- Like People in History: A Gay American Epic by Felice Picano
Viking, 512 pp, $23.95, July 1995, ISBN 0 670 86047 6
- How Long Has This Been Going On? by Ethan Mordden
Villard, 590 pp, $25.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 679 41529 7
- The Facts of Life by Patrick Gale
Flamingo, 511 pp, £15.99, June 1995, ISBN 0 602 24522 2
- Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham
Hamish Hamilton, 480 pp, £14.99, June 1995, ISBN 0 241 13515 X
At some point early in the Aids epidemic – this would have been around 1983, a time when no gay man in the United States knew when or even if he would fall ill with the complex of maladies that had begun killing gay men in 1981, a time when, as well, it seemed most gay men regarded the rallies and protests and clandestine gatherings of the Fifties and Sixties as logically capped by the disco-circuit hedonism of the Seventies, and a time when many of those men still seemed to view any attack on that hedonism as the ultimate affront to their political and personal freedom – Larry Kramer remarked that just staying alive had become a political act for gay men.
A few years before the plague appeared, in 1978, Kramer had risen to prominence – and controversy – on the new wave of gay literature with his novel Faggots. Fiction with homosexual content had trickled out through the century, from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice to Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar to the work of Genet and Isherwood and Baldwin and Burroughs, but as each new novel or play or poem appeared it was treated as a one-off; if the work was a critical success it was despite its homosexual content, if the work failed it was because of it. But by the Seventies gay men in the United States had attached themselves, like Latinos, blacks and Jews before them, to a politicised monolithic notion of community, and as part of their newly minted solidarity they wanted the trappings that come with it: political clout, places to live and socialise without fear and – the endeavour which has so far proved most successful – cultural artefacts to record their place in history. Gay men, in short, wanted their own art, and the easiest, cheapest and most accessible form of art has always been the written word. By the late Seventies an organisation called the Violet Quill had formed, and its members – Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, Edmund White and George Whitmore, together with the film critic Vito Russo and the editor and academic George Stambolian – began producing books whose examination of gay life, though often programmatic, was still infused with the raw brashness of tongues only recently untied. Viewed retrospectively, the group seems a remarkably fortuitous meeting of minds, and is often portrayed as a latter-day version of Bloomsbury or the Columbia University circle of Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs – a group, in other words, whose romanticised reputation, like that of the Beats and Modernists before it, frequently overshadowed its writing. That such talent just happened to gather in a New York City apartment is said to stand as a testament to the burgeoning power of the gay story itself, bursting to be told.
It’s been twenty years since that early wave of gay fiction appeared – classics such as Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, George Whitmore’s Nebraska, Edmund White’s Nocturnes for the King of Naples; and a decade since the first Aids fiction started to show up: Robert Ferro’s Second Son, David B. Feinberg’s Eighty-Sixed, Allen Barnett’s beautiful The Body and Its Dangers. Today, as a result of political pressure as well as recognition of a growing gay readership, gay sections can be found in most bookshop chains, and independent gay bookstores can be found in most major cities in the US and UK, their shelves packed with fiction about gay and lesbian life. In two decades, a few dozen books have become many thousands, so many that the single genre of gay literature has now spawned many subgenres: in fiction alone there are children’s stories, books written for adolescents, coming-out narratives, mysteries, erotica and Aids stories, as well as the books which can’t be placed in a single category and so come under the generic label of ‘fiction’ – and all of these categories are, of course, divided by gender, where that’s possible.
The newest category of fiction to squeeze onto already overcrowded shelves is the gay male epic. The word ‘epic’ casts a wide net, but, in the absence of a Homer or Milton or Proust, the primary claim to epic-dom (read: ‘epic dumb’) seems to be not depth of thought but depth of book, measured not in pages but inches. This is territory originally carved out – well, not carved exactly, more like landscaped – by Gone with the Wind, and promulgated by everyone from Jacqueline Valley of the Dolls Susann to Larry Terms of Endearment McMurtry. You know the books I mean: incredibly thick tomes with gilt covers, embossed lettering and heavily retouched photographs of busty women and bare-chested men. It’s interesting – at any rate, I think it’s meant to be interesting – that gay male writers are appropriating a form which over the past half-century has become almost exclusively a female domain, books written by women, about women and aimed at that segment of the straight female population which buys a book at the supermarket along with frozen peas and instant mashed potatoes. I think that this appropriation is meant to be campy, if not in content then in form, a transformative elevation that raises the gaudy to the glamorous in the same way that a tacky dress – sequinned, frilled, ribbonned and cut real low – becomes stunning, simply stunning, when a man puts it on.
