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B
OOKS IN BRIEF

© 2000 BENT

 

Where do we find ourselves in print?
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 books@bentvoices.org.

 

September 2000

 

OFFICIAL OUTSIDERS

A Nearly Normal Life
Charles L. Mee
Little, Brown & Company. $12.95

OK, so 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 outsider."

Mee is 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.

Autobiography of a Face
Lucy Grealy
Harper Perennial Library, $12.50

You've 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.

Suppose 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?

Lucy 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.

Her memoir is about looking and being looked at, about beauty, and about the outsider's stratagems for survival that all of us will recognize.

 

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July 2000

 

ONLY CONNECT

CALL ME
P-P Hartnett
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 the suburbs.

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.

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CHANGELINGS

 

The Danish Girl
David Eberhoff
Viking. $24.95

As Nature Made Him
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

John Colapinto
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.

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May 2000

BEAUTY MATTERS
Peg Zeglin Brand et al.
Indiana University Press
iupress.Indiana.edu

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.

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THE NAKED HEARTLAND
Bruce Bellas
Edited by Robert Mainardi
Janssen Verlag

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 homoeroticism.

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.

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A PHONE of OUR OWN:
The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell

Harry G. Lang
Gallaudet University Press
gupress.gallaudet.edu

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 lines.

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.

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