and starting this blog, I thought it would be fun to take a self guided tour through the gay canon. Its far from comprehensive, and is entirely subjective to my own taste, but each of these books had some kind of effect on me. I can’t promise you’ll like all (or any) of them, but they’ll give you something to think about.

(I’ll also admit that these books skew toward the male perspective. Amy, Jenny— feel free to write a response on lesbian fiction that doesn’t suck when you have some time. Zami, Passing, The Corrections and Mrs. Dalloway come to mind, but you’d know better than I would.)

Full list in alphabetical order below the fold:

1.Curbside Boys, Robert Kirby: This is actually a graphic novel, but it’s thankfully different from the porn/soap opera mix that categorizes so many gay comics. Drew is a nerdy alterna-kid who falls in love with Nathan, his hot, ditzy new roommate. I began reading this book in a gay bookstore in Chicago and actually finished it on the premises. It now occupies a spot of honor in my bathroom, and I’ve added prunes and fiber to my diet so I have more opportunities to read it. I can relate to Curbside’s characters more than any other’s on this list, and I think a lot of our readers will too. My fandom is so thorough that I actually asked Kirby to contribute some new strips to TNG. Look for them soon. (2002)

2. Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran: People really love this book, but I don’t think all that amazing. It’s beautifully written but not all that much happens in the story of Malone, a “boohoo I’m beautiful” gay man who risks it all for love and sex, and Sullivan, the over-the-top old queen who introduces him to gay life in the ’70s. “Dancer” could also be called “The Gay Gatsby” for the number of allusions it makes to Fitzgerald’s most popular novel, most notably its main character’s obsession with recreating a past that is entirely gone. (1978) [Note: It took me a while to realize this, but "Great Gatsby" is pretty damn gay too. Reread Nick Carroway's encounter with the man he meets after Tom breaks Muriel's nose and you'll see him in a whole new light.]

3. Death in Venice, Thomas Mann: The Publishing Triangle put this at the top of their 100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels list, and with good reason. Gustav Van Aschenbach is an elderly German writer who sees his overly mannered life begin to unravel when he takes a vacation to Italy and falls in love with a beautiful teenage boy. This book says a lot in under 100 pages and includes many references to Greek mythology, which are a sure-fire way to my heart

4. Faggots, Larry Kramer: Fred Lemish turns 40 in three days, and is pulling out all the stops in search of “true love.” Problem is, its New York City in the late ’70s and, what with everyone fucking everyone else all day and night, who can find love? “Faggots” follows a pantheon of memorably-named characters (Randy Dildough, Dinky Adams, et al) from NYC to Fire Island and gives a pretty in-depth look at gay sexual politics. It’s a comedy, but given the AIDS explosion that happened soon after this book was set, it raises a lot of questions about sexual hedonism and gay self-segregation that are still relevant today. And I hate to say it, but the sex scenes are pretty hot. (If that doesn’t get you reading, nothing will.) (1978)

5. A Home at the End of the World, Michael Cunningham. The Hours gets more love, but I prefer this one. Jonathan and Bobby are childhood friends (and awkward adolescent experimenters) who reunite in New York in the ’80s. Bobby’s sad childhood leaves him open to the renewed affections of Jonathan and the more viable advances of Clare, Jonathan’s roommate. When Clare becomes pregnant, the three move to upstate New York to try their hand at an unstable, nontraditional household. If you’re really lazy there is a great movie version of this book, but its nowhere near as vivid as Cunningham’s actual writing. (1990)

6. The Lost Language of Cranes, David Leavitt: Leavitt’s “Territory” was one of the first works published in the New Yorker to deal openly and realistically with gay life, (and his ” A Place I’ve Never Been” is a pretty perfect short story too,) but those looking for something more substantial can check out “Cranes.” It focuses primarily on three characters: Owen, a married man who has spent every Sunday of his married life at gay movie theaters; Owen’s wife Rose, who is be
ginning to catch on that he has secrets; and their 25 year-old son Philip, whose first serious relationship with a man has given him the courage to come out to them both. (1986)

7. Martin and John, Dale Peck: This book blew me away, and I do not use that term lightly. The first sentence, “This is not the worst thing I remember” sets up one of the most horrifying tableaux I have ever read in a novel and the rest of the book grips just as tightly. The book’s actual plot — young man escapes abusive midwestern father, falls in love, lover catches AIDS, they both move back to Kansas— is revealed only in short, italicized sections that alternate with “story within the story” pieces that feature a variety of characters named Martin and John in situations that fill in the gaps. I don’t know how to say this without sounding cliche, but this book is unusually beautiful, sad and disturbing. It can take a bit to get into, but is so worth it. (1992)