But a tacky dress is a tacky dress is a tacky dress, and what elevates some drags to the status of divas, while others remain mere queens, is the quality of performance. In other words, the dress isn’t as important as what you do once you’ve put it on. Thus, gay epics, like their straight counterparts, tend to be multi-generational sagas focusing on a single individual or a family, but in either case spanning decades meticulously marked out by hairdos, clothing styles, brand names, contemporary slang and, whenever possible, major historical events. But unlike contemporary pulp epics, gay epics are written with a mission: to insert gay people into times and places where their existence was previously minimised and distorted, if not denied. In other words, a quarter century after Stonewall, gay writers are still trying to script themselves into history. Almost History, Like People in History, American Studies: the titles of these three recent gay epics, as well as Larry Kramer’s long-awaited The American People, make this explicit; Flesh and Blood, The Facts of Life and How Long Has This Been Going On? also manage to connote a grand historical aspect on their covers. But the question remains: why put the dress on in the first place?
Before I answer that question, I must confess, or, at least, clarify my position: I was raised on trashy books. I grew up in rural Kansas; the nearest library was 20 miles away, and, especially in the summer, the only books around were my stepmother’s and the ones my older sister had procured through school catalogues. At my high school, Daphne du Maurier was on the English department reading list, along with Taylor Caldwell and all those other books by Twain. I read Sydney Sheldon’s first five novels, Judith Krantz’s first three; until I went to college, I believed that Watership Down was the best book I’d ever read – and I was right. What attracted me then, though I didn’t realise it until years later, wasn’t the strength of the narrative, but its length: the only thing better than V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic was its sequel, If There Be Thorns (or it might have been Petals on the Wind, I forget the order). Some books resort to gimmicks like suspense or humour or interesting characters to keep you reading, but readers of epics keep turning pages for the simple reason that they can. The end of the story isn’t merely postponed in a true epic: it is, in some fundamental way, denied. Even if the author dies the books can go on, as witnessed by 1992’s Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind by Alexandra Ripley, the fastest-selling American novel of all time. In denying that the story ever ends, the epic denies also that ‘the real story’ – to put it bluntly, life – will come to an end, and for a population looking to replace a god it doesn’t really believe in but unable to afford a therapist, a $4.95 paperback helps fill the gap. Think of Kathy Bates in Misery, breaking James Caan’s ankles, tying him to a desk, forcing him to resurrect in one novel the character he had killed in another; think of the suicide attempts of teenage girls when Robbie left Take That. Bates is crazy but recognisable, the fan turned fanatic, whose only desire is to keep on reading.
Aids is the specific manifestation of the narrative-ending force in gay life and, now, in much of its literature. But in an epic beginning in the Thirties or Forties or Fifties, the epidemic of the past fifteen years occupies only a tiny place – a place which most of these books tend to diminish even more. In this way Aids is contextualised, its threat minimised. To put it another way, the (wo)man in the dress is tied to a railroad track whose chugging locomotive will charge right through the flimsy obstacle, and keep on going. This is the reason, then, why a man puts on a dress: to destroy it, and the part of himself that wants to put it on.
Perhaps the first gay epic to appear was Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. At seven volumes, published over the last twenty years, it’s as long as all the other gay epics combined, and has proved enormously popular – the best-selling gay title ever. Then there’s Edmund White’s idiosyncratic and autobiographical trilogy whose first volume, A Boy’s Own Story, was set in the Fifties; it continued through the Sixties in The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and is set to deal with post-Stonewall and post-Aids gay life in The Farewell Symphony, due out sometime this year. White’s writing in the first two books, and in the stories recently collected in Skinned Alive, has moved away from the pure lyricism of his early fiction to a sort of cool luminous reportage that reminds one of the work of our more storied essayists, Joan Didion or John McPhee. In the past few years the incidence of these big books has increased rapidly: three years ago, Christopher Bram published his Washington tale, Almost History; in 1994, Laura Argiri’s 19th-century melodrama The God in Flight came out, along with Mark Merlis’s study of McCarthyism in academia, American Studies; last year saw the publication of four epics: Michael Cunningham’s, Flesh and Blood, Patrick Gale’s The Facts of Life, Ethan Mordden’s How Long Has This Been Going On? And Felice Picano’s Like People in History. These last four reveal the strengths and weaknesses in this burgeoning subgenre.
