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Richard Labonte | September 11, 2006

Jokes and the Unconscious: A Graphic Novel, by Daphne Gottlieb and Diane DiMassa. Cleis Press, 120 pages, $17.95 paper.

The words in this graphic novel are by performance poet Gottlieb, and they're fierce and funny. The art is by Hothead Paisan comic creator DiMassa, and it's vivid and witty. The story, in which prose is perfectly partnered by image, is about 19-year-old Sasha, freaked by the cancer death of her father, and how she deals with her crushing – and, in the sort of angry fiction where daughters don't always dote on their daddies, unexpectedly moving – grief. The collaboration is as giddily surreal as it is artistically seamless – for example, young Sasha copes partially with her emotional trauma by working in the hospital where her father was both doctor and patient. Familial bereavement, sexual abuse, romantic longing, flirtations and friendships with boys, and the knee-knocking angst of queer love for girls all figure into the story's mix, a common stew for coming-of-age fiction. And, as befits the title, there are indeed some truly terrible stress-releasing jokes sprinkled throughout – a homage, certainly, to Sigmund Freud's theory that comic relief mediates discomfort.



Tale of Two Summers, by Brian Sloan. Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $15.95 paper.

Sloan has fun inverting stereotypes in his second young-adult novel, after the hilarious A Really Nice Prom Mess. Chuck, a 15-year-old supremely comfortable in his hetero (though adolescently horny) skin, is a major fan of Broadway musicals who is rooming at summer theater school, with admirable tolerance, with a campy queer boy. His best friend since kindergarten, Hal, almost 16, is a snarky, asocial fag without a scintilla of fashion sense, bored back home in suburbia while studying driver's ed. The buds stay in touch through entries in a near-daily blog, a device that seems somewhat clunky when instant messaging would be so much more immediate – though the correspondence, often as lengthy as old-fashioned letters, adds dimension to the two boys' emotional and sexual adventures. By summer's end, Chuck has found a girl he can more than cuddle with, Hal has been a lot more sexual (with a juicily uninhibited French boy) than most high school libraries are likely to allow – and Sloan has written yet another YA novel with more flair and imagination than most.



Butterfly Boy: Memoirs of a Chicano Mariposa, by Rigoberto Gonzalez. University of Wisconsin Press, 210 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

Gonzalez was a chubby, sissy, Chicano son of illiterate, itinerant migrant farm workers. His mother died when he was 12, and his father was at best an occasional presence through his teenage years. Against the odds, he matured into a Guggenheim-winning novelist, poet, and professor, happy in his homosexuality. That's the uncompromising story recounted here with breathtaking candor. Gonzalez doesn't shrink from describing the privation, and the emotional and occasionally physical abuse, that he endured as a boy – though he also recalls with reverence the extended family of grandparents and aunts who helped raise him. Nor does he shy away from describing the emotional eruptions, alcoholic beatings, and cigarette burns he came to expect – even to desire – from his first college lover, an older man; it was a pattern Gonzalez equated with furtive sexual experiences that started before he was 10. An innate love as a boy for reading and as a young man for writing were the author's ticket out of a hardscrabble life – as this galvanizing memoir aptly details.



Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson, by Elizabeth Adams. Soft Skull Press, 308 pages, $14.95 paper.

The story of how an obscure Episcopalian cleric from New Hampshire became the first openly gay bishop in Christendom – and the religious furor that ensued – has heretofore been told mostly through disconnected news stories and slanted, shrill homophobic reaction. Hallelujah: this two-pronged biography adds substantial flesh to the spirit of Bishop Gene Robinson's ascendancy. The "life" section of the bio is brief but thorough enough: Robinson experienced a gentle Kentucky upbringing, was called to the priesthood quite naturally, and excelled in his early parish experiences. Going to Heaven excels in its details of the circumstances surrounding Robinson's election as bishop; Adams was an eyewitness participant to many of the church committee meetings that led to his ordination, and interviewed almost every Episcopal principal, pro and con, who weighed in on the electoral process. The wealth of detail may overwhelm lay readers, but anyone with an interest in how an open church conducts even its most controversial affairs will find this book a blessing.



Featured Excerpt:
Suddenly she rolls on top of me, kissing me, crying, and I hold her and I won't stop. We wake up in the morning, she's still on top of me and both our eyes are swollen from crying. It'll take us both years to figure out that we weren't queer because of abuse or molestation. Someday, though, we'll know it. And one of us, maybe both of us, will have it whisper through her skull, in a hot-eyed, angry morning far away, They didn't win. They didn't win. I like girls because...I like girls. And we win. We win. –from Jokes and the Unconscious, by Daphne Gottlieb and Diane DiMassa



Footnotes:
BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR by (and about) venerable homosexuals: "Clouds and Eclipses," a long-lost story by novelist and polemicist Gore Vidal, based on the childhood of his friend Tennessee Williams, appears in print for the first time in Clouds and Eclipses, coming this month from Carroll & Graf; seven other stories in the collection first appeared in A Thirsty Evil, a 1956 volume most recently published by Gay Sunshine Press 20 years ago...
Also available this month from Carroll & Graf: the paper edition of Edward Albee's Stretching My Mind, collecting five decades of the author's essays and interviews, including selections drawn from Albee's recent private papers...
The sixth in composer and diarist Ned Rorem's series of chatty, catty, tell-all diaries continues with the paper edition of Facing the Night: A Diary (1999-2005) and Musical Writings, coming from Shoemaker & Hoard in December...
And to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Allen Ginsbergļæ½s Howl, City Lights Publishers is releasing Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, edited by Bill Morgan and chronicling the story of editing, publishing, and defending the landmark poem; the November title includes excerpts from the trial that tried to censor the book, and letters by Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and others discussing obscenity.

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


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