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Richard Labonte | May 08, 2006

My Lives: An Autobiography, by Edmund White. Ecco Press, 368 pages, $25.95 hardcover.

After autobiographical fiction like A Boy's Own Story, The Farewell Symphony, and The Married Man, what more can renowned author White cull from his six decades of sexual and intellectual activity that's not already familiar? Plenty, all neatly categorized into "My" chapters that echo the fiction repeatedly while expanding on it with a marvelous lack of affectation. "My Shrinks" covers the very early years when the author considered seeking a cure for his queerness. Chapters on his ideal woman, on 15 years of life in Europe, and on his celebrity interviews are a reminder that – for a fellow whose sexual candor has always been unbridled – he's also a model of erudite civility. Aficionados of White's sexual experiences will relish "My Hustlers," which recounts unabashedly his penchant, even as a teenager, for savoring rough trade. In his early 20s he even turned a few tricks himself, partly to see if he could come across as an undereducated rent boy. He could. In this graceful memoir, he also comes across as an estimable man of gay – and American – letters.



French Postcards, by Jane Merchant. Spinsters Ink, 176 pages, $14.95 paper.

The lesbian component of this acid-tongued whisper of a novel is this: Elinor, an American woman living in France, is smitten near to swooning when she crosses paths most mornings with a stylish Frenchwoman, as they drop their children off at school. Their mutual attraction starts with a shared glance, moves on to awkward pleasantries in the schoolyard, progresses to coffeehouse tetes-a-tetes, comes to include kisses on both cheeks and lips, and culminates – not with sexual abandon but with tender regrets – as Elinor's husband is transferred back to America. This slim story about love unrisked is infused with sorrow – with tristesse, as it were – and the romance is bittersweet. But it plays out against often hilarious, sometimes savage depictions by Merchant of insulting American insularity, as other expatriate wives twitter and moan about the lack of good peanut butter, the shortcomings of French washing machines, and the haughtiness and bad hygiene of the French in general, much to Elinor's embarrassment and distress.



What I Did Wrong, by John Weir. Viking Press, 243 pages, $23.95 hardcover.

Almost 20 years: a long time to wait for a second novel from the author of The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, a haunted, hilarious book set at the height of AIDS horror. Great news: What I Did Wrong more than rewards patient fans of Weir's elegantly prismatic prose. AIDS figures prominently again in the plot, as narrator Tom, a teacher of English to cocky Bronx street toughs, mourns through flashbacks for his dead friend Zack – a brassy, ballsy, in-your-face faggot modeled in no small measure on the persona of the late, great bitch of a writer, David Feinberg. (Haven't read Feinberg? Look him up!) In the present, though, vulnerable Tom is doing his best, at 42, to let go of the wrenching, wretched past – by falling in love, unfortunately, with an unattainable straight student who is emotionally but not physically accommodating. The first generation of "AIDS novels," which Weir's debut helped define, was defiant about death. This one is about deciding, with some false starts, to live again.



The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities, edited by David Levithan and Billy Merrell. Knopf, 288 pages, $9.95 paper.

A collection of essays by under-24s exploring their queer identities is filled with IM hookups and e-mail love letters. No surprise: theirs is a generation suckled by bytes. Beyond that wrinkle, the coming-out tales told in this generous sampling of youthful thinking – 40 entries, including poems and a suite of photographs – come with riffs that will be familiar to anyone who ever struggled around self-identity, no matter their age: religious opprobrium, parental over-reaction, the enormity of first sex, the melodrama of first heartbreak. Levithan, an editor and author of young adult fiction, and Merrell, an acclaimed poet (an under-24 himself when he co-edited The Full Spectrum), haven't included a single clunker: these are precocious girls and boys. Three standouts in a stellar collection include Laci Lee Adams on how she can't not be Christian and queer, Christopher Wilcox on the pain of an abusive first boyfriend, and L. Canale's diary of the "day Dad found out." This anthology is cause for optimism about a queer future.



Featured Excerpt:
"Au revoir," she said and watched Beatrice turn and go. As much as she wished to, she did not call her back or go after her, or try to hold on to her, knowing that the memory of her would be her silent companion, keep her company in the lonely days that would certainly be a part of her life ahead. But maybe, she hoped, maybe when they had grown old and their children were raised and their husbands tired of them, Elinor would meet her in Paris, she thought, and held on to this wish as she left the house to pick up the children. –from French Postcards, by Jane Merchant



Footnotes:
Two of the queer community's most valued mentors – Tee Corinne and Patrick Califia – are confronting health crises without health insurance. Lesbian artist and teacher Corinne (The Cunt Coloring Book) is under hospice care after a diagnosis of bile-duct cancer, and has been given about six months to live – though as of mid-April, she was still teaching art students. Journalist Victoria Brownworth recently circulated an appeal: "Like many lesbians, Tee has limited health insurance and no savings. Artist Jean Sirius is currently caring for Tee at her home in the Oregon woods, but Tee needs more than the help of close and caring friends," Brownworth said. "Please send whatever you can, to POB 278, Wolf Creek, OR 97497; for more information: http://jeansirius.com." More recently, pioneering S/M author and practitioner Califia (Macho Sluts, Public Sex) suffered a heart attack April 12, but – with no insurance – was sent home by a San Francisco hospital after minimal treatment. "Patrick is home...feeling well enough to keep up his part-time therapy practice, and is enormously grateful for the outpouring of love and support. He's hoping to use the funds from folks to first pay the ambulance and then hospital bills," Califia's former partner, Matt Black, said. "He's trying to rest and recover, and deal with the enormity of attempting to get low-cost services from the county hospital – which is never easy, or quick." Donations to cover those costs can be sent to 2215-R Market Street, PMB #26, San Francisco, CA 94114.

Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s.


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