The cover line for Felice Picano’s Like People in History, ‘a gay American epic’, recalls the subtitle of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, ‘a gay fantasia on national themes’, and the title of the novel itself is taken from an unpublished book by Edmund White. In fact, everything about Like People in History hints at something else, humour, suspense, politics, drama and especially, as the title suggests, history, but in the end all they amount to is a tediously elaborated narrative. This story is split into two interwoven parts: one very long night in 1991 – a birthday party, an Aids demonstration, a stint in jail, a midnight quarrel in Central Park, an attempted suicide, a fist-fight, an ambulance ride, a fallen crane, a traffic pile-up and, finally, a death – and the 36 years of acquaintance between Roger Sansarc, the novel’s narrator, and his cousin Alistair Dodge, which lead up to that night. Picano’s story pauses in 1954, 1961, 1969, 1974, 1979 and 1985; these pauses are meant to reveal not just significant moments in the lives of the characters – two gay white upper-middle-class men – but significant moments in the history of America and, in particular, of that segment of the American gay community to which Roger and Alistair belong: the A-list (for clarification, see Ethan Mordden below).
The novel’s single sustained conflict is presented in the opening pages – will Roger, who is HIV-negative, help Alistair, who has Aids, kill himself? – and isn’t resolved until the book’s final scene. A potent situation, but as the novel unfolds it becomes increasingly uninteresting, for the simple reason that Alistair is a complete shit. Puppy-like, Roger keeps coming back to Alistair, but each time a chance comes for Picano to explain why pious Roger is attracted to boorish Alistair, he eludes his responsibility. Take 1974’s scene, when Roger reveals that he has re-befriended Alistair after a scene in 1969 in which – take a deep breath –Alistair persuades a leftist gay dentist to mistreat an abscessed tooth in Roger’s mouth shortly before Roger’s Selective Service medical examination, thus causing Roger to lose consciousness at the exam on the same day as dozens of similarly mistreated dupes around the country also collapse at various draft boards and by their collective swoon embarrass the government into changing the Selective Service guidelines and so produce a more equitable system. Now – you may breathe again – five years later, Roger’s only comment is: ‘I’d forgiven him for the Selective Service madness. Forgiven him, and moved to his elected city.’ That’s it. No explanation, no fall-out, not even a dental retainer: just Social Change and a change of address. This sort of thing happens so often that one wonders not if Roger will assist in Alistair’s suicide, but why he hasn’t killed him already.
The answer, of course, is that Alistair’s misdeeds aren’t interesting enough to merit murder. Typically, an epic’s antagonist is more compelling than its protagonist, magnificent in his or her evil grotesquerie – think, in TV terms, of J.R. Ewing and Alexis Carrington, or, for that matter, of Satan in Paradise Lost – but Alistair is blandly bad and slightly silly; at his worst, he’s a lapsed Christian Socialist’s bad dream of idleness and insensitivity. As a foil to this, Roger comes across as, well, a lapsed Christian Socialist who also happens to be gay. If Alistair is a bland villain, Roger is a boring hero. Roger hands out bread and apples to the starving masses at Woodstock; Roger’s lover Matt is twice voted the sexiest gay man in America; Roger edits the most influential gay magazine in the country; Roger’s celebrated history of gay life is adapted into a critically acclaimed play. In his account of the shining moments of Roger’s life, Picano tries to elevate a soapbox into the magic mountain, but he never realises that he goes over the top too early, and as a result his novel spends most of its time tumbling head over heels. Rock bottom comes abruptly, when Roger meets his dying lover’s parents for the first time. His parents, Matt barely manages to gasp, are ‘sim ... ple ... peo ... ple’, but it’s not until Roger meets them that we discover ‘sim ... ple’ is Matt’s euphemism for Down’s Syndrome, and what follows is an almost unbearably maudlin scene in which Roger tells ‘Papa’ and ‘Mama’ that the two-time winner of Mr Gay America is dying. The threesome have an extended conversation on homosexuality, Aids and the myth of Achilles/Patroclus, all conducted in a five-year-old’s English, which seems meant to be a sort of lowest-common-denominator approach to both narrative and morality. In a book already groaning with gimmicks it is – barring the cure – the last trick Picano could pull from his bag, but it backfires, because the words and ideas Matt’s retarded parents use are no more or less sophisticated than those used anywhere else in the novel.
