When I picked this book to write about this morning, I noticed that a lot of my friends have written about it, which is natural, since this is an iconic gay male novel, born out of an era in which writing of this blunt honesty was nearly impossible. This is the kind of book that Grove Press was known for, edgy and hard. It is also the kind of book that people speak of as hard, edgy, frank, which means that the writer treats sex in a particular way; at least I find that to be true most of the time. There are not a lot of parallels to this book; it is reminiscent of other writers who deal directly with erotic matter, but it is born out of one man’s hard-won experience. The ideas about gay sex that Rechy wrote about fell out of fashion in the aftermath of HIV; he was an advocate for hustler sex, anonymous sex, public sex; the world he writes about is that night-driven world that gay people occupied in that same era. It is a hard era for people to comprehend and is easy to dismiss as a time when men were closeted and full of self hatred. The fact that the closets and the self hatred were the natural outgrowth of trying to find intimacy in the shadows and corners of the world is harder to see. Rechy does not write about those ideas. He simply presents the world of the hustler, the world of the drag queen, the scenes of gay bars in New Orleans, with the sensibility of a natural inhabit of all these milieus. He does so with force and brilliance and a good strong dose of messiness. The writing is extravagant, self-involved, and true. It’s almost pointless to call this book a classic; it is a singular novel that only got itself born because of the force of the writer and his unswerving vision. He wrote many other novels, most of them not successful; but a few of them are essential – Numbers and The Sexual Outlaw come immediately to mind. Much as I love this book, I have never been able to face rereading it. I suppose I don’t want to spoil my first impression of it, when everything Rechy had to say was vital to my understanding of myself.
This book was published in 1993 and I read it shortly after, a gift from my editor at Algonquin Books. Emile Capouya led one of those lives that sounds like an adventure story in itself, a seaman, a soldier in two wars, then a change of career, university, and book publishing. He was literary editor of The Nation and head of New Amsterdam books. That much I gleaned from his biography; the rest is in the book itself. The first line of the first story is “This is not a story.” But it is, indeed. It is the sort of worldly, lived book that would have pleased a Hemingway; it is also soft, appealing in the conception of the five stories, and seen from such a gentle perspective. Capouya is the kind of writer I would like to meet over coffee just to see what his conversation is like. The five stories contained in the book are all very fine, preoccupied with matters of the sea, of wartime, but there is such a sense of calm and ease in the writing. I don’t know whether he ever wrote another book; but this one was a masterpiece in its quiet way. Available only from a place like Amazon or through a search of used bookstores. I will have to read these stories again. Such a fine sensibility.
Shirley Jackson occupies a territory that lies between so many kinds of writing that her books are hard to categorize, and our world does not deal well with anything that can’t be labeled in a word or two. There is no easy jargon to describe what she does as a writer. She is called a writer of horror but anyone reading the novels that are better known than this one might wonder what all the fuss is about – no blood, no vampires, no ghosts. The implication that there might be ghosts. The certainty that the surface of a place – like Hill House, or in this case, the home of Natalie Waite – undulates with the presence of something unsettling just beneath. Here is writing of a fine, highly literary quality with a vision that one struggles to find a word for – odd? eerie? There is nothing about Jackson that can be taken lightly; her paragraphs are marvels of complexity, her sentences perfectly formed, and her ability to observe a scene, to dissect it, is surgical. She brings to the adolescence of Natalie a disturbing sense of something having been wrong in her relationship with her family, her father, all along, and yet how does one define it? Then in the latter part of the novel it is as if the world dissolves into something increasingly formless. I have met young people like this poor girl, lost in families that have strangled their being, and have been grateful for the relative indifference of my own parents. God save us all from parents who want to shape our every thought and moment. I would be satisfied to praise this novel more highly if I were certain what it was. But as writing it is about as fine as a person can want. She is not Stephen King (whom I also admire); her idea of horror is far more subterranean, and, indeed, I wonder whether she found herself surprised to be described as a writer of horror fiction at all. Her purposes are much deeper than that. It will be good to discover more of her.
Max was one of my writing teachers at Chapel Hill, a tall man with an enormous head, a golden voice, and a penchant for messing with people’s heads. Especially students. He was also a brilliant teacher who could say one sentence about writing that would stick in my head for days. When I read his writing I was consumed by the idea of southern writing, which in those days meant, largely, white writing about the idea of a doomed south. He fit the mold but wrote exquisitely, leaving behind one novel and a couple of books of stories. He was supposed to do a lot more than that, and the fact that his writing went cold for a decade or more was always trouble to him. This book was a late collection of stories published by Algonquin Books, and it included a number of stories that had already been published in his collection Where She Brushed Her Hair. The stories are very fine. “Where She Brushed Her Hair” is included in the volume; I remember Max reading this story aloud to us in class and thought then that the various turns of the story were simply beautiful. It is still one of my favorites. So is “The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers.” He deserves to be remembered.
