© 2000 BENT
Where do we find ourselves
Not writ large, usually.
We need to look around corners and read between the lines.
BOOKS IN BRIEF looks
at old and new books that reflect aspects of our lives, sometimes
head-on, sometimes by inference.
To suggest a book for
inclusion here, or to write a longer review of a book described
below, write to email@example.com.
Nearly Normal Life
Charles L. Mee
Little, Brown & Company. $12.95
the guy's straight. Give him a break. He's also written with uncommon
wisdom about what it was like to grow up in the 1950s, that most
conformist of decades, as a "nonconformist," through no
choice of his own, a nonconformist by virtue of contracting polio.
He's also mordantly funny about the full range of what it might
take to be a political nonconformist without even trying, the other
side of the "differentness" coin: On a whim, in high school,
he decided to call Soviet Premier Bulganin. As Mee writes, "Some
years later, I learned that the FBI was still keeping a file on
me, a file they had started when, as a high school boy, in the loopy
world of the fifties, I called Bulganin. An FBI file: I was an official
good at recounting how all the strains of his outsider status worked
for and against him, how he drew painful but necessary boundaries
against his mother's help, grew estranged from his father, stood
up to the medical establishment while still an adolescent. The dread
epidemic didn't kill Mee nor did it allow him the myth of "full
recovery." Instead, it made him a survivor of uncommon communicative
power. Listen to what he has to say.
of a Face
Harper Perennial Library, $12.50
all heard comments like this: "He's such a good-looking guy.
Too bad he's [fill in the blank]." Right. You might be lucky
enough to be handsome by some onlooker's standards, but you're not
marketable anyhow because you're a crip.
you're not beautiful. What if you're a crip with an "ordinary"
face? You can ignore your body when you look in the mirror and learn
to love the gaze that returns yours. But suppose your face is disfigured,
not merely homely or even ugly, but bad enough so that kids taunt
you, people turn away? What happens to your sense of self then?
Grealy was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of nine. In order
to save her life, her surgeons removed more than a third of her
jaw and Grealy spent the next two decades enduring one failed reconstructive
surgery after another:
Horrified as I was that people might feel sorry for me, I also
knew that I possessed a certain power. After all, people noticed
me. Wherever I went, even to the store with my mother, I was never
overlooked. I could count on some sort of attention, and I discovered
that people were embarrassed when I caught them looking at me.
I stared right back at these strangers with my big blue eyes,
which appeared even bigger now that I'd lost weight and now that,
without bone to shape it, the right side of my face was starting
to sink in. They always looked away quickly, trying to pretend
they hadn't been staring.
is about looking and being looked at, about beauty, and about the
outsider's stratagems for survival that all of us will recognize.
Stonewall Inn Editions. $11.95
Liam is a successful London photographer.
Liam is young. Liam is bored. Liam is remembering the death of his
lover, Ray. Liam's boredom might become Existential, it seems.
Unexpectedly he surprises himself
with an idea:
"Until that moment I'd never thought of answering a personal
ad, never mind placing one. Maybe it was because the week's selection
was so dull that I was almost prompted to say aloud: I could do
better than that! This set me thinking. It would be intriguing to
see the replies, what people said and how they said it. I was curious
to see the stationery, the photographs, the handwriting . . . the
spelling even. I wanted to see their fantasies. I wasn't searching
for love-I'd stopped being boyfriend-oriented with a jolt three
years back. Definitely free from that shackle of hope. I was in
the mood for some good, dirty, voyeuristic fun. That's all."
So Liam creates Bike Boy, a lycra-clad
alter-ego intent on filling his own emptiness with other people's
lives. Their sex lives, to be precise. Bike Boy is curious. Bike
Boy is bold. And he relates his omnivorous sexual escapades in a
tough, racy, patois that mirrors the urban angst of his own detachment.
Hartnett is adept at pungent physical
detail, pleasant and not so, as he races Bike Boy though successive
encounters with countless men, pleasant and (mostly) not so:
¶"I could smell him and he smelled nice. He'd recently
been working with wood or putty. He rubbed a thick wrist over his
unshaven face as I put on the teeshirt I'd removed at the end of
the road to make a bare-chested entrance." ¶"Just
one whiff of indoors and I knew there were mouse turds in the pantry."
¶"Every inch was sixteen-year-old-perfection, especially the
neck: a vulnerable dip at the back, below the graduated hairline,
tendons creating a kissable rift." ¶"Through the half-closed
door I saw him take a leak, shake his cock. He farted loudly and
then, like a dog, moved his head a little to sniff."
Bike Boy does "see their fantasies,"
with leather and scat and bondage for openers. He participates with
detached relish or disgust in all of them, but succumbs to none.