The storyline of Ethan Mordden’s How Long Has This Been Going On? is eerily similar in its survey of the post-war years: the Fifties, in which men (and, in this case, a few women) struggle to accept their homosexuality; the pot-smokin’, hip-shakin’, drug-takin’ Sixties; Stonewall and disco and the Seventies; Aids and backlash in the Eighties; and, in conclusion, the hint of triumph promised by the Nineties. How Long’s chief distinction from Like People in History – besides a generally higher standard of prose, as well as a comical touch that is occasionally funny – is that its narrative is incident rather than plot-driven. But the novel’s extreme length calls out for some sort of form, which never materialises. The story proceeds at a pace that is both lazy and erratic; its nameless, faceless narrator glosses over scenes that merit inspection and devotes paragraphs to details that are merely trivial. Reading the book was a bit like channel surfing – with the remote in someone else’s hand.
In lieu of a plot, How Long offers protagonists. There is Lois, the butch dyke who runs a gay club; Elaine, the femme who leaves her husband for Lois and becomes a noted author; Johnny the Kid, a.k.a. Johnny Smith, a.k.a. Jerrit Troy, a.k.a. the Green Goddess, the lounge singer who, in donning a dress, seemingly invents camp; Larkin, the nervous member of an early gay group, so nice that he’ll always be someone’s boyfriend, so bland that he’ll always be jilted; Frank, the son who leaves his father, the cop who leaves the force, and the man who first leaves Larkin; Blue, the hustler everybody wants who becomes a travelling Aids activist and so earns a place in heaven somewhere between the Archangel Gabriel and Johnny Appleseed; Luke, the man who loves the man who hates to love him; Tom, the man who is loved by the man who loves the man who hates to love him; Walt, the cousin of the man who is loved by the man who ... and Claude, Walt’s teddy bear. And there are more characters, so many that there are often more characters on the page than there are things for them to do. When the stories of one set of characters run out of steam, Mordden just throws a few more into the mix. In a book about the diversity of gay life, this was, I assume, intentional, and it could have been effective. But Mordden’s characters are simply ciphers demarcated by gender, skin colour, age, Stepford Wives whose sole function is to show that being a gay man or lesbian is a tough job, but with a little programming anyone can do it.
The reason Mordden’s characters are automatons is that not one of them is the bad guy. Picano, with Alistair, makes an effort at creating a villain, but Mordden’s only antagonist – and the true antagonist of Picano’s novel, the force which makes Alistair bad – is society. Specifically, straight society, that amorphous mass composed of 90 per cent of the population which seems to exist solely to make life as difficult as possible for the gay 10 per cent. The idea that one’s ‘identity’ – be it ethnic, religious, sexual or otherwise – places one in perpetual conflict with a more powerful Other is a classic American trope in both politics and literature; but a novel which aspires to social criticism ought to depict the society it criticises. There’s only so much you can learn about homophobia by looking at gay people. Eventually you have to examine the homophobes, and that means looking at straight people. Mordden, like Picano, gives straight folk short shrift, opting instead for an occasional tinny caricature of someone’s parents – who either don’t accept or just don’t understand their child’s homosexuality – or of a serial murderer of gay men, or of a group of gas-mask-wearing bashers attacking a gay pride parade.