The chronicle of retirement has been convoluted and eventual and it is not over yet. I am still testing out the days to discover how best to use them. There is the overarching fact of my mother who shares the house with me, and from whom I will always need instruction in the basics. She is a woman who likes clean hands, swept floors, and tidy habits, along with wall art that consists mostly of flowers in vases. She is the baseline. It’s my job to adjust to her. But there is also the return to rural North Carolina, where I grew up and with which I am still familiar. We are living in the town where my mother’s friends are, and where her church is, and where people are much as I remember them from my early years. There are probably a lot of people like me who have a vocation that does not have much to do with the job, and I feel lucky about having that, but at the same time there is unease with it. I will always write, that’s true, and I don’t feel much change in the impulse. Maybe I feel freer to do it, and the return to North Carolina is reminding me what my real material is – my truest material, I mean. Just listening to my cousins tell stories about what we all remember from the days of our grandparents opens up my head to the possibility of all that fertile stuff. It’s likely I strayed too far from the material that I really understood in the years when I was trying to figure out what publishers wanted. In my forties I wanted to stop writing about the miseries of family and poverty. But now I think that’s what I’m meant for. So I am retired but I am not. I no longer have to teach, and at the end of the summer I will no longer be on anybody’s payroll. But every morning I will wake up with the feeling that there is something I need to do to justify my existence. What I have to be mindful of is that the writing is the point. I have no idea how much I will be able to publish in the future. Even if I were not aging and losing relevance – I just spent twenty five seconds searching for the word “relevance” – publishing is volatile and might go in so many directions after the pandemic. If, indeed, there is an “after” to all this. The writing is the point. Keeping up a conversation with people is the point. Staying alive to see what the next thing will be. Finishing another novel, and another one, until something, some inner voice, says, okay. That’s it. You’re done with that now, too. I’ve been employed since I was fourteen years old, as best I can recall. It’s an odd thought, no matter what I do with the writing, to think that my working, paycheck-earning life is over. It’s too large to get my head around. But I’ll adjust.
There are only a handful of writers who could write four stories, collect them into a book, and have the book become essential. Tillie Olsen did write a bit more than these stories, but writing was a struggle for her due to her circumstances. She has written about her fight to find room for her voice in her non-fiction book Silences, which is hard to read and reminiscent of Joanna Russ’s thinking on the same subject: how do women find a place for themselves on the literary shelf. These stories are decades old but they retain their power. I’ve taught the title story many times; the first sentences crack a whip over the head, the sound of the words so electric, “How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say – but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown.” It’s like the first sentence of an Edward Jones story, it takes you right to the heart of the thing. This is beautiful writing. May it always be here.
When I started this book I was sixteen or seventeen, had checked it out from our high school library, and read it with interest because I was already enamored of the Greeks and armies marching here and there, the conquest of Persia; it was a cousin to fantasy, which I was also reading at the time. The early life of Alexander was engaging and clear; I was enjoying Mary Renault’s prose, which I could recognize as better writing than I was used to in my science fiction favorites. Then came the entry into the book of Hephaistion and his love of Alexander, when they were schoolboys being tutored by Aristotle. I was absolutely struck dumb by the fact that two boys were in a book in love with each other. I had never read anything like that and had figured out that my own feelings were supposed to be hidden and not shared with anybody. The story was transporting even without the addition of this element, but the fact that I could identify with the book so closely made an impression that was thrilling. I have read the book several times over the years, not nearly as many times as I read its sequel, The Persian Boy. Renault is an extraordinary writer who found in this material something that touched the best writer she could be. Of all the historical writers I’ve read, I love her best.
Reading Tayari Jones’s first novel, the carefully crafted, moving account of young children living through the Atlanta child murders, remains one of the best first novels I have ever read. This is a truly literary exploration of the inner lives of people who feel themselves to be endangered from all sides, for whom the idea of a bogeyman is very real. The metaphor that overshadows the reality of a child killer is the larger picture of America, which Jones deals with in the most subtle way: there is always someone waiting to kill a black child. What they are seeing in the story of the child killer is the reality of their world. Yet Jones treats this idea with delicacy and without sentiment or polemic, simply allowing these young selves to unveil. It was a pretty good bet Jones would make her mark, and book after book she has taken the journey.
I have been reading Josephine Humphreys since her first novel came out, too many years ago to think about, and remember hearing her speak about her fascination with this tale. So I know that she worked for years on the research and other matter necessary to create this book, and the result is a fine, thoughtful novel that shows her to be at the top of her form. Since I grew up in eastern North Carolina I knew something of the Lumbee people and their struggle to find an identity; but her depiction of the love of Rhoda Strong for Henry Lowrie, her husband, gave such force to the novel. This is a tale that needed telling, a people coming together to resist a war they wanted nothing to do with. Too little is said about southerners who wanted nothing to do with secession, especially if it entailed the fighting of armies, but they got no choice in the matter. Too little is said about people like the Lumbee, who were collateral damage in the whole bitter mess. This story is at the intersection of slavery, war, native peoples, and poor people scraping by on the land, and the couple at the heart of the story embodies the kind of courage and tragedy that overtook so many in that time. It is a brave leap from her earlier work to this complex project, and solidified Humphreys as one of the great voices of our generation of writers.
As far as I can tell, Jayne Anne Phillips can do no wrong. Knowing that she had set out to write a novel based on a true crime, I expected a novel that would disconcert me in some fashion, but what she wrote was a complicated story about the disintegration of a family, the hardships faced by a single mother, and a journey to West Virginia that opens up another world inside the first one. Murder, discovery, and a crime that found a national audience. It’s almost inconceivable that the book works as well as it does, being split in half by the murder, with the story migrating from the family that died to the reporter who becomes bound to the story and tells it with all her heart. This is a novel of such sweep that any attempt to describe it falls short: the message you should get here is that Phillips can write anything, so just settle into this book and let it happen. No, it’s not entirely unified, but I didn’t care; she follows the story where it goes and gets carried away by it herself. The passage where Emily hires a near-abandoned child and slowly grows attached to him is a moment of pure light in the harder story that stands in the foreground. This was a really grand book to read. I felt I was seeing a different side of a writer whom I admire so very much.