Critic J.S. Hall acts as this year’s ambassador for the gay literary cannon
“Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn,” by William J. Mann (Henry Holt & Co.).
For decades, acclaimed actress Katharine Hepburn reshaped her life and career into a sugarcoated legend. Only after her death in 2003 could a objective biography be attempted. Enter Mann, whose patient, diligent research unearthed Kath, the woman behind Kate, a creation she sometimes referred to as “The Creature.”
The Hepburn who emerges from these pages is not the familiar, tremulous Yankee, but a vivacious, narcissistic spitfire who learned the hard way how to work Hollywood to her advantage. Mann examines with keen yet compassionate precision the lengths she went to ensure her continued presence in the public eye, and it’s to his credit that the private Hepburn is a more fascinating person than her revered public persona. “Kate” demonstrates how to write about an overexposed subject. A class act which other celebrity biographies should be measured.
“I Am Not Myself These Days: A Memoir,” by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (HarperPerennial).
Most people wouldn’t expect to sympathize with a drunky drag queen. But that’s what happens to readers of this mordant gem.
For several years, Kilmer-Purcell sashayed through the New York nightlife scene as Aquadisiac a.k.a. Aqua a seven-foot-tall drag creation with live goldfish (named “Left” and “Right”) swimming inside her transparent plastic breasts. The focus of “I Am Not Myself” is Aqua’s rocky relationship with Jack, a captivating hustler with an emerging a crack addiction.
Another writer would have veered into melodrama. But Kilmer-Purcell injects charming whimsy. A poignant afterword chronicles an unsuccessful attempt to contact Jack almost 10 years later: “Jack hasn’t found me yet. And I guess I have to be okay with that. I’m no longer all that lost anyway.”
Indeed, he found his voice in this memoir, and is now a frequent columnist for “Out” magazine. You go, girl!
“Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin).
The coming-out story has been done to death. And it takes an immense talent like Alison Bechdel to invigorate it by presenting her memoir in graphic novel format and by trying to come to terms with her late father’s poorly closeted homosexuality.
Bechdel creates vistas of uncommon grace. Her tableaux bursts with literary allusions and activity in both foreground and background, like the multilayered works of Alan Moore. Ultimately, “Fun Home” is a wry, cathartic journey. It also confirms what long-time “Dykes” aficionados have known for years: Bechdel is a talent to watch out for.
“The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How To Get It Back,” by Andrew Sullivan (HarperCollins).
Andrew Sullivan is controversial presence in gay journalism. An openly gay and HIV-positive political conservative and practicing Catholic, he edited “The New Republic” for five years, became one of the most widely-read bloggers and supported George W. Bush when he was first given the presidency. Sullivan now unequivocally withdraws that support and demonstrates how far the Republican Party has fallen into the clutches of religious fundamentalists.
After a terrifying journey into the fundamentalist mindset, Sullivan eloquently examines the traditional values of conservatism. He even argues that a true conservative would approve of gay rights up to and including marriage because “some adjustment is necessary because the world changes, and the job of the conservative is to adjust to such changes as soberly and prudently as possible.”
If only more elected officials would read this book and follow the examples of their legislative peers in New Jersey.
3 titles that tanked
“Now It’s My Turn: A Daughter’s Chronicle of Political Life,” by Mary Cheney (Threshold Editions).
Coming soon to a remainder rack near you is the biggest Cheney blunder this side of a quail hunt. Vice President Cheney’s lesbian daughter, Mary, is the White House’s big pink elephant. And her chance to tell her side of things ranks as this year’s biggest missed opportunity. Cheney completely toes the party line here, firmly demonstrates her belief that Daddy Knows Best, and fumes about people’s interest in her private life (which remains staunchly private). People who enjoy the minutiae of life on the campaign trail might glean some enjoyment out of this dreary effort, but most everyone else will find it an exercise in tedium.
“My Undoing: Love in the Thick of Sex, Drugs, Pornography and Prostitution,” by Aiden Shaw (Carroll & Graf).
Aiden Shaw isn’t your typical gay porn star. He’s written three novels, numerous magazine articles, a book of poetry and songs for the band he headlines. Why, then, is “My Undoing” such a disappointment?
For one thing, it never entirely finds a satisfactory angle.
Despite his fame as an adult entertainer, the memoir purportedly concerns Shaw’s efforts to find love and a lasting relationship. Instead, it chronicles how empty, shallow and repetitive his life was until a stupid accident nearly left him partially paralyzed. Shaw’s candor is initially refreshing. However, since he learns almost nothing from his travails, the autobio quickly exasperates readers.
Assuming that one is masochistic enough to finish this book, the reader will know Shaw better but like him a good deal less. Whoever once famously said, “There’s nothing duller than dull pornography,” never read “My Undoing.”
“Possible Side Effects,” by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Press).
Unlike the previous two entries, this latest Burroughs effort ends up on this list for its lack of originality.
Some critics have argued that Burroughs has almost tapped out the rich vein of dysfunction that initially endeared him to readers. He repeatedly returns to his shambles of an upbringing in western Massachusetts and his squalid apartment in New York City, occasionally interspersing these with tales of relative domestic bliss with his partner, Dennis. Many of these essays previously appeared in “Details,” which only reinforces the feeling of repetitive redundancy.
Burroughs is a talented writer with a rare gift for pulling readers into his warped world. But “Possible Side Effects” feels like a crossroads for the author. Please, Augusten take the one less traveled. It’ll make all the difference.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, December 29, 2006.