The bad guy, then, remains an evil spectre; the conflicts that do emerge – will I ever fall in love? am I making the right career choice? should I move to San Francisco? – are, like the conflicts in a sitcom, predictably easy to resolve, and what’s left to drag the reader forward are Mordden’s frequent pronouncements of his Grand Theme: that gay people have an important role to play in history. When, for example, über-gay man Frank announces that he will come to San Francisco, Mordden writes: ‘Indeed, Frank was coming: because destiny wanted him to. Frank has a date with his future, which needs him in a certain place some years from now, to save the life of someone he has never heard of, a young man named Lonnie Ironwood. Some of us float, some of us make choices, and a very few of us, like Frank, are Summoned.’ Remarks like this appear regularly; but they don’t so much kindle interest in a developing story as indicate the author’s fundamental lack of faith in it. Mordden and Picano’s books are not ‘protest novels’ but novels which protest too much.
Many of Mordden’s protests come from Elaine, who, in her struggle to include lesbian content in her fiction, is quickly revealed to be Mordden’s stand-in. ‘It’s not my job as a writer to make you happy,’ Elaine declares early on. ‘It’s my job to make you think.’ What she wants you to think is this: ‘It’s a world with entirely new rules.’ This statement, made about a gay bar, is soon extended to the entire gay milieu, a ‘new world’ built of bars called Hero’s and peopled with men who are sexually ranked A, B, ‘borderline’, ‘I-don’t-know’ and D – the ‘total rejects’ (the alphabet, it seems, is also being reinvented). In Mordden’s and Picano’s world gay men – and lesbians too! – have broken free from the bonds of history and reinvented themselves. Stand up, straight people, and take note: paradise is as easy as a gym membership, a disco beat and a bottle of poppers.
‘It’s hard to believe,’ says Elaine, ‘that there was a time when such people had nothing of their own to go to but dingy demimonde saloons. Now they’re dating and dancing like teenagers in July.’
‘Yes, it’s been a re-establishing decade,’ Johnna responds. Her hand explains, vaguely. ‘Diversities.’
‘Will our lit reflect those diversities, I wonder?’ A loaded question.
Johnna smiles. ‘Your book.’
‘My book and other books. Other writers’ books.’
Not this time. Mordden’s novel never delivers anything that looks like a new world, a new culture, a new code of behaviour, let alone ‘diversities (as if we need more than one ‘diversity’). Occasionally it shows people trying to live their lives, and that, one would have thought, would be enough to fill any book. But: ‘I don’t do small talk,’ is one character’s fatalistic pronouncement. ‘I only do topics.’ File under: Epic, Gay (and Lesbian).
When Sally meets Edward in Patrick Gale’s The Facts of Life, World War Two has just ended. Edward is German, Jewish, tubercular, a composer; Sally is his doctor in the East Anglian hospital where he has ended up after ten years as a refugee in England. Courtship is made difficult by her parents’ anti-semitism and the sexual jealousy of Thomas, his male guardian; nevertheless, Sally and Edward marry and set up house in the Roundel, the matriarchal home of one Dr Pertwee, pioneering feminist, sex educator, and Sally’s mentor, who bequeaths her the ramshackle mansion and then retires to a nunnery to die. Sally’s past – her mother, cancerous, her father, crippled, and her career in medicine – disappears in the wake of marriage and pregnancy, but Edward’s comes back to haunt him. Shortly after his wedding, his sister Miriam is found in an asylum in France. There are scars on her head; she has been experimented on. She is hugely fat, immobile, unresponsive, a vegetable with open eyes: Edward smothers her with her pillow. In due course, he suffers a breakdown and attempts to smother his daughter, whom Sally has insisted on naming Miriam; then he attempts suicide. In an asylum he undergoes electroshock therapy until Sally spirits him to the Roundel, where, under her care, he recovers. In the ensuing months he has a brief fling with Myra Toye, a film star at the studio where Edward writes Oscar-winning scores, and then, suddenly, Sally dies in a flash flood. Part One doesn’t end here, with Sally hanging like laundry from the limbs of the tree into which the flood had washed her, but at her funeral, where Thomas, Edward’s gay guardian, schemes to get Edward back in his house – but settles, in the short term, for the sexy cabbie who had driven him to the funeral.
