I read quite a bit this year. More than other years. Seemed a fitting distraction from what is going on in the world.
Here are six short reviews of some of my favorite LGBTQ novels, three new and three rediscovered.
by Andrew Holleran (1978)
Narrated by an unseen chorus of observers, we are introduced to a community of a certain echelon of gay men in New York, just on the cusp of the AIDS crisis. Through their eyes, we closely follow the two main characters––former “straight” Midwestern lawyer turned coveted hustler Anthony Malone, and his friend the divinely decadent social butterfly Andrew Sutherland.
Their existence is a whirlwind of addictions to many vices. Drugs, sex, self-deprecation, gossip, expensive trinkets, weekends to Fire Island, and long unending nights on the dance floors. The most elusive vice of all is love, chased daily and unsuccessfully by all self-proclaimed addicts.
The book is a riveting time capsule, neither glamorizing nor demonizing the lives of these men. Yet, in some ways, it feels familiar.
Having just moved back to the city myself after a two-year break, I find elements of Holleran’s gay mecca still very much alive. Maybe it’s the currently charged political times? Maybe it’s the rise of new queer subcultures? Maybe it’s PreP?
These days, the New York gay scene still seems to hang on to aspects of the world frequented by Malone and Sutherland, but perhaps, better-documented thanks to our phones.
Favorite Quote ––
On our deathbeds we will remember faces––not what we accomplished or failed to accomplish, what we worried over anxiously, but the face in the subway, the grace of two black boys who washed each other’s shaven heads with shampoo one afternoon in an army camp in Georgia, the site of Malone when his eyes met yours.
by SJ Sindu (2017)
Lies tend to have lives of their own. In SJ Sindu’s debut novel, the thousand lies she tells us seem to grow from a seemingly simple root until her character Lucky, née Lakshmi, cannot control them anymore.
Lucky is happily married. Lucky is straight. Her husband, Krishna, is also straight. Lucky is not in love with her childhood friend Nisha. Nisha is not in love with Lucky. Nisha does not need Lucky’s help. Lucky does not need help at all.
Lies, all lies.
After her grandmother suffers a fall, Lucky returns home, to a society of Sri Lankan immigrants living in Boston, to help out at the behest of her domineering mother. During her stay, she reconnects with Nisha who is preparing for an impending arranged marriage, which Lucky struggles to come to terms with.
I found it a refreshing take on the familiar trope of forbidden love. The book plays out like a big screen South Asian melodrama –– star-crossed lovers meeting in secret, parents who forbid happiness in lieu of customs, tragedies and triumphs both big and small.
Lucky strives to be a hero to everyone except herself. I feel many LGBTQ people, myself included, go through this dilemma. Distracting ourselves with nursing and caring for anyone else in trouble to avoid dealing with our own demons. Then when we are the ones who need help, we don’t know who to turn to.
Favorite Quote ––
In every story there’s what is written for you, and then there’s what you write.
Wonder Bread and Ecstasy: The Life and Death of Joey Stefano
by Charles Isherwood (1996)
Ever since I first saw gay porn, I’ve always been fascinated by Joey Stefano, born Nicolas Iacona Jr. Those soft eyes, that devilish smirk, the insatiable hunger seen clearly in his performances. He was the ultimate man I wanted to be/be with in bed. Ethereal but not unattainable. This out-of-print thrift store find has always been on my radar and I was thrilled to get my hands on it at last.
Without knowing much of his early life in Pennsylvania, we follow Joey through his quick short rise into a veritable porn ‘star’. He appeared in 58 films, covered dozens of adult men’s magazines, toured the country, won awards, and appeared in Madonna’s Sex book.
In just five years of landing in Los Angeles, he went from a top performer (ironic as he mainly bottomed) to being found dead at 26 in a Hollywood motel room, broke and overdosed on a cocktail of drugs.
Isherwood’s narration is anything but unbiased. He takes swings at industry heavyweights like Chi Chi Larue (Stefano’s mentor), gives salacious accounts of 90’s Los Angeles culture, and describes sex scenes with graphic glee.
Disappointingly, the book offers little insight into Stefano’s mind as it does his body. I felt often like I was reading a long-form article or fan page. Trashy and enjoyable for sure, but nowhere near as captivating as the young man who gave so much pleasure and should have been afforded a better life for it.
Favorite Quote ––
If his penis was ample and attractive, by no means deficient in size but not stellar, his ass was his fortune. Pert and perfectly rounded, it swaggered naturally when he walked, as if advertising it’s expertise, and on video it remained shapely in all manner of positions.
by Qiu Miaojin, a new translation by Bonnie Huie (2017)
Published in English for the first time since its debut in the early 90’s, it is a joy and privilege to finally experience this underground queer cult classic and I encourage you all to do the same.
Introverted Lazi (now modern Chinese slang for lesbian) experiences moments of joy, wonder, and heartbreak with her band of misfit friends while at university. Her circle encompasses many sexual identities which she presents with normalcy. Separately, the novel explores parallels between emerging LGBTQ youth in Taiwan with an imaginary invasion of crocodiles. Despite attempting to pass as human, these creatures are met with confusion, fear, and rejection by society.
The main driver for Lazi is her love for Shui Ling, though she cannot wholly accept or understand her own lesbianism which causes irreparable damage to their relationship and what could have been.
Way ahead of its time, the book explores sexual identity, misogyny, and hetero-normativity that feels fresh and, unfortunately, modern. She also speaks of death and dying frequently which is heartbreaking, not just as someone who like many queer people have contemplated suicide, but especially since Miaojin ended her own life at age 26.
Again, oh what could have been?
Favorite Quote ––
I am a woman who loves women. The tears I cry, they spring from a river and drain across my face like yolk.
by André Aciman (2007)
Yes, I read it. For the second time, actually. And it’s still beautiful.
Elio and Oliver. Oliver and Elio. A delicate dance of seashores, hot afternoons, literary quotes, and names passed back and forth. And, of course, an infamous peach.
During a vacation at their house in Italy, young Elio’s academic parents take in an older student for the season to assist with his father’s work. In enters Oliver whom Elio finds brash, carefree, and ultimately fascinating. Their mutual attraction sparks slow at first, then crackles through the beaches, the streets of Rome, and their bedrooms.
I remember reading this shortly after it was published a decade ago. I wanted to be Elio. I knew the emotions he felt, lusting and longing after a more mature male figure, finding every flicker of affection perplexingly gratifying and every slight of rejection devastatingly unbearable.
Revisiting it now, in expectation of the film adaptation, I find myself more aligned with Oliver-somewhat better seasoned and confident yet no less childish, and in many ways, afraid and over analytical of potential relationships.
Aciman’s true gift is the layers of complexity beneath simple language which makes you question what you originally understood. That in itself, solidifies this work as a modern classic, at least as far as I’m concerned.
Favorite Quote ––
Perