Throughout 2005, gay presses continued to follow trends. Long past the heyday of the early 1990s, a boom for queer literature, today’s imprints tend to rely on popular, previously published authors to generate sales. New authors, which used to be the lifeblood of gay presses, have become the minority.
What’s more, the fluctuating definition of what constitutes gay literature, continues to prove vexing. Should mainstream scribes like Chuck Palahniuk, Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris be marketed solely as gay authors? Should they remain in the broader categories of general fiction and humor?
While the phenomenon of gay authors writing books with no gay subject matter is hardly new, books like Christopher Castellani’s “The Saint of Lost Things” further muddy the waters.
On the non-fiction front, entertainment continues to be a popular genre. This year, four significant books covered gay life in the repressive 1950s: “Tab Hunter Confidential,” “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson,” “Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Rebel Without a Cause” and the newest from Dallas resident and Hollywood historian, Sam Staggs’ “When Blanche Met Brando: The Scandalous Story of “‘A Streetcar Named Desire.'”
It’s unlikely that 2005 will be remembered as a banner year for gay books. Nevertheless, a number of published works stand above most of their peers, and they follow in no particular order.
“The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” C.A. Tripp (Simon & Schuster).
Tripp’s rambling treatise on the possibility that our 16th president was sexually and affectionally oriented toward men created a stir this year. By showing us Lincoln’s ribald wit and his intense male friendships, Tripp turns Abe into an actual human instead of the martyred saint most of us learned about in school.
“The Tragedy of Today’s Gays,” by Larry Kramer (Tarcher/ Penguin). Based on a fiery speech Kramer delivered in November 2004, this rant whacks us over our collective heads. Kramer’s angry at the gay community for being complacent and in denial. He’s always been something of a modern day Cassandra, but in light of events like the Supreme Court’s current status, Kramer’s predictions seem eerily prophetic.
“Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America,” by Keith
Boykin (Carroll & Graf). This book triumphs as a cogent deconstruction of the “down low” phenomenon (as well as the backlash caused by its exposure in the national media). One of its highlights is Boykin’s systematic critique of J.L. King’s “On the Down Low,” the book which first brought the issue to national attention.
“Luncheonette: A Memoir,” by Steven Sorrentino (ReganBooks). When his father suddenly became paraplegic on Christmas Eve 1980, Sorrentino moved back to his hometown and took over running his dad’s luncheonette. Over the next four years, his career dreams evaporated, his sex life shriveled and his father’s health floundered. A pungently narrated memoir, “Luncheonette” serves up a satisfying recipe of pathos and bleak comedy with a delicious side order of small-town eccentricity.
“The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the 70s in San Francisco,” by Joshua Gamson (Henry Holt & Co.). Best known for his song “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” the late disco diva Sylvester gets the star treatment in this expansive biography, which offers a warts-and-all account of the singer and his era. Not only a great chronicle of an overlooked musician, but a wonderful portrait of San Francisco.
“Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” by Tab Hunter and Eddie Muller (Algonquin). Hunter’s disclosure of his homosexuality (one of Tinseltown’s worst-kept secrets) is hardly a revelation, but he and Muller do it in such an affable, elegant fashion that the results are disarmingly charming. Hunter might not tell all the tales people would’ve liked, but he delivers a sincere account of a closeted life for a ’50s heartthrob.
“Breakfast With Tiffany: An Uncle’s Memoir,” by Edwin John Wintle (Miramax Books). When Ed Wintle agrees to take in his volatile 13-year-old niece Tiffany (the product of a broken home), any hopes of an “Auntie Mame”-like bonding between the two quickly goes out the window. Any parent will empathize with Wintle’s selfless, thankless situation, while those who can’t stand kids will come away with their prejudices justified after reading this heartwarming and harrowing account of family values with a twist.
“The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage and My Family,” by Dan Savage. (Dutton). As his 10th anniversary with his boyfriend, Terry, approaches, Dan Savage was pressured by his mother to get married. Thus begins a heartfelt examination of same-sex marriage and what it means in this case to all involved members of a family. This book puts a much-needed human face onto one of our country’s most divisive issues and scrutinizes it with humor and insight.
“Home Rules: Transform the Place You Live into a Place You’ll Love,” by Nate Berkus (Hyperion). The home renovation craze is far from fading, and Berkus offers dozens of tips that are easily accomplished and easy on the wallet. Gay and beloved by Oprah, Berkus dispenses tips on organizing, accessorizing and personalizing your space.
“Back Where He Started,” by Jay Quinn (Alyson). At age 48, Chris Thayer must begin life anew when his partner leaves him for a younger woman he’s gotten pregnant. Both a solid character study and a ground-breaking chronicle of an aspect of gay life just starting to be represented, “Back Where He Started” is a welcome addition to gay literature.
“The Order of the Poison Oak,” by Brent Hartinger (HarperTempest). Gay high school student Russel Middlebrook returns for more drama, this time as a counselor at a summer camp of young burn survivors. Racier and more adult than “Geography Club,” this book is one of those rare sequels that lives up to the first book’s promise and will leave readers itching for more of Russel’s adventures.
“Now Batting for Boston,” by J.G. Hayes. (Southern Tier Editions/Harrington Park Press). This new collection of short stories less bleak” than Hayes’ previous effort, “This Thing Called Courage” that take place in or feature characters from South Boston (a hardscrabble Irish-Catholic enclave). Their uniform quality and their boldness in experimenting with a variety of themes and lengths make this another home run from a talented author.
“All American Boy,” by William J. Mann (Kensington). Mann’s latest novel treads a far darker path than his previous explorations of gay culture. Wally Day, a semi-successful actor, must return to his decaying hometown to confront the ghosts of his past that he left behind years ago. The results are powerful, deeply unsettling and not easily forgotten.
“Son of a Witch,” by Gregory Maguire (ReganBooks). Ten years after “Wicked,” Maguire returns to Oz to tell the tale of Liir, the probable son of the Wicked Witch of the West, and how he becomes a worthy successor of Oz’s sociopolitical agitator. With subtle, pointed jabs at our current political climate and discreet gay sex thrown in for good measure, Maguire proves himself a brewer of yeasty and subversive prose.
BEST IN BOOK DESIGN
Blessed with visual flair, Chip Kidd is a wizard at creating unforgettable books covers. In the New York literary scene, he’s the guru of graphic design cranking out more than 1,500 book jackets as an art director at Alfred A. Knopf.
“Book One: 1986-2006” ($65, Rizzoli) is a handsome new retrospective that reveals the design process behind Kidd’s meticulous, creepy, sly, smart and unpredictable vision. Included are essays by David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Larry McMurtry, Armistead Maupin, David Rakoff and Kidd’s partner, poet J.D. McClatchy.
Daniel A. Kusner