Patrick Gale’s untroubled prose is something of a saving grace, and it is mercifully free of the political pronouncements that haunt Picano and Mordden’s work. But in the end, I think, such even-handedness proves Gale’s undoing. Courtship, murder, childbirth, insanity: all are described in the same level voice. Every scene, no matter how important or trivial, merits about twenty pages of clean careful observation and seems designed to elicit a standard emotional response – when someone dies you feel sad, when someone is born you feel happy – then, the scene’s action concluded, you are moved on to the next, and, inevitably, the next. And so:
In Part Two, Edward’s grandchildren, straight Alison and gay Jamie, are aspiring yuppies; their mother is hippie-turned-bourgeois Miriam, their fathers any of several candidates known collectively as the Beards, men with whom Miriam shared a commune in the Sixties. Alison is rescued from an attempted rape by Sam, a mysterious and sexy builder who moves in with her but soon ends up with Jamie, despite the fact that he’s ‘not queer’. It is Jamie’s first relationship after hundreds of one night stands, and it turns out to be his last as well: a routine medical evaluation reveals that he is HIV-positive; within months he’s ill, and, eschewing treatment, he’s dead within a year. He is brought to the Roundel to die, cared for by Sam, Miriam, Alison and Edward. Edward proves inflexibly homophobic, and only accepts Jamie and Sam’s relationship when Sam confesses to Edward that Jamie had asked Sam to kill him, an ‘act of love’ which Sam, unlike Edward, couldn’t perform. The second half of the second half of the novel is an extended deathbed scene; when, finally, Jamie dies the Roundel is transformed into a retreat for people with Aids and their caregivers, a charitable organisation given chic status by retired soap queen Myra and world-famous composer Edward, who seem bound for romance in their golden years. To complete the picture, Alison, who will run the retreat, is pregnant by Sam, who will stay on as handyman, making sure windows open, doors close and gutters never clog.
Most novels tell you what they’re up to, and most, if you look hard enough, make excuses for themselves, usually at the same time. As Alison becomes immersed in caring for Jamie, she learns ‘the true value of fictive escapism’; at Jamie’s insistence, she and Sam attend a ‘dazzlingly inane musical revival, with a candy-floss love story, lines of chorines stamping gold-spangled tap shoes and astonishingly mobile sets ... The undisputed escapism was just what they both needed, enabling them to laugh and smile at nothing in particular, to stop thinking, in fact, for two merciful hours.’ The Facts of Life is, to adapt Gale’s phrase, disputed escapism, the flip-side of the musical Alison and Sam attend. It’s a two-hanky weeper in which tragedy is always pushed away by a continuing narrative: thus Part One closes not with Sally’s death but with Thomas scoring the cabbie at her funeral, and Part Two not with Jamie’s death but with the slightly silly reincarnation of the Roundel and Edward and Myra’s love affair. Gale writes with an almost virtuoso facility. He has managed to do for Aids what Steven Spielberg did for the Holocaust.
Tragedy isn’t Michael Cunningham’s objective either. His subject in Flesh and Blood is want – the gap between what one needs and what one has. It seems a modest goal for a novel so grand in scope – but modesty, as Eve Harrington proved, is often the best way to conceal a deeply ambitious nature. Cunningham’s mask is more benign than Eve’s, a Post-Modern defence against a contemporary readership conditioned to avoid big themes.
Flesh and Blood traces four generations of the Stassos family in America: Constantine, its old-world patriarch, is a Greek immigrant; he marries Mary, an Italian-American girl whose family, like the family she marries into, struggles to call itself part of the middle class. Both are, in their own way, greedy: Constantine wants money, Mary respectability, and, of the two, Constantine proves more successful. Over the years he climbs the ladder of wealth, leaving Mary to manage each successively larger home. But no amount of purchased elegance ever opens the doors of her snobby neighbours, and Mary attempts to console herself by shoplifting the tiniest, most inexpensive items. Susan, their efficient eldest daughter, is Constantine’s too-valued favourite; she escapes from his ‘kisses and hugs’ by marrying an ambitious if stolid Republican and achieving a success that is so distillated it’s almost dry. Will, the middle child, is his mother’s favourite; her vision of him carefully excludes his homosexuality, though when he does finally reveal it to her she is shown a lifestyle not much different from her own. It’s Zoe, the youngest, who proves most strange to mother and father, prompting Constantine to worry if ‘he’d made a foreigner’s life for her with something as simple as a name’. Zoe is born a little too late for the Sixties, but she lives the life anyway, one of carefree sex and drug use; her best friend is a drag queen, her child the son of a black man she dated for only a few months.
