Richard Labonte | December 18, 2006
It's a good year for queer readers when books by the likes of Christopher Bram, Edmund White, Norah Vincent, Leslie Feinberg, Cheryl Clarke, Stephen McCauley, and Andrew Holleran are crowded out of the Book Marks Top 10 lists. Impressive debut work from a new generation of skilled writers – including Wayne Hoffman, Patrick Ryan, Robert Marshall, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Ivan E. Coyote, and Mary Jacobsen – also didn't make the cut. My subjective bests follow (in order of author's last name) – but there are certainly many other fine books out there than these 20.
Top 10 Fiction Titles, 2006:
The Last Time I Saw You, by Rebecca Brown (City Lights, $12.95 paper).
Love doesn't come easy for the lesbians in these standout stories. Brown writes with spare, unsentimental – yet emotionally lush – prose about the secrets people keep from one another.
Winkie, by Clifford Chase (Grove Atlantic, $16.95 hardcover).
A boy named Clifford loved his teddy bear, Winkie. When the boy grew up, Winkie sat lonely on a shelf – until he escaped, experienced his first poo (a poetic excretory account), and was arrested for terrorist acts. Chase's novel is an absurdist allegory skewering the over-reaching Patriot Act and fundamentalist paranoia about everything sexual.
A Scarecrow's Bible, by Martin Hyatt (Suspect Thoughts Press, $16.95 paper).
When wounded souls connect, the miracle can be explosive, as in this rapturous debut novel, a tragic love story set in the working-class Deep South. The romance between a closeted older man who's not sure he's queer and a flamboyant younger man forever on the edge of flaming out is doomed, desperate, and lyrical.
My Lucky Star, by Joe Keenan (Little, Brown, $24.95 hardcover).
Keenan, author of Blue Heaven and Putting on the Ritz, relocates his hapless trio from New York to Hollywood, where unctuous Gilbert passes off a barely doctored Casablanca script as original work co-written with nice-guy Philip; long-suffering gal pal Claire is suckered into the scheme. The result: a laugh-out-loud masterpiece.
Sweet Creek, by Lee Lynch (Bold Strokes Books, $15.95 paper).
There's a heady sense of '60s communal idealism and '70s woman-power feminism to this spirited novel, set in contemporary rural Oregon, where lesbians Donny (African-American and blue-collar) and Chick (plus-sized and motherly) run the dyke-centric Natural Woman Foods store, a homey nexus for a slew of quirky townspeople.
The Good Neighbor, by Jay Quinn (Alyson Books, $24.95 hardcover).
Quinn invests his novel about suburban over-the-fence sexual trysts and fragile friendships with a nuance that gives it complex emotional texture – and a deep intelligence about how couples can love each other while dealing with imbalance in their lives. This is the good gay novel about suburbia that John Updike won't ever write.
Now is the Hour, by Tom Spanbauer (Houghton Mifflin, $26 hardcover).
It's 1967, and eternally tumescent 17-year-old Rigby John Klusener is hitchhiking to San Francisco, leaving behind an oppressively religious mother, a bigoted father, and the first man he's ever loved. This alluring story about masturbation, mysticism, and the mystery of life is enchanting.
Rose of No Man's Land, by Michelle Tea (MacAdam/Cage, $22 hardcover).
Fourteen-year-old Trisha is an ennui-embracing loner saddled with a woebegone welfare mother and an annoyingly perky sister. Then she hooks up with manic misfit Rose – and before next day's dawn, Trisha has snorted her first speed, evaded a pedophile's lust, and figured out she's a lesbian. Tea recounts her hero's wild ride with gritty wit.
The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters (Riverhead, $24.95 hardcover).
Waters' forte is engrossing historical fiction, and she's in top form here. The novel opens in 1947, in World War II's aftermath, shifts back to 1944, when London life was at its most bleak, and then to 1941, during the German Blitz, as Waters knits overlapping lives together with panache.
What I Did Wrong, by John Weir (Viking Press, $23.95 hardcover).
Tom teaches English to cocky Bronx street toughs while mourning his long-dead friend Zack – an in-your-face ACT UP-era faggot. At 42, he's doing his best to let go of the past – by falling in love with a straight student who's emotionally but not physically accommodating. The first generation of "AIDS novels," which Weir's debut (The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Sockett) helped define two decades ago, was defiant about death. This one is about deciding to live again.
Top 10 Nonfiction Titles, 2006:
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95 hardcover).
When he was 44, high school teacher and funeral home operator Bruce Bechdel committed suicide, after his penchant for buying beer for teenage boys got him into trouble. This gripping graphic memoir, by the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For, is impeccably balanced between the tragic and the comic, a feat that transforms an unhappy story into a generously entertaining read.
The Romanian: Story of an Obsession, by Bruce Benderson (Tarcher Books, $16.95 paper).
