Sunday, June 15, 2008

If You Can't Say Something Nice ...

Have I really not posted this review before? It appeared in the March 12-18, 1989 Gay Community News. All dialogue guaranteed overheard.

Everybody Loves You: Further Adventures in Gay Manhattan
by Ethan Mordden
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988
308 pp.
$16.95 clothbound

The Promiscuous Reader opened the dish machine’s drains, then got his book and notebook and went on break. Several people he knew were sitting at one of the tables, so he got a Diet Coke (just before Carolyn locked the Coke machine) and went to join them.

“Hello, Duncan,” Liz said, without looking up from her needles and yarn as he sat down. Lately she’d taken up knitting (or was it crocheting?), which the Promiscuous Reader thought clashed nicely with her Girl Punk/Jock look: crooked nose and three-inch-long blonde flat-top. “What are you reading today?” He held up the book for her to see: Ethan Mordden’s Everybody Loves You. “Oh, you're still reading that?”

“Well, no,” he answered, “I finished it while I was at lunch. Now I’ve got to write the review. My editor said it was an extra copy, and someone else was going to review it; but when I talked to her on the phone last week she said the other guy wanted to see what I thought first. But I already have the first paragraph.” He flipped through his notebook and read aloud: “I suppose there must come a moment in every reviewer’s career when, just as his or her mind is poised to swoop down on the prey and strike, there comes the memory of Mother saying, ‘If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all!’” Everyone at the table laughed, and some finished the proverb with him as he read it. “So,” he said, laying the book in the middle of the table, “I'm thinking of nice things to say about Everybody Loves You.”

Dan picked it up and began examining it. He was one of those long-lashed, full-lipped, brown-eyed straight boys who were just a bit too pretty for their own good. Several gay boys known to the Promiscuous Reader in the dorm had entertained major crushes on him, like a sort of flu making the rounds from one to the next. The Promiscuous Reader seemed to be immune to it, though he had been impressed when Dan had gotten his long and elegant nose broken demonstrating in Washington the previous October against U.S. policy in El Salvador. “The drawing on the cover is nice,” Dan offered, pointing to the charcoal or pencil drawing on the dust jacket: a muscular young man, lying nude on a bed with his face hidden by his shoulder, with the top of pine trees visible against the sea through the window behind him.

Dan passed the book to Lindsey on his left. She was a perky blonde woman whom the Promiscuous Reader had met only a day before. She flipped through the book and grinned, “The print is big.” “And the words are short and so are the sentences,” offered the Promiscuous Reader. The woman sitting next to Lindsey pointed to the bottom of the page: “There are cute little decorations around the page numbers,” she said, and handed the book back to the Promiscuous Reader. Everyone laughed, just a little maliciously.

“I wasn’t even sure I was going to finish it,” the Promiscuous Reader said, “till it turned out I had to. I don’t know what it is, he’s not a bad writer, there’s just something wrong with the way he writes.”

“I was looking at it the other day when you brought it in,” said Liz. “It was sort of like ... porridge; I don't know.”

“Well, the image that occurred to me was …” The Promiscuous Reader began to search through his notebook. “It's that terminal cuteness, you know, like the blurb on the dust jacket.” He picked up the book again and read: “'Ethan Mordden lives in and writes about gay Manhattan, which is a state of mind.' There are story titles like ‘Do-It-Yourself S & M’. His first book of fiction was called I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore; he’s also written something called Pooh’s Workout Book. Well, a writer’s gotta eat,” he sighed, setting the book back down; someone else picked it back up and began leafing through it. “Anyway, sometimes he says things that I like -- here’s a great line: ‘I found Mitch and Billy wildly smooching on the couch like two frat brothers after a hell night.’ But then Little Kiwi says something adorable, and I start to go into diabetic coma. I had written something in my notes about it... Here: ‘It’s as if someone served you a steak with pink icing and marzipan glaze on it.’” Everyone grimaced.

“Little Kiwi?” someone asked.

“Yeah, that's Dennis Savage’s houseboy-slash-lover. They all have names like that...Tom Adverse, Champ McQuest, Cosgrove Replenin, (what did I write here?) Kern Loften, Jensen Drinker... and little Kiwi’s real name is Virgil Brown. It must be Mordden’s revenge for having been named Ethan Mordden.” He frowned. “And I really don’t like most of his characters. I don’t like the way his big butch men, like Dennis Savage, have ditzy little housewives like Little Kiwi whom they won’t let grow up, sort of I Love Lucy in gay Manhattan only not funny. And you know what the happy ending is? Bud Mordden – that’s what Mordden is called in the book – who’s been playing I Am a Camera, or maybe I Am A Bachelor, is presented with a houseboy of his very own by Dennis Savage and Little Kiwi, I mean Virgil.”

“Awwww,” said Liz.

“I suspect Mordden’s gotten some bad reviews before, though,” said the Promiscuous Reader, “because he's trying to get in a few licks in advance.” He glanced at his notebook, then searched through the book. “'The left-out gay writers who have to publish in porn slicks or local newspapers of occult circulation--'” The Promiscuous Reader looked around the table and raised his eyebrows meaningfully, then went on: “'--try to cheer themselves up by hating what they think of as the Pines School of Fiction, so to say. And yes, I can see why tales of men getting men threaten them, because they don’t get anything.' Well, I like much of the fiction he's talking about here – Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, even Armistead Maupin writes about men getting men. But those guys can write. There was some other thing... ‘The Pines-hating leftouts must be screaming by now, because the thing they can't abide is to hear that the love they couldn't get in touch with actually exists.’ ...Well, I have news for Bud, it also exists elsewhere than the Pines.” He flipped over another page or two.

“What’re the Pines?” someone asked.

“It's a gay male neighborhood on Fire Island,” the Promiscuous Reader answered. “Oh, here it is. Somebody asks, ‘Where are all the self-hating gays now?’ And Bud answers: ‘They’re writing book reviews.’” Everyone laughed derisively; the Promiscuous Reader looked up grinning. But then he sobered. “I have to admit though, I envy even Bud Mordden a little. He writes badly, but he writes, and he publishes. I wish I could write fiction.”

“Well, why don’t you write the review as a story?” Liz suggested. “Put us all in it.”

“That's an idea,” said the Promiscuous Reader after a surprised moment. "I don't know how it'll turn out, but it's worth a try.”

“That'd be good!” Dan said. “Even if you don’t send it in, let us see it, okay?"

“Oh, of course,” the Promiscuous Reader said, then noticed the clock. “Oops, it's time to go back to Hell.” He put his hairnet back on quickly, grabbed his books, and stood up. “I’ll see you folks later!” he said as he walked back to the kitchen.

“Bye, Duncan!” they chorused, and he went back to the dishroom smiling, the review already taking shape in his mind, thanking whatever gods might be for his friends.