Time passes; Constantine leaves Mary for Magda, who isn’t generous but is ample, in all the ways Mary had grown stingy; Jamal, Zoe’s son, and Ben, Susan’s son, become part of the story; Zoe falls ill with Aids. It’s Zoe’s illness that keeps the family members from drifting their separate ways, and it’s her death, and Ben’s homosexuality, that finally rip it apart. Ben is the model child of a model family, handsome, smart, athletic, kind, above all, loved, and his greatest desire is not to lose that love or to hurt those who love him, which he sees as the inevitable result of the revelation of his homosexuality. These ideas exist just below the surface of Ben’s consciousness and are revealed in a code that never uses any taboo words, as is his final decision, which is to commit suicide rather than reveal himself. His death shatters the family and effectively ends the novel, though Cunningham offers a dénouement which, like so much else in his novel, is Victorian in origin but feels almost Post-Modern in spirit. In brief paragraphs, he traces each of his characters to their deaths, and if any similarity to the pulp epic remains by the end of his book, he casts it off here: he firmly, finally, ends the story he began.
Cunningham’s three gay characters – Will, Ben and Cassandra, Zoe’s drag queen friend – raise the big questions of value and identity, which give the book its strength. Will’s values are those of the liberal middle class, and he has found a life that manages to reflect them: he’s a teacher, he’s mostly monogamous, he and his lover Harry take in Jamal after Zoe dies. Ben takes his parents’ Republican values and makes them almost stoical in his desire to be loyal to them. Because he can’t conceive of his homosexuality as anything more than betrayal, he kills himself. Cassandra is a nurturer: as a boy she raised her younger brothers and sisters in her parents’ stead; as an adult she takes care of the teenage Zoe and helps to raise Jamal; she is a former academic, fluent in several languages, a sometime prostitute, a professional shoplifter; she also dies of Aids. It’s Cassandra who, attempting to console Mary about Zoe’s illness, suggests waterproof mascara; it’s Cassandra who would rather Jamal lived with Mary than bourgeois Will and Harry after she and Zoe die. The only conflicts she sees between any of her many roles are the conflicts others impose on her; and, as much as possible, she concerns herself with the day-to-day business of living her life as morally as possible, according to a code that both acknowledges its conservative roots and tailors it to meet her needs.
In fact, throughout Flesh and Blood, Cunningham is less concerned with the surface events of his narrative – the plot, in other words – than with the way his characters react to changing circumstances. Cunningham’s narrative is compelling – it seems to consume time rather than merely surrender to it – but it is in small circumstances that he prefers to linger. Decorating a cake can be revelatory, climbing a tree religious; and every sentence, no matter how mundane its subject, is a literary event. Such ostentatiousness could go disastrously wrong in a less gifted stylist or less perceptive observer, and for much of Flesh and Blood I waited uneasily for Cunningham to slip up. But he doesn’t: he consistently manages to reveal the general in the particular without resorting to posturing or polemic. Mary ‘took the brush from Susan and forced it through Zoe’s hair so hard that buried thoughts were pulled to the surface of her brain’. ‘Todd’s brother’s Chevrolet gleamed with everything a new car had to say about freedom and better luck.’ Constantine ‘crawled among the gnarls and snags of his father’s vineyard, tying errant tendrils back to the stakes with rough brown cord that was to his mind the exact colour and texture of righteous doomed effort.’ What makes these observations beautiful is Cunningham’s insistence that they are idiosyncratic, even unimportant. This is Zoe, shortly before she dies:
A bee buzzed onto the porch, hovered over the floorboards. Zoe watched it in its lush, suspended heaviness of body, the transparent shadow it cast. She watched her brother and his lover move together. Was their affection for each other related to the flight of the bee? No, that was just her habit of making connections.
