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Richard Labonte | May 22, 2006

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin, 240 pages, $19.95 hardcover.

When he was 44, Bruce Bechdel probably committed suicide by stepping in front of a speeding truck. The emotionally distant father of three was a high school teacher with a penchant for buying beer for teenage boys and hiring them to help around his meticulously restored home – a secretive homosexual persona that got him into trouble with the law. This gripping memoir by the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For is as much the story of Bruce's bifurcated life as it is that of the upbringing of his daughter, Alison, who came out just before her dad's death. Bechdel's tale – the searing but dignified story of a family where truth was an elusive commodity – is by no means relentlessly bleak: she and her two brothers, and even her mother, shared good times in the small town where they lived. But the focus on family dysfunction gives this intensely revealing graphic narrative unsettling emotional heft; its impeccable balance between the tragic and the comic transforms an unhappy story into a generously entertaining read.



Alternatives to Sex, by Stephen McCauley. Simon & Schuster, 292 pages, $24 hardcover.

William Collins is a single gay man in his 40s, with a fretful history of foundered short-term relationships. Ever since the trauma of 9/11, the Boston resident has been bingeing nightly on impersonal sex solicited over the Internet. His other addiction: compulsively cleaning his home. He fetishizes his overpriced iron – he even presses his tenant's laundry, though she hasn't paid rent in months. He denies his romantic feelings for Edward – a flight attendant himself traumatized by the airplane hijackings – out of worry that sex will end their friendship. And his Realtor sales are slipping. In short, life's a mess for this flawed but likable fellow. McCauley's winsome fifth novel buzzes with entertaining secondary characters, including a wealthy straight couple with marital woes who hope that buying a new home will solve their personal problems, and a hard-charging female former Marine who's heavily into inspirational cant. But it's the author's affable and perceptive take on a flawed gay man's many neuroses that imbue this smart novel with a wicked edge.



Blood Sisters: A Novel of an Epic Friendship, by Mary Jacobsen. Alice Street Editions, 292 pages, $19.95 paper.

Val is emotionally bumptious, sexually voracious, and intellectually undisciplined. And lesbian. Emily is emotionally circumspect, sexually controlled, and intellectually rigorous. And straight. They meet in college, where both acknowledge Val's physical longing for Emily, but loving friendship transcends physical lust. By 1973, Val has drifted into working for a gay cousin and his lover, who own a bed and breakfast in Provincetown; Emily ends up in Buffalo, pursuing her goal of social work. For two decades they meet sporadically, carry on a mostly one-sided correspondence (Val to Emily), but are there for each other at times of need. The epistolary tale Jacobsen braids through their lives is deeply sensuous and profoundly wise, vastly entertaining and painfully real. Val's many lovers die or disappear, and AIDS kills her cousin and his lover; Emily's troubled family past haunts her life, and she never does find a man she can live with. Whatever else is happening in their lives, though, their resilient friendship binds them across time and over distance – and eventually, in a perfect ending to a special novel, brings them together again.



Inside Out: Straight Talk from a Gay Jock, by Mark Tewksbury. John Wiley & Sons, 262 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

Olympic gold swimmer Tewksbury giggled like a girl, played dress-up with an aunt, and snuck away for forbidden trysts with his sister's Barbie – the very definition of a nascent fag. But he was well into his 20s before accepting his sexuality, an odyssey depicted with agonized honesty in this heartfelt but pedestrian-prose memoir. Why the delayed coming-out? He was raised in Canada's most conservative province, Alberta; he was a fiercely competitive athlete in a macho environment; and after his 1992 Barcelona medal triumph, he became a player in the homophobic world of Olympic politics. Discretion was ingrained – until the need for passion in his personal life overwhelmed the straight image projected in his public life. Beyond the coming-out account, Tewksbury's memoir includes a pointed indictment of the Olympic movement's hypocrisy around homosexuality. And in something of a payback, the book ends with a bitter and bewildered insider's account (he spearheaded Montreal's bid for the 2006 Gay Games) of the shenanigans and petty personality conflicts that led to competing athletic gatherings this July – the "official" Gay Games in Chicago and Outgames in Montreal. His justified bitchiness adds juicy brio to this bio.



Featured Excerpt:
I was only caught with Barbie once more. I was taking a bath and in came Dad through the door, so I had a split second to hide Barbie. I shoved her as far under my butt and between my locked legs as possible. My dad sat on the toilet, beer in hand, and decided it was time to have a little heart-to-heart. I was 12. As I listened to him I could feel the bubbles collecting under my legs. I was doing everything in my power not to budge, but in spite of my efforts my legs slipped on the porcelain tub – and up popped Barbie. That time, I escaped a physical beating. –from Inside Out, by Mark Tewksbury



Footnotes:
BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Fans of gay male porn will have to turn off their DVD players in order to savor Corey Taylor's Naked: The Life and Pornography of Michael Lucas, a biography of the gay erotic performer, adult-film director, and porn entrepreneur extraordinaire, coming from Kensington Books next year...
BUT THEY'LL HAVE to turn on their computers to get the most out of Jack Mauro's M4M: The Gay Man's Guide to Love, Lust and "Just Hanging Out" Online, a how-to tome about achieving effective cybersex, forthcoming from Simon Spotlight Entertainment...
ALYSON BOOKS has picked up Mahu Surfer, the sequel to Neil Placky's debut mystery, Mahu, published this year by Southern Tier Editions; in the second book, scheduled for 2007, a disgraced Honolulu homicide detective investigates the messy murders of three cute surfers while continuing to deal with his coming-out anguish...
BEACON PRESS SALUTES queer weddings in Courting Equality: Photographs from the Same-Sex Marriage Frontlines, with photographs by Marilyn Humphries and text by Karen Kahn and Patricia Gozemba, documenting the personal, political, and legal battle for same-sex marriage rights.

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


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