8. The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories: This is a great jumping off point, and the reason I got so interested in gay fiction in the first place. Highlights include the aforementioned “A Place I’ve Never Been” and Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands.”And anyone who has ever even considered bare-backing with a stranger should read Alan Barnett’s “The Times As It Knows Us,” a depiction of of AIDS in the ’80s that does not make the disease sound minor or treatable. (1995)

9. Troll: A love story, Johana Sinasalo: The most unusual book on this list, and a decent companion piece to “Death in Venice,” “Troll” exists in a modern-day Finland where the titular creatures aren’t mythical, but rather an elusive endangered species that are being pushed into cities by urban expansion. Gay photographer Angel takes in a troll cub that he finds in the alley behind his apartment building (an illegal act, as trolls are a protected species) and finds that its presence leaves him unable to control his base urges. Angel’s story is cut with sections from the perspective of several other main characters, and encyclopedic entries on trolls. I think something was lost in “Troll’s” translation from Finnish to English, but you should still read it. And if you read it, please let me know. I would love to talk to someone about what the hell this book is all about. (2004)

So there you have it, a list of books that won’t make you embarrassed to be gay. If you think I’ve left something out, or just want to comment on what I put in, feel free to write a comment, send me an email or leave a flaming paper bag of troll poop at my front door.

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  • Ms. Cavanaugh said:

    Thomas Mann makes me cream my pants. His books, especially “The Magic Mountain,” are delicious.

    And I went to Publishing Triangle’s list. “Little Women”? “To Kill a Mockingbird”? “The Turn of the Screw”? Did I not read these books closely enough?

  • Michael said:

    My favorite name from Faggots was “Yootha Truth”.

  • John@BrightestYoungThings.com said:

    This is a really enjoyable post.

    I clicked on your link for the “Kyle’s Bed & Breakfast” comic. The picture on its splash page made me wonder. Can the author eventually REMOVE stupid-ass tattoos from a character because he has the ability to edit it? Or, is he committed to keeping those awful tats permanent, just like in real life? Just wondering.

  • dentist said:

    re: lesbian fiction- It has been a while since I read it but one of the most gut-wrenching books assigned in the Gay and Lesbian Literature course I took in college was Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.

  • Rebecca said:

    Seems to me that lots of books I pick up these days have queer characters. I picked up the Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery because I heard such good things about it and it turned out the main character is a lesbian. Who knew? There are others, I just can’t think of them now.

    Absolutely anything by: T Cooper, Cherie Moraga, Michelle Tea, Felicia Luna Lemus, Octavia Butler, Jeanette Winterson, Eileen Myles, Carson McCullers.

  • Daniel said:

    I would def have to add Confessions Of A Failed Southern Lady by Florence King to that list.

    “No matter which sex I went to bed with, I never smoked on the street.”

  • Alex said:

    Firstly, Damn you!! You’ve made me want to read Troll: A Love Story now but I can’t find it anywhere in UK shops at a sensible price. I’ll keep looking though.

    Secondly, a few books from my library which have gone unmentioned:

    Possibly a little trashy, but I do enjoy Christopher Rice’s novels The Snow Garden and A Density of Souls.

    More literary, At Swim, Two Boys (Jamie O’Neill) is an excellent book. Set in Ireland around the easter uprising (which I knew nothing about really so don’t worry if you don’t) it tells the story of two boys and the love between them. I found I had to read it in large chunks because I had to slip into understanding the dialect the characters were speaking, which I couldn’t do in shorter sittings. Other than that, a really good book I’ve now given myself a prompt to re-read.

    Gents Warwick Collins is interesting. Set in a gents loo which is used as a cottage and the various pressures the attendants come under. Can be an amusing read and very quick.

    Then there’s the plays – are you counting them as fiction?

    x x

  • Jon said:

    “Call Me by Your Name” by Andre Aciman is also pretty good.

  • Kevin said:

    There must have been something lost in translation for Troll because I found it to be pretty unflattering towards its protagonist. The feelings had towards the troll are bestial in nature and even if the argument were made that the troll is very humanlike in appearance and though processes it would then be considered pedophilia.

    I did however find the book engrossing, and finished it in two days so it is definatly a good read. I read somewhere that a director was going to make it into a movie has anyone else heard that?

  • HalWLanse said:

    There are very interesting works of gay fiction out there. I’ve made it my personal project to read and blog about these on ProudParenting.com. My hope is that gay people will grow more interested in reading gay-themed fiction. You can reach my blog through my website: http://www.readwellthinkwell.com. My most recent blog article is a review of a wonderful historical romance by Erastes: Transgressions.

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