When it comes to full disclosure, Benderson's searing account of his obsession for a 24-year-old Romanian hustler sets breathtaking new standards. The sex during their nine-month affair was usually unsafe, and, for the author, never enough: he wanted the young man's spirit as much as he wanted his ass – but never captured it.
The Bill from My Father, by Bernard Cooper (Simon & Schuster, $24 hardcover).
Cooper's cantankerous father, who died in 2000, figures prominently in the author's three previous books. So it's remarkable that this one – the title comes from an invoice for $2 million that a piqued Edward Cooper once sent his puzzled son – is such a fresh dissection of the chasm separating an aloof, often baffling father from his frustrated but loving gay son.
Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons (Basic Books, $29.95 hardcover).
This seamless queer collaboration between Faderman, an academic, and Timmons, the biographer of Mattachine founder Harry Hay, makes the case for Los Angeles as the true pioneer city of American gay liberation. Historians may quibble, but this portrait of a city and its queers is a first-rank achievement of illuminating scholarship and entertaining writing.
Butterfly Boy: Memoirs of a Chicano Mariposa, by Rigoberto Gonzalez (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95 hardcover).
Gonzalez was the chubby Chicano son of illiterate migrant farm workers, whose mother died when he was 12 and whose father was often absent. He matured into a Guggenheim-winning queer, and his story of abuse and recovery is recounted with breathtaking candor. An innate love for reading was the author's ticket out of a homophobic, dead-end life.
Speeding: The Old Reliable Photos of David Hurles, text and design by Rex (Green Candy Press, $36.95 hardcover).
For four decades, gays seeking an underclass kind of titillation relied on Old Reliable. The one-man, L.A.-based porn factory produced hundreds of rough-trade films and videos, and more than 25,000 photos, an archive culled by San Francisco artist Rex for this mesmerizing collection of artifice-free, artfully erotic artifacts.
Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son, by Kevin Jennings (Beacon Press, $24.95 hardcover}.
There are pages in this memoir that will make readers cry. Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, grew up the sissy son of an itinerant Baptist preacher and a woman with a sixth-grade education. Smart enough to earn a Harvard scholarship, he de-closeted himself while teaching defiantly open students, an experience that led to formation of the first Gay-Straight Alliance in 1991.
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, $9.95 paper).
Any collection of essays by under-24s exploring queer identity is inevitably filled with IM hook-ups and e-mail love letters: theirs is a generation suckled by bytes. Nonetheless, the collection's 40 coming-out tales contain riffs familiar to anyone who ever struggled with self-identity. And there isn't a single clunker: these are precocious authors.
I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, by Bill Morgan (Viking Press, $29.95 hardcover).
This detailed biography of the gayest poet who ever howled draws extensively on Ginsberg's private journals – the author was Ginsberg's archivist. Morgan's illuminating study presents a fully dimensional portrait of a defiantly political, intensely spiritual, voraciously sexual, deeply flawed, and essentially human poet and man.
Exile in Guyville: How a Punk Rock Redneck Faggot Texan Moved to West Hollywood and Refused to Be Shiny and Happy, by Dave White (Alyson Books, $13.95 paper).
David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Augusten Burroughs: queer and witty. Dave White: queer and fall-to-the-floor-gasping-for-breath hilarious. This collection of caustic observations on West Hollywood life – which grew out of White's blog about movies, music, pancakes, and his friends – has more smart things to say about gay life than a shelf full of theory texts.
British novelist Sarah Waters is lauded as a "literary lioness" in the December issue of Out, while serial memoirist Augusten Burroughs merits the headline "memory man" – two of a dozen bookish types in "The Out 100," the magazine's annual list of queer and queer-friendly achievers. The selection features elder homo Gore Vidal, for a body of work that includes a second volume of his memoirs, Point to Point Navigation; Joe Keenan, for his hilarious third novel, My Lucky Star; cartoonist Alison Bechdel, for her memoir, Fun Home; book designer Chip Kidd, for the retrospective of his cover-design work, Chip Kidd: Book One: Work: 1986-2006; and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, for his memoir of drag life and drugs in the '90s, I Am Not Myself These Days. Others feted: T. Cooper, for her novel Lipshitz, Or Two Angry Blondes; Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the gay identity memoir, The Elusive Embrace, and The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, about Holocaust survivors; A.M. Homes, an executive producer for _The L Word_, with two gay-interest novels to her credit, Jack and This Book Will Save Your Life; and blogger Keith Boykin, author of Beyond the Down Low. Australian novelist Alasdair Duncan, 24, is the wunderkind of the list: his first novel – published three years ago as Sushi Central in his homeland and as Dance, Recover, Repeat in the United States – was hailed as the voice of Australian gay youth; his second, Metro, was just published in Australia.
Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s.