It’s a take-it-or-leave-it declaration about love, about homosexuality, about life and death, and about the use, and usefulness, of metaphor: when you see a bee and its shadow and are reminded of love, when you see a Chevy and think of freedom, you are offered both the ecstasy of possibility and the pain of its absence. Happiness, Cunningham seems to suggest, only comes when you choose a place between the two. Until Ben’s death, Constantine is always after more; Mary reconciles herself to less and less; both are unhappy. Mary finds her way to a kind of peace; Constantine seems to settle for numbness. Of all the characters, Will comes closest to happiness: divorced from his lifelong conflict with his father, and contented with Harry, he becomes joyful – and just a bit boring.
In a better world, Like People in History, How Long Has This Been Going On? and The Facts of Life would be published straight into paperback and sold from whirling wire racks at supermarkets; gay men could buy them along with their Evian and sun-dried tomatoes, and their authors would be profiled in some gay version of Better Homes and Gardens. This is even acknowledged: the jacket copy for Like People in History calls it a novel with ‘all the popular appeal of James Michener, Judith Krantz and Forrest Gump’. In fact, the book is as laboured as the first, as silly as the second and as pompous as the third, but we’re still years away from a gay-themed novel that sells on a par with Michener or Krantz. This second-class status weighs heavily on both Mordden and Picano’s novels; indeed, it is precisely this sense which ruins them. Good trash revels in its trashiness. Morality isn’t a theme, but the playing-field on which the traditional pulp epic unfolds. Rather than make grandiose moral statements, the pulp epic takes an idea of right and wrong for granted and quickly establishes a cast of heroes and villains. This is what The Facts of Life does, and if you removed a few dozen pronouncements from Mordden or Picano’s books, this is precisely the turf you’d be on.
The real problem with books such as Like People in History and How Long is not that they’re bad, but that their authors want us to believe that they’re good. This has something to do with the market these books were written for. By creating an odd and oddly defined category of writing – ‘gay fiction’ – you also create a distinction whose very existence implies a qualitative difference where none exists. As gay fiction has proliferated, the quality of that fiction has varied greatly. This may seem obvious, but in the world of gay books there seems to be a tacit assumption that gay fiction possesses superior aesthetic merit, simply for possessing gay content. Time was when there was more than a little truth to this, but nowadays one mostly hears about a writer’s ‘bravery’ for including ‘difficult subject-matter’ in writing workshops and regional newspapers. Homophobia still exists in the publishing world – only a few years ago I received a rejection letter whose author suggested that ‘psychological difficulties’ prevented me from creating ‘effective fiction’ – but the primary obstacle to the success of books with gay themes isn’t editors but readers. Straight people still resist picking up books about gay characters, and the ghettoised existence of these novels only makes things worse by implying as it does that the characters in them are different from (read: ‘inferior to’) straight people – a subspecies whose existence is justified by these novels rather than descried.
Interestingly, this new subgenre of gay epic, which seems designed to bring gay fiction to, if not new heights, then new depths, also contains the possibility of dismantling its parent genre. The form of the contemporary pulp epic has evolved from something that was originally about religion and the state to something that is about people: not individuals, but, typically, a family whose members exemplify the various attributes of a single community. The most common community represented is the aspiring white middle class, but examples of the genre can be found in black, Jewish, Asian and other communities. In emphasising the notion of community, Picano and Mordden’s epics fall right into this category, but in de-emphasising the family they trap themselves. Treating the members of a community as members of a community emphasises their sameness, but writing about people within families emphasises their differences, and by virtually eliminating the family from their communitarian tracts Mordden and Picano intentionally or inadvertently gather together a group of people who all essentially think and act the same way – and the reason for the elimination of the family, one can’t help feeling, is that families often contain straight people. Both Gale and Cunningham centre their epics on the family, and, in so doing, they’re forced to write less about gay people; but by contextualising homosexuality in this way, they manage to say a lot more about both homosexuality and homophobia than either Mordden or Picano. Sam’s bisexuality in The Facts of Life suggests a more complex view of sexuality than the political dogmatism of Like People in History or How Long Has This Been Going On? will allow for; Ben’s suicide in Flesh and Blood is more tragic than any gay-bashing incident in Picano or Mordden’s epics, because we see exactly the circumstances that have produced it. Gale is thematically closer to Picano and Mordden than Cunningham, in that he is primarily concerned with using the family to make statements about gay life, albeit much more subtly than Picano and Mordden. Only Cunningham subordinates the topic of homosexuality, using it to comment on the family, rather than the other way around.