Friday, April 25, 2008


Another book review for Gay Community News, published in the April 30-May 6, 1989 issue. As I feared, Whitmore died between the time I wrote the review and the time it appeared in print. Rereading the review now, I wonder if I should reread Nebraska, but I really have little interest in stories which pile on the misery for no evident reason except, I suppose, to show the author's High Artistic Seriousness. Happy endings and happy people are like, so gay, y' know? For this reason I've never gotten very far with Dennis Cooper, Scott Heim, and other gay writers like that. It's not that I object to unhappiness, even misery, per se, nor to characters devoid of affect; but I don't get what these boys are driving at. I guess it's just a blind spot of mine, and again, I have no idea why my editor sent me the Whitmore books. Hell, I couldn't even come up with a flip header for the review.

And then it occurred to me that Nebraska would make a great Coen Brothers movie, or a movie by any filmmaker who shows his or her High Artistic Seriousness by tormenting the characters mercilessly. "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport," King Lear lamented. No, dear, that's playwrights and moviemakers and edgy gay novelists.

Someone Was Here: Profiles in the AIDS Epidemic
by George Whitmore
New York: NAL Books, 1988
224 pages
$17.95 hardcover

by George Whitmore
New York: Grove Press, 1987
154 pages
$15.95 hardcover

I've been reading George Whitmore's articles in the gay press for years and always found them intelligent, interesting, and well-written. (Also sometimes wrongheaded and infuriating, but that's gay journalism.) So I wasn't too surprised when I found a book by him displayed in the window of my usual local bookstore. Nor was I too surprised that Someone Was Here had originated as an article in the New York Times Magazine; whatever my differences with the Times, it represents a level of professionalism that Whitmore has certainly achieved. On the other hand, the Times also represents a self-consciously haut-journalese style that absorbs the prose style of any writer in its path, and Whitmore is no exception. Most of Someone Was Here could have been written by almost any competent journalist, and that's a shame, as proven by the book's epilogue, where the tone abruptly shifts: Whitmore acknowledges that not only is he gay, he has been diagnosed with AIDS himself. Up to this point the book has consisted of omniscient-narrator third-person accounts of people with AIDS and their families and helpers; now Whitmore suddenly appears in the midst of these people, shipping parcels to Houston for one of his subjects, visiting and holding a small HIV-infected child named Frederico whose parents both died of AIDS. Perhaps the rush of involvement the reader suddenly feels compensates for the detachment of the previous two-hundred-odd pages, but it also throws that impersonality into uncomfortably sharp relief. Thanks to writers like Whitmore as well as to the Names Quilt and other projects, AIDS is becoming a plague with a human face; we are -- to a perhaps unprecedented degree -- enabled to know its victims not just as statistics but as people. Someone Was Here is interesting, intelligent, and worth reading as an object lesson in the difficulty of playing chicken with an epidemic: we can't get too close, but we have to get as close as possible, for all our sakes.

Nebraska, Whitmore's second novel, was published a few months before Someone Was Here. It's a strange little book. This time we have a first-person narrator, but his voice is not the author's: a twelve-year-old Nebraskan named Craig McMullen, who has been run over by a truck and lost a leg. It would be going too far to say that his family is in trouble; rather, they are classically 1950s' lumpen-Midwestern. Dad is a handsome drunken Irish redhead, violent when present, but mostly absent. Mama works at "Monkey Wards", her body swelling from the ankles up. Grandpa, an old railroad man, lives with Grandma in a ramshackle house he built himself, one room at a time. Sister Betty becomes a cheerleader, sister Dolores grows up too fast. Uncle Wayne, Mama's baby brother, comes home after his discharge from the Navy, waiting for a call from his friend the Chief; the two of them plan to open a garage in California as soon as they can get the money together.

But there are delays, punctuated by mysterious long-distance phone calls from the Chief, and Wayne stays on. Coming home one night after a drinking bout, he helps the convalescent Craig change his sweat-soaked pajamas, and briefly touches the boy's scrotum. A few weeks later the highway patrol brings Wayne home, though without arresting him. Not surprisingly to a gay reader with any knowledge of the period, it turns out that Wayne was discharged dishonorably from the Navy for homosexuality; that the Chief, his lover, has rejected him out of guilt; and that Wayne has been cruising the rest stops. After Craig has been manipulated into claiming that Wayne "interfered with" him, Wayne is committed to a mental hospital for electroshock. Craig is sent to live with his grandparents. His father, who has been living in Denver and has given up booze for Jesus, suddenly appears and kidnaps him, but Craig escapes. His father then returns to Denver and blows out his own brains with a shotgun.

Twelve years pass. After Grandma's funeral, Craig goes to California to pick up Uncle Wayne's trail, hoping to understand what happened to him. He finds him living with the Chief, handsome and well-preserved, but regressed emotionally to pubescence -- to Craig's pubescence, in fact.

Nebraska reminded me somewhat of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, with its attempt to make a kind of poetry out of demotic speech, its merciless depiction of bigotry, cruelty, and madness. But Whitmore isn't interested in the kind of lyricism Walker achieved, nor does he offer more than a hint of her hopeful vision of redeeming love; in this he more resembles Raymond Carver, the poet and short-story writer who wrote stark, painful tales of human isolation. Imagine a cross between the two, then: more vivid than Carver's bleached-out, gray-scale snapshots, less optimistic than Walker's tormented but loving epic, but with all their power and then some. I hope Whitmore is as much a survivor as Craig, because I think he has important books in him, and these two are just a taste of what he could give.