Familiar characters grow older and occasionally wiser in Mann’s latest
“Men Who Love Men,” by William J. Mann. (Kensington, April 2007) 320 pp., $24.
Several years before the hedonistic Brian Kinney shagged his way into viewers’ hearts in “Queer As Folk,” another handsome, young gay man Jeff O’Brien was challenging readers’ assumptions about what being gay really meant. William J. Mann’s “The Men From the Boys” introduced readers to Jeff, who had been with Lloyd Griffith for six years. But the two men maintained an open relationship, feeling that the paradigm of monogamy was too restrictive for them.
Despite many bumpy patches on the highway of life, Jeff and Lloyd are still together in “Men Who Love Men,” the third (and presumably final) installment of their chronicles. Both men have found success in their chosen careers, and as they turn 40, their interests in other men and circuit parties have declined. They’re even planning to get married.
This news doesn’t sit well with their younger best friend, Henry Weiner, whose brief stint as an escort served as a subplot in the second novel, “Where The Boys Are.” At 33, Henry fears that he’s entered “the shoulder season” of gay life: “It’s by no means retirement, but you can’t expect the business you got at peak.”
Henry now manages Jeff and Lloyd’s Provincetown inn, but obsesses about his inability to have a long-term boyfriend, to the point where his last name ought to be “Whiner.” (In fact, if Henry didn’t raise so many valid points and pertinent problems with the gay male dating scene as one gets older, then he as a character would be almost completely insufferable.)
As it happens, Henry finds several candidates for possible boyfriend material. First is 22-year-old Luke, a recent arrival who quickly becomes the inn’s latest houseboy and spends most of his time parading around in a thong. But is Luke genuinely interested in Henry? Or is he just using Henry as a means of gaining access to his favorite author, Jeff?
Then there’s Gale, a lithe bodybuilder around Henry’s age. A mutual attraction definitely exists between Gale and Henry. But Gale won’t go past first base, has definite control issues and expresses unrealistic expectations of a potential partner such as being emotionally as well as sexually monogamous.
Thirdly, there’s Martin, a 45-year-old man who spontaneously decides to move to P’Town after staying at the inn for a short while. He also gave Henry a blowjob at the dick dock one night, as Henry discovers to his horror. Besides, Henry reasons, Martin’s too old for him until he realizes that the same 12 stars separates him from Luke as well.
For the first time, a certain element of sameness has crept into one of Mann’s novels. In “Where The Boys Are,” Jeff just had to investigate why a new friend of his kept coming and going so mysteriously. And in “Men Who Love Men,” Henry takes over the role of private eye.
He strongly suspects Luke of being an Eve Harrington (i.e., a schemer who’ll use his charm and good looks to take him wherever he wants to go). And Henry is determined to expose the houseboy. When he creeps into Luke’s basement room, Henry ends up reading one of the young man’s short stories. Its unsettling content is strongly reminiscent of “All American Boy,” another of Mann’s recent efforts.
That being said, a weaker effort by William J. Mann is still a better read than some authors at their best. Mann’s characters grapple with issues like aging, the loss of sexual allure, loneliness, jealousy and despair. He certainly hits the nail on the head when he (through Henry) observes that “The worst thing about dating isn’t getting rejected. It’s allowing yourself to hope. Hope is the absolutely worst thing you can do when you’re dating.”
Mann poses dilemmas for his characters that other gay men out there are experiencing. Now that they’re getting married, will Jeff and Lloyd continue having an open relationship? Or should the vows of matrimony seal off that possibility? Does a Mr. Right exist for Henry, or did he already discard his soul mate during a moment of superficial pique?
Throughout this novel are clear signs of an era coming to an end.
Provincetown is no longer a bohemian seaside village where anyone can find cheap lodgings and make their success over the course of a summer. Also, by setting most of the book during the fall and winter seasons, Mann shows readers what it’s like to live in this isolated community during the off season. Even the title “Men Who Love Men” signifies a welcome maturity to the proceedings, with the characters accepting responsibility for the consequences of the stupid mistakes they occasionally still make, even though they know better.
J. S. Hall
“The First Man-Made Man,” by Pagan Kennedy. (Bloomsbury, March 2007). $23.95, 214 pps.
As soon as you were old enough to form rational thoughts, someone was probably asking you what you “wanted to be” when you grew up: a cowboy, a nurse, a fireman? Perhaps you longed to be a police officer, a farmer or a rock star.
When she grew up, Laura Dillon wanted to be a man. And in the biography “The First Man-Made Man,” Dillon got what she wanted and more.
Born in 1915 and abandoned 10 days later, Dillon always felt embarrassed by the dresses and dolls that her elderly guardian-aunts foisted upon her. Laura wanted desperately to be a boy: She craved belonging in a male society that she had mythologized for herself.
Puberty wasn’t kind to Dillon. She hated her blossoming body. Even more, she hated that boys saw her as a woman.
“But I wasn’t,” Dillon says. “I was just me.”
On the cusp of adulthood and able to get male hormones from a pharmacy, Dillon began the transformation.
As her shoulders squared and her voice deepened, she dressed in men’s clothing. She grew a goatee, took up smoking a pipe and started penning thoughts on gender and identity. As World War II overtook Great Britain, Laura became Michael Dillon.
In the early-to-mid 1950s, Great Britain had a “mayhem law” that forbade removal of male anatomy from any potential soldier. America had no such laws, but the subject was barley discussed by doctors. Gender reassignment surgery was an anomaly.
Still, Dillon persisted. He discovered a sympathetic doctor who was willing to give him the surgery he needed. As far as Dillon was concerned, the surgery was successful. By all accounts, he was proud of it but psychological support was never offered. Michael Dillon was on his own.
Part history, part biography and part medical story, “The First Man-Made Man” is a fascinating book about a man ahead of his time and a society that wasn’t ready for him.
Kennedy portrays Dillon as a lost soul, forever searching for a place where he could be himself always on the peripheral, never quite belonging. But Kennedy doesn’t lower herself to being maudlin. Her writing is lively and respectful.
The other side of this book is Kennedy’s two-pronged timeline of plastic surgery and gender study. Because of horrifying war injuries, several forward-thinking doctors saw the need for reconstructive surgery, which spawned an industry that not only became vital to war victims but to people who weren’t satisfied with their bodies, including those who longed for gender reassignment.
GET YOUR POETRY ON
Jealous of Rosie O’Donell’s bloggy stanzas? Want to flex your mad rhyming abilities?
Gay poetry instructor Christopher Soden, pictured, conducts a six-week workshop on tackling the skills of literature’s most expressive genre. Soden, who holds an MFA in writing, explains the building blocks of the craft: line-breaks, revision, implication and distillation.
Open to teens and adults at all levels. $115. Held Thursdays, June 21-July 26, 7 p.m.-10p.m. Fee includes manuscript consultation, performance coaching and a class chapbook. For location, call 469-232-0788 or e-mail Soden at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 15, 2007.