Not to fantasies of the "perverse" nor to the fantasies of love
which often infiltrate the others. Liam makes his Progress through
London like a Postmodern Rake, imagining that one encounter or another
might leave him butchered and stuffed in a trash bag somewhere in
When he answers Henry's advert,
the old man's letch-"Well, I've had this kink, if you can call it
so, all my life. I'm attracted to one-legged guys, amputees."-seems
hardly odder than any of the others. Eager to share his enthusiasm,
Henry waxes ecstatic over postcards of mutilated Greek statuary,
then shows Liam photos furnished by a doctor friend, "Young boys
clinically documented before and after surgery, from many angles."
The remarkable aspect of Liam
and Henry's encounter is its unremarkable aspect. Henry, the rabid
old devotee, Hartnett seems to be saying, is neither more nor less
misled in the ways of love than most of the other pitiable freaks,
sods, middle-class poseurs and disco sodomites that Bike Boy pursues
or runs from. What they want they'll never get for long because
what they want is no more than love's carapace. "Only Connect,"
begged E.M. Forster. "Fat chance," answers Hartnett.
"Call Me" is dirty, funny, heartless
and heartfelt. It's the life we fear we'll live.
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl
Harper Collins. $25
Cultural trends pick up speed
while you're not paying attention. Well, pay attention! Books that
tell of our confusion about gender and its shifting status in our
collective consciousness are growing better and more numerous.
"The Danish Girl," David Eberhoff's
novel inspired by the true story of Einar Wegener, the first man
to have his sex changed surgically (in 1931) is a love story. It's
about what happens to Einar's marriage to Greta, who supports and
encourages his metamorphosis. Even better, it's a poetic evocation
of the shifting center of self, the personal sexual mystery we think
we know so well. It's also the best treatment of altered gender
since celebrated journalist Jan Morris told, in "Conundrum," how
she left James Morris behind when she pursued her own sex change.
Einar Wegener pursued his female
self. Bruce Reimar never wanted to be a girl, but in 1966, at the
age of eight months he was set on the road to girlhood when an incompetent
doctor sliced off his penis in a botched circumcision. Following
the best medical advice, Bruce's parents raised him as "Brenda,"
with the aid of sex-reassignment surgery and behavior conditioning.
John Colapinto's "As Nature
Made Him" relates in harrowing detail just how bad that advice
was, and how the adult Bruce finally rejected Brenda and reclaimed
his masculinity and his life, as "David." David's fight to be himself
proves that there are no easy answers to gender ambiguity. His experience
also supports the position of advocacy groups like the Intersex
Society of North America, whose members are fighting to prevent
children born with anomalous genitals from being subjected to automatic
surgical "fixes." The struggle to find gender identity
can be tough enough. We don't need to be made disabled in the process.
Peg Zeglin Brand et al.
Indiana University Press
Beauty'll get you if
you don't watch out. Beauty, without a doubt, impales us crips on
its sharp, impossible standards.
This collection of scholarly
essays addresses the expected questions, like What inspires beauty
queens to measure up as flawless objects of the male gaze? And Whose
standard of beauty motivates African Americans to straighten their
hair? But out of this rich soup of ethics and aesthetics also emerges
the question How does beauty culture perceive the disabled body?
At least someone is looking this time.
Edited by Robert Mainardi
Photographer Bruce Bellas
eventually became Bruce of Los Angeles, famous for glossy studies
of pumped-up beefcake boys that helped define a whole era of mainstream
The pre-World War II
photos collected here (their survival a small miracle) might be
titled, "Bruce, the Forgotten Years." Shot in and around Nebraska,
these early photos let their subjects look na´ve, friendly, shy,
seductive-all without the slickness and body-beautiful insistence
of Bruce's LA years. These are bodies before the Gym Age. They make
you think of the photographs Thomas Eakins took of his students
in the 1880s. It's the very ordinariness of most of these bodies,
their mundane, "could-be-me" beauty that makes them compelling.
And that's why this book belongs here, because these bodies are
a bridge to the acceptance and appreciation of our own less-than-perfect
selves. Everything isn't black and white after all.
PHONE of OUR OWN:
The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell
Harry G. Lang
Gallaudet University Press
Gay men who are deaf
(and those who are blind) often seem set apart from the larger cripgay
culture, one dominated by mobility impairment, broadly defined.
It's incumbent on us
"others," therefore, to pay attention to struggles and achievements
that lie outside our customary perceptions. "A Phone of Our
Own" takes us back to 1964, when fewer than one percent of
the 85 million telephones in the US were used by deaf people. Three
deaf men determined to create a phone that deaf people could use
without hearing intermediaries. After much trial and error, they
succeeded in adapting teletypewriters to read letters transmitted
electronically. What they hadn't counted on was the telephone industry
and the federal government denying them the use of their telephone
After a struggle that united the entire deaf community, they won
the right to access from both AT&T and the FCC. It was a communications
revolution achieved by deaf people alone.