Friday, September 3, 2010

The Man Who Got Away

I'll probably finish reading James Lord's My Queer War (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010), having passed the halfway point today. If I'd checked it out from a library, I probably wouldn't have gotten that far, but I bought it: partly because the subject was interesting -- the World War II experiences of a gay man of my parents' generation -- and partly because the book had received rapturous reviews. I'd only read one of Lord's previous books, the 1965 A Giacometti Portrait, and don't remember anything of it, for good or bad.

My Queer War has been a serious disappointment. The writing ranges from the serviceable -- when Lord writes about his interaction with other people -- to the dire. I've come to believe that there may be no objective criteria for good or bad writing, so I'll try to explain what bothers me about Lord's prose and let the reader form his or her own opinion. Maybe this is what's meant by good writing, who knows? But I don't think so.

Lord breaks one of the rules that got hammered into my head long ago, not only in school but in most of what I've read about being a good writer: don't overuse modifiers. Lord can't seem to use a noun without duct-taping an adjective to it, a verb without an adverb -- and he often chooses them badly. Here are some examples.
Presently, time having freed me from potato purgatory, the preposterous promise of Thanksgiving loomed. I had none to give, especially to myself, but welcomed with dogged stiffness of lip my parents, come to Atlantic City to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of my birth [12].

Madame sat in a canvas camp chair under the grape arbor, as usual, a portrait of mature composure in the face of adversity. When I went to kiss her on both cheeks -- a la francaise -- she held in her lap a copy of Sagesse, and I thought she was wise indeed to seek the wisdom of quietude in the literature of her homeland as it lay under the dominion of diligent torturers [78].

I told Mother and Dad the tale of my devil-may-care escape from the implausible bouts of chemical warfare caused by an urbane display of intellectual know-how [78].
As I read it, that last sentence implies that Lord had seen actual (if implausible) bouts of chemical warfare, when in fact he'd been stationed at a chemical-weapons storage site in Nevada, working in an office. And, as written, it was those bouts of chemical warfare, rather than his escape from them, that were caused by an urbane display of intellectual know-how.
Frank Mariano Fasolo was born in Brooklyn, brought up in a large, old-fashioned brownstone house, almost a mansion, in Park Slope, spacious enough to lodge Frank's parents, grandparents, and one great-aunt, all of whom to their everlasting honor dwelt together in judicious compatibility. Such a serene exception to the contentiousness of human nature was surely due to the atavistic affinity of the Fasolo men for civil harmony [284].
When I showed some of these gems to a bookseller I know, after groaning about purple prose he muttered that no one edits books these days. That's not true, but it does seem to be haphazard, and not just for prestigious writers and their products. If only James Lord had had a Sassy Gay Friend to cry "What, what, what are you doing?" whenever he sat down to write, this book might have been avoided.

The examples I've given could be multiplied (I took notes!), but my reader will either have suffered enough already, or have been so enthralled by Lord's writing that he or she will have run out to buy the book. They aren't the whole story, though. When Lord describes his coming-out in the gay underworld of Boston, My Queer War changes manner and becomes more like a 1940s or 1950s gay novel, the kind described so well by Angelo D'Arcangelo in The Homosexual Handbook (Olympia Press, 1968):
If, in first years of the fifties, you had a box of bonbons and a chaise longue, it was perfect reading. One could weep tears of immaculate self-pity, as with anguished self-identification, we read of the twisted, blighted-too-soon love of these unfortunates. ... How we loved it! Oh, well, you couldn't get anything else then. But it set the tone [230].
It was interesting to hear about the difficulties and rewards of finding other gay men as friends and sex partners in a very different era, though despite gay men's greater cultural visibility nowadays I'm not sure things have changed that much. In particular his account of the golden Hanno, another GI he met while stationed in Nevada, could have happened today.

Lord also was apparently a believer in Genius, which he conceived as a sort of sun lamp, in whose rays he could bask to get a spiritual tan. He was fickle, though:
Ulysses meanwhile had fallen out of luck for me. The recondite tribulations of a prestidigitator with language no longer felt quite so relevant. What was wanted now was something more warming to the workaday heart, less chilled by arcana of the intellect. Joyce said that a man of genius changes the world. He does. And I believed with all my being in the life-enhancing grandeur of genius. Individual men had brought about all the momentous advances of civilization. Dante and Newton, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Michelangelo. Only four of that stature were then living -- Einstein, Stravinsky, Thomas Mann, and Picasso - and they were all regrettably remote from Reno, Nevada [48].
In time, Lord managed to meet Picasso, and even to get the great man to sketch his portrait. But when he held the sketch in his hands,
I was disappointed. ... It's true Picasso's attention and creative faculties had not been engaged to serious effect either by his model or by his drawing while I sat before him in the restaurant. I saw in my portrait principally evidences of haste and indifference, its inadequacy, not my own [209].
So he set himself to getting Picasso to do it again, but this time "something more worthy of a creative future" (248). Later he wrote a postcard to Thomas Mann, assuring the author that he'd been meaning to write a letter but had been too busy, "so I write this now to say that I am thinking of the letter and will write it when I have time" (237). You'd think that Mann, not Lord, was the suppliant. For someone who claimed to adore Genius, Lord was oddly willing to judge it and order it around.

All this makes for a frustrating reading experience, given the material's inherent interest, but finishing the book is my penance for having bought it without looking at it more closely. Contrary to the blurb from Larry Kramer (whose endorsement should have warned me off right away), there has been anything quite like My Queer War before, from the graphic biography Alan's War by Emmanuel Guibert (First Second, 2008), which has some incidental gay characters; to Sanford Friedman's novel Totempole (Dutton, 1965), which features a romance between an American GI and a Korean POW; to Allan Berube's oral history of gay and lesbian World War II vets Coming Out Under Fire (Free Press, 1990); to Mary Renault's The Charioteer (Longmans Green, 1953) about a gay British soldier in World War II. For memoirs by gay men of my parents' generation or before, there's always Christopher Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976), which it's high time I reread.