Tacky Dress

Dale Peck

  • 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.

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