Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Another book review for Gay Community News, published sometime in 1988. Bird-eyes won a Lambda Literary Award for Best Novel. Madelyn went on to publish a fine collection of stories, On Ships At Sea (St. Martin's Press, 1992) and another novel, A Year of Full Moons (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Another novel is reportedly in progress; I hope her health allows her to finish it. Meanwhile, here she honors the memory of our mutual friend, Steven Cuniberti.

by Madelyn Arnold
Seattle: The Seal Press, 1988
201 pp.
$8.95 paperback

It's scary enough just reading, let alone reviewing, the work of someone you know, especially if diplomacy is not one of your strong points. So when Madelyn Arnold asked me to review her first novel, Bird-eyes, I was eager to see it but nervous. I've known Madelyn for seventeen years but I'd never read any of her work before. It didn't help that the deal with Houghton Mifflin she'd once mentioned had evidently fallen through and a small press had published the book instead. Maybe it's just my bad experiences as a reviewer, but it seems to me that small gay and lesbian presses aren't what they once were. I've read too many books the last year or so that mainstream houses probably rejected not for gay content but for amateurish writing. Oh well, I thought, as I unwrapped the package from Seal Press, if I don't like it I can always ask Stephanie to give it to someone else.

I needn't have worried. Bird-eyes is good; rough, painful, but good. It's the story of Latisha Prentiss, who in 1964 at the age of sixteen is committed by her family to a state-run mental hospital for being a lesbian, a runaway, a prostitute (how else could a 16-year-old runaway in 1964 support herself?), and a junkie (“If you can't relax when you hustle, sex will hurt you--which is where jazz comes in” [116]). In 1964 in Middle America these things spelled C-R-A-Z-Y, and things haven't changed that much since then, including the power of parents to sweep their deviant children into institutions. With the help of a gay male patient named Bryan, Latisha is planning her escape from East Central, to return to her lover Tina, the woman who introduced her to prostitution and smack.

As the novel opens, a new patient arrives: Anna Robeson, a farm woman of forty who became depressed after her husband died and was pressured by her children into committing herself as suicidal. Anna is deaf, but she is forbidden by the hospital staff to use sign language (it's “animal-like: something out of caveman-throwback stories”; again, if you recall last March's student revolt at Gallaudet College for the deaf, whose administration was hostile to Sign, things haven't changed all that much since 1964). Latisha, wounded by the sight of Anna's naive directness, tries to teach her how to get along in East Central, and the two become friends. Despite the prohibition, Anna teaches Latisha some Sign, naming her Bird-eyes. Eventually their subversive disobedience is discovered by the staff, complicating Latisha's plans for escape.

But this is only one thread, though an important one, in a novel in which a lot is always going on. A mental hospital is a handy symbolic microcosm of society for novelists, and it encourages the creation of a Dickensian gallery of grotesque characters, among both the patients and the staff. So we have (among others) Vivian-who-never-talks, Weird Diane with her outbursts of almost random violence, Doctor Kim, “a Korean Mormon whose English was the kind you hear in kamikaze movies”, and Nurse Wykowski with her incestuous motherliness. They are the conventions of the fiction of madness, and they lend a paradoxical predictability to Bird-eyes. Arnold does this just to let you know that she knows what she's doing, however; it's as if she were saying, OK, here's the usual stuff—but now it's going to get weird.

East Central is no shelter from a violent world. Bird-eyes reminds you of the psychiatric fads of the Fifties and Sixties -- aversion therapy, Electro-Convulsive Therapy, lobotomies – asking bitterly, “Treatments come and treatments go; where do you bury the survivors?” (148). Latisha is taken out of the hospital, drugged, straitjacketed, to be “interviewed,” i.e. put on display at a downtown medical center seminar. But there's more. Bryan pimps Latisha to the male staff, she pimps herself to Wykowski. She is attacked by a male patient:

And there's more laughter but now his attendants are yelling at him easy Danny, easy -- now don't hurt that girl and we're all tangled up, he hardly can move and so he shoves; . . . My lip is bleeding: I shove as hard as I can and then it's his fist, my teeth explode and my head snaps back, cracking hard against the seat: instant nausea, I can hardly think; and suddenly they've got him up under the arms and they're standing on the seats on either side of us, twisting his arm -- there they are, much too late as usual, his attendants [100].

Compared to which the streets don't look so bad:

We were just on the street and hungry, by ourselves, without a pimp (and you need a pimp, a man to crush other men, but he'll make you want to kill him). And what proves I'm no good is that sometimes I was happy on the street. Bad things happen, but none of it is personal. There's an uncertain feeling that's sometimes very nice. . . Sometimes things would get better as the day wore on; that never happened at home. Sometimes we'd have money -- drive-in movies -- southern-fried chicken and jazz, and Southern Comfort. Not too bad. I mean, there's still the fact that you had to hunt up the next trick when the money ran low, but what's perfect [116].

But what really lifts Bird-eyes safely out of the routine and puts it on a level with such books as Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time or Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is Latisha's unforgettable voice. Tough, ironic, streetwise, walking a tightwire above an inferno of violence and the fear of madness, Latisha's baby-butch bravado never quite drowns out the loneliness and terror that keen insistently beneath. It is Madelyn Arnold's achievement to have put that voice onto paper in such a way that that you always hear its full complexity. There is some resemblance to the style of Joanna Russ, who also excels at the meticulous delineation of horribly raveled inner states, but Madelyn's style, while no less cerebral, is more concrete somehow. When Latisha stands in the shower -- her only refuge at East Central -- you feel the water drumming on her skin; when she talks of her fear of going crazy, she draws you in so that you feel it too.

You can get so everything's exactly equal: people and walls and Vivian and Diane: the TV and the cement blocks and the way they fold the milk containers, and when everything is equal, what are you? That's when you sit and stare. You have to fight that actively, all that staring: and when you find yourself doing that you have to get up and move. You simply move. Just walk someplace and look back where you were -- not far away – and remind yourself that you aren't there anywhere. So you are not equal to the way you were: that place is not yourself, and you're still free [36].

I don't want to dwell on the autobiographical element in Bird-eyes, but it's there, so it should be mentioned. Madelyn Arnold (which, incidentally, is a pseudonym) was herself committed by her parents to a state mental hospital as a teenager for being a lesbian. There are other parallels between Latisha and Arnold, but there are also differences -- Madelyn always told me, for instance, that she convinced the not-too-sophisticated staff that she was heterosexual by necking in public with a young man who had also been committed for being gay. Eventually they released her. Latisha, on the other hand, escapes. For me this indicates Madelyn's understanding that it's not enough, in writing a novel, just to elaborate on what happened to you or to someone else. The true ending would probably have tipped the story into black comedy; the ending of Bird-eyes shows Latisha taking her freedom, rather than its being given to her, yet leaves her a fugitive forever.

Most of the small-press gay fiction I've had to read the past year or so I will never read again. But Bird-eyes haunts me, and when I'm feeling strong enough, I'll go back to it. Yes, it says, life is hell. But if you let yourself go numb, you've lost. It will take all the courage you've got and then some, but as long as you can feel pain, you are resisting, and as long as you resist, you're still free, however uncertainly. Bird-eyes is terrifying because it dares to face the hell of memory. And I find that I want to boast: a friend of mine, someone I know, wrote it.