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Richard Labonte | October 08, 2007

Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life, by Elliot Tiber, with Tom Monte, Square One Publishers, 220 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

At last: a queer memoir that puts the "wood" into Woodstock. Tiber was the dutiful son of eccentric Jewish motel-owner parents when the iconic music festival descended – not on Woodstock itself, but on his neighbor Max Yasgur's land, outside White Lake in upstate New York. Weekdays during the summer of 1969, Tiber lived in Greenwich Village, socializing with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and – in one of this reminiscence's most memorable anecdotes – Robert Mapplethorpe, who picked him up at the Mine Shaft and brought him to his SoHo loft for S/M sex under a Nazi flag. But upstate, where Tiber spent weekends trying to save the family business, he was completely closeted – until nubile lads, not just professing but truly practicing free love, poured into the motel, which had become festival headquarters. This sentimental, wide-eyed, behind-the-scenes history of Woodstock – with a side trip to the Stonewall riots; Tiber was there, too – is a sweet account of how one rebellious summer opened a world of tie-dyed T-shirts and unashamed sexuality to the author.



ABC, by David Plante. Pantheon, 272 pages, $23 hardcover.

After witnessing his young son's freakish death, Gregory's formerly placid world – he's comfortable in marriage, contented in his profession – is rendered incomprehensible by inconsolable grief. In Plante's cerebral novel, the mourning man finds succor in an unlikely place – an obsession with learning the derivation of the Indo-European alphabet – and in so doing somehow restores order to his horribly discordant life. Gregory's odyssey unites him with a Chinese woman whose daughter died of an overdose, a Greek man whose Armenian wife was assassinated by terrorists, and a Chechen woman mourning her own daughter. The quest of the four grief-stricken abecedarians takes them to London (where they meet with an oddly foppish, extremely closeted academic); to Greece; and, in a rapturously mystical conclusion, to the middle of an ancient Syrian desert. Plante, author of the acclaimed Francoeur trilogy of gay coming-out novels, was coping with personal grief while writing this philosophical page-turner: his partner of 40 years died three years ago. ABC resonates with the quiet passion of an artist restoring order to his own life.



Dangerous Space, by Kelley Eskridge. Aqueduct Books, 256 pages, $18 paper.

This is the kind of art that the word "queer" fits perfectly. The stories aren't specifically lesbian, and they're not specifically gay, but they render any sexual preference wondrously possible. The biological gender of Mars, protagonist of three of the collection's seven stories – including the hypnotic novella-length title tale – is never specified: some will read her as a woman, and her passion for the mesmerizing male lead singer of an indie rock band as straight; some will read him as a man, and the same passion as gay. Eskridge juggles the ambiguity with surefooted physical, emotional, and sexual intensity. The same powerful notion of sexual mutability powers two other tales: "Eye of the Storm," a sword-and-sorcery story in which Mars is one of four warriors competing to join an elite military squad, in a violent world where same-sex partners are nothing special; and "And Salome Danced," set in a near-future in which Mars is drawn to a seductive actor who auditions for both male and female roles.



The God Box, by Alex Sanchez, Simon & Schuster, $16.99 hardcover.

Hispanic high school senior Paul, devoutly Christian, desperately does not want to love a boy. He's dating his best friend Angie, and praying he'll somehow become sexually attracted to her. But when a new student comes to his conservative Texas town's small school, Paul – despite pious handwritten prayers dropped into his "God box" – is smitten by lust and terrified he might be in love. Newcomer Manuel flaunts his sexuality as jauntily as he professes his Christian faith, argues persuasively at Bible Club against homophobic interpretations of scripture, and coaxes the school's few progressive students into forming a Gay-Straight Alliance. All the while, he's slowly opening Paul's closet door – a process accelerated when Manuel is gay-bashed brutally, and Paul realizes he can't honestly love God unless he loves Manuel. The narrative arc of Sanchez's sixth young-adult novel is formulaic – confused boy comes to terms with his real self – but the message that it's OK to be Christian and queer sets this coming-out story apart from the rest.



Featured excerpt:

As I drove back from Max's place, I passed White Lake and saw a few dozen people skinny-dipping. People were just relaxing, having fun. I passed lines of cars and motorcycles heading toward Yasgur's farm and the town of Bethel. Looking into the cars, I saw men and women, men and men, women and women. It hit me that there was every kind of human being coming to this concert – husbands, wives, straights, gays, celibates, bi- and tri-sexuals, and cross-dressers. Many smiled at me as I drove by; others waved. I smiled and waved back. A little bit of love was passing back and forth between us. In some place, deep in my soul, I had a feeling of comfort and even a little peace. – from Taking Woodstock, by Elliot Tiber, with Tom Monte



Footnotes:

SUSPECT THOUGHTS PRESS, hounded by high rents, has relocated from the San Francisco area to Cleveland – where publishers Greg Wharton and Ian Philips are opening a queer bookstore. The virtual store is ready for business, at www.alternaqueerbooks.com; the launch party for the physical store, Suspect Thoughts Books, is Friday, Oct. 13, at 4903 Clark Street....
EDITOR DON WEISE, who assembled a busy catalog of gay and lesbian titles at Carroll & Graf before the press was folded into Perseus Books, has assembled an all-star panel of judges for an inaugural Open Door Project fiction competition, open to writers of gay male fiction who have not yet published a book. The winner, to be announced in Spring 2008, will receive five days in New York and an introduction to publishing that includes lunches with literary agents, book editors, and other publishing figures; a public reading; and a private cocktail reception with New York's writing community. Judges for the competition include Christopher Bram, Alexander Chee, Samuel R. Delany, Dennis Cooper, Robert Gluck, E. Lynn Harris, Scott Heim, Andrew Holleran, David Leavitt, Stephen McCauley, Dale Peck, and John Weir. "Our goal, simply put, is to discover the most promising unpublished novelists," said Weise. Deadline for submissions is March 1, mailed to Open Door Project, c/o Oscar Wilde Bookshop, 15 Christopher Street, NY, NY 10014.

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


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