Friday, June 27, 2008

The Bells of St. Clement's

Yet another book review from Gay Community News, probably published in 1988 or 1989, posted here as a space marker. In the words of Granny Weatherwax, I aten't dead. Though sometimes I wonder.

I'm not sure where the past week has gone. All the news is depressing, from Obama's support for telecom immunity to the apparent increase in violence at the Korean candlelight vigils, and I've felt too dispirited to do any writing. Or maybe just burned out -- I did write a lot in the past month. And returning to work after a month's vacation is not easy.

At least I've been reading. I finally finished Raymond Williams's The Country and the City, a truly wonderful book that I'll be referring to and quoting here in the future, and it nudged me to dig out some 19th century fiction (I think I'll be reading Thomas Hardy for the foreseeable future, plus giving Wuthering Heights another try), and to track down Brother to the Ox, a memoir by an English farm worker named Fred Kitchen, originally published in 1942. I also read Dale Martin's Inventing Superstition, which has given me some useful ideas for the New Atheist wars. I watched Love Crazy, a 1930s vehicle for Bill Powell and Myrna Loy that was entertaining and mildly raunchy for its day; and the pilot film of The L Word, to be followed by more of its first season as I find time. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis also just came out on DVD, and I'm eager to see it. There's a lot to do.

Oranges and Lemons: Stories by Gay Men, edited by David Rees and Peter Robins. London:Third House, 1987. 136 pp. 3.95

Flux, by David Rees. London: Third House, 1988. 176 pp. $7.50

I became a reviewer not just because I wanted to write, but also because I love to read. Despite a fulltime job, I manage to read an average of about 200 books a year, plus magazines and newspapers. When I read a book that I think is good, I’m filled with envy and admiration for the author. When I read a book that I think is bad, I feel not only anger -- for the waste of my time -- but embarrassment for the author. It’s like a bad dream of walking onstage minus my pants, or of playing a whole set with my guitar obnoxiously out of tune. If I identify so closely with authors of bad fiction, it’s because I have, buried in the chaos of my files, some bad stories of my own. And some of the stories in Oranges and Lemons share enough of their faults to make me think with a shudder: That could be me, making a public spectacle of myself! Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I think that a writer must have the courage not just to persist in seeking publication, but also to recognize that his or her work is not yet good enough.

But what do I know? One of the worst stories in Oranges and Lemons, the title story, is by Peter Robins, one of the editors and apparently an established writer. Oranges and Lemons” is quasi-science-fiction, set in a future British police state, and stars an old revolutionary who has sold out to the new regime. As he waits for death, he is abducted by some young revolutionaries in league with his long-lost lover Mitch -- but as luck would have it, a stray bullet snatches away “any possibility of an autumnal love”. Ironically enough, his loss cements his resolve to join the young rebels.... Written in a depressingly jaunty style, “Oranges and Lemons” is less a story than a sketch for a story. Its failings are typical of the weaker stories in the collection: imprecise style, too much aimless dialogue, and annoying didacticism. The other problem is that many of these ideas have been done before -- Rodney Mills’ “Nothing Like”, about the problems of a gay teacher of adolescent boys, or Chris Payne’s “Popping the Question”, in which a gay man alleviates his boredom at his sister’s wedding by spotting other gay men there – and the versions here add nothing to the clich├ęs.

But there are some good things here. “Dominoes, Draughts and Tea”, by Ian Hutson, is a playlet about two old lovers planning their vacation; Hutson has caught exactly the way talk becomes a caress in a long-term relationship, and lets us in on the private jokes. Martin Foreman’s “Room with No View” successfully evokes the claustrophobia of obsession. “The Solitary Collector” by Paul Davies actually manages to be rather funny, and James Macveigh’s “Tomboy” is an unsettling mix of Lolita and Wallace Hamilton’s Kevin. One of the best stories is “Winter Light”, by the collection’s other editor, David Rees. It’s about two teenaged boys drafted for a local church’s performance of Everyman who fall in love, and while nothing out-of-the-way happens, Rees evokes the situation so skillfully and tenderly that I didn’t want it to end.

Fortunately, I had at hand Flux, a whole collection of stories by David Rees. The opening trio of related stories, “Perspectives”, is about a teenaged boy’s coming-out. “Cousins” gives you parallel lives of two cousins, a gay one and a straight one. Watsonville” is about the peril of fiddling around with the foundations of even the longest and most stable relationships. The title novella is the story of one of those mixed-signals affairs, in which two men who’ve seen each other around the bars for years get involved with each other for all the wrong reasons. And there’s more, with characters ranging from pubescent to middle-aged, traveling from Mendocino to Moscow. Again, everything here is pretty low-key, but Rees is able to bring off his slices of life so smoothly that he makes it look easy. I could wish for a bit more humor, but Rees never gets too earnest. I’m not sure whether Oranges and Lemons is worth three pounds ninety-five pence, but Flux is a good buy, one of those books that reminds me by its good example not only of why I write, but why I read.