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Richard Labonte | July 02, 2007

Brian Howard: Portrait of a Failure, by Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster. Green Candy Press, 398 pages, $15 paper.

As this "portrait of a failure" makes clear, the man Evelyn Waugh once described as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" well deserved his lack of a literary reputation. Surviving mainly off money doled out by his mother, he lived for years as a stylish vagabond, camping out in the homes of friends across Europe. He yearned for a man to share his days with, but two long romances were fraught with trauma. When he got around to it, he penned some of the most dazzling literary criticism in British letters. But this life story – first published in 1968, written by a friend who met him in the 1940s – makes clear why he was dubbed one of Britain's Bright Young People. More a pastiche than a formal biography, the rich portrait includes snippets of his reviews, excerpts from his letters, and remembrances by dozens of friends and contemporaries who both adored his style and deplored his substance. He was flamboyantly queer decades before gay liberation, as this delectable remembrance attests.



Chaos: A Novella and Stories, by Edmund White. Carroll & Graf, 184 pages, $21.95 hardcover.

Art draws on life, as is White's wont, in this collection of one novella and three short stories. The title tale, good reading but not particularly rewarding, features a 66-year-old narrator, Jack, the author of 20 novels, who is HIV-positive and has lived in Paris for many years. Jack, meet Edmund. Jack distracts himself from his burdens – 50 extra pounds, not enough money – by seeking sex, relentlessly and almost compulsively, with any young man who will have him, primarily for pay (contributing to his financial woes), including a blond Mormon who becomes the closest thing Jack has to a steady beau. White's mordant observations on gay sex, queer literature, and a life in decline are clever and comic, but "Chaos" is ultimately an extended, melancholy riff on the agony of aging. The same theme runs through the other stories: in "Record Time," an elderly gent reflects on the music of his youth; in "Give It Up for Billy," a retired Princeton prof is smitten with a Key West go-go boy; and in "The Good Sport," a man well past his prime retreats into an opium daze.



Love, Castro Street: Reflections of San Francisco, edited by Katherine V. Forrest and Jim Van Buskirk, Alyson Books, 288 pages, $16.95 paper.

This top-notch collection of more than two dozen personal essays is a luscious love letter to the queerest of cities. Most contributors wax nostalgic: Carol Seajay on the birth of Old Wives Tales, one of the earliest feminist bookstores; Victor J. Banis on life as the manager of a decrepit apartment building and its queer denizens in the heart of pre-AIDS Castro; Lucy Jane Bledsoe on coming to SF in 1976; J. Allen Sawyer on his decades-long love affair with the famed Castro Theatre; and Jim Duggins, with an offbeat account of his stint working among the hard-core convicts of Alcatraz. There aren't a lot of contemporary accounts: Kirk Read's "Notes on the Castro" and K.M Soehnlein's "First Days" revel in the sexual freedom they encountered when they both arrived in the city, not so many years ago, and Helen Zia's "Where the Queer Zone Meets the Asian Zone" celebrates the short window of opportunity in 2004 when lesbians and gays could wed. Most out-of-left-field essay? Former mystery writer and schoolyard sissy Michael Nava's love affair with baseball.



Every Dark Desire, by Fiona Zedde. Kensington Books, 336 pages, $14 paper.

Brutal. Unrelenting. Lusty. Savage. This isn't a book for the queasy reader. Zedde takes the standard fare of vampirism – sucking blood, superhuman strength, eternal life, shunning the sun – and intensifies it multifold. Naomi is a loving Jamaican mother of an adorable child, until one night she surrenders to dark desire in a jasmine-scented garden. Oops. She's been bitten by the wrong love bug, and wakes up as Belle, under the compelling sway of Silvija, who for centuries has led her own pack of vampires. For most of the year the women (and some men) dwell in isolation in Alaska, where the sun hardly shines; that's where Belle learns how to live as an undead, controlling her urge to drain victims dry and indulging in an excess of carnal sensuality. There isn't a lot of plot to the book, but the intensely horrific imagery carries the story right along to a climactic last battle between the forces of light and the demons of darkness. It's a "yecch" of a read – and bloody hard to put down.



Featured excerpt:

Belle's eyes flinched from Silvija before coming back to rest on the bound beast. Barbed wire wrapped around her in sharp, vicious spikes from head to ankle like a cocoon, bleeding her in a thousand places. The wire had taken out one of her beautiful eyes. A piece of the curled barb lay flush against her eyeball, the sharp point disappearing into the cornea where it had ripped a jagged, weeping hole. Silvija's eye was trying, impossibly, to heal itself with the barb stuck inside it. She bled where she lay in the center of the room, eyes flashing defiance even though she looked like defeat itself. –from Every Dark Desire, by Fiona Zedde



Footnotes:

HONORS AND AWARDS: Nick Nolan's Strings Attached, about a poor-born 17-year-old thrust into posh society, was the Gold Medal winner for gay/lesbian fiction in ForeWord magazine's Book of the Year Awards, presented in June at Book Expo America in New York; Dave Benbow's Summer Cruising and Michael Perrone's A Time Before Me won silver and bronze. The nonfiction winner was Straight Into Gay America, by Lars Clausen; the runners-up were Gay Art: A Historic Collection by Thomas Waugh and Felix Lance Falkon, and Trans/forming Feminisms, edited by Krista Scott-Dixon. The Future is Queer, edited by Lawrence Schimel and Richard Labonte, won the silver medal in the (not specifically gay) science/fiction fantasy category...
CANADIAN NOVELIST, POET, and filmmaker Michael V. Smith is winner of the inaugural Dayne Ogilvie Memorial Grant, a $4,000 prize for emerging writers. The Vancouver writer's debut, Cumberland, about rural gay life, was nominated for the Books in Canada first novel award in 2002; he's also the author of a poetry collection, What You Can't Have, and has won several awards for his short films at Toronto's Inside Out gay film festival. Earlier this year, Vancouver magazine named him one of that city's top 25 gay citizens – and Loop magazine named him one of the city's "most dangerous." His most recent award is named after the late managing editor of Xtra!, Toronto's gay newspaper.

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


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