Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Dark and Stormy Night

This review was published in GCN on April 14, 1981. The answer to my offhand question in the body of the review is that "Vincent Virga" is not a pseudonym. Virga is a successful book designer and picture editor, and he went on to write two more novels: A Comfortable Corner (1986), about a contemporary gay male couple troubled by one partner's alcoholism, and Vadriel Vail (2001), another historical gay romance, but one that I found unreadable. He also compiled Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States (1997) with the Curators of the Library of Congress and Alan Brinkley.

Since Gaywyck appeared there has been a steady flow of gay male romances (to say nothing of lesbian romances, published sometimes by corporate publishers but mainly by Barbara Grier's Florida-based Naiad press). Some of these have included the male equivalents of bodice-rippers, to judge by their cover scans on Amazon. Few have come up to Gaywyck's standard. I guess this sort of thing is harder to do than I'd have guessed.

by Vincent Virga
Avon Books
$2.95 paper

The cover should tell you as much as you need to know about Gaywyck. In the background a gloomy mansion crouches beneath lowering, foreboding skies; in the foreground a darkly handsome man in formal dress rests one hand (the other grasps a walking-stick) on the shoulder of a fragile, apprehensive-looking blond youth while waves crash on the rocks around them. “He was so innocent … until he fell captive to the brooding master and sinister secrets of GAYWYCK” – if that isn’t enough to send you into paroxysms of laughter, you have my sympathy. Go on to the magazine rack, pick up the latest issue of Honcho or whatever, and do not reflect on experiences which are beyond your understanding.

From the opening sentence of the narrative – “I resemble my mother physically”-- to the closing one – “Bells tolled, the sea continued, our love endures” – Mr. Vincent Virga had me in his spell. Robert Whyte, the novel’s narrator, is the son of a doting mother whom he resembles physically and a strict, distant father in late 19th-century New England. At the age of seventeen he is hired to catalogue the library at Gaywyck, the Long Island estate of the fabulously wealthy Gaylord family. Donough Cormack Gaylord, scion and sole surviving member – or so Robert is told – of the clan, lives there with his old tutor Julian Denvers, his old music teacher Everard Keyes, various other retainers, and “the dark sexual secrets of his past,” as it says here on the back cover. His mother, his father, and his identical twin brother Cormack Donough Gaylord all died in mysterious circumstances. Robert soon finds himself drawn tenderly to his employer, who reciprocates, but their tentative courtship is interrupted by Robert’s frequent illnesses and Donough’s business trips. This gives Robert time to uncover the dreadful Gaylord family secrets – assault, murder, incest, madness – without which no Gothic romance would be complete. In the end all the mysteries are unraveled, and with no impediments remaining to their love, Donough and Robert are free to live happily after, which they do, as the Epilogue reveals, for nearly seventy years.

I should confess that the only Gothic romance I’d read hitherto was Clara Reeve by “Leonie Hargrave” (a nom de plume of Thomas M. Disch), which I also recommend for its gay-related content but which, like Gaywyck, is as much a joke on the genre as an example of the genre. But Gaywyck, like Clara Reeve, is more than a tour de force. Vincent Virga (another pseudonym?) does more, it seems to me, than touch all the bases of a conventional genre of pulp romance. But that is for people who know the genre to say.

What I can say is that Mr. Virga writes pretty well – I did not, as I so often do, find myself mentally rewriting half his sentences for him – and he has written a novel about gay men which is fun to read, which is nice for a change. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Gaywyck is Politically Correct, since our heroes are too good-looking and wealthy, it at least eschews misogyny and machismo. It even has a reasonably credible happy ending. That alone is enough to make me wish Gaywyck had been around when I was in high school. One could, I suppose, ask for more, but for now I’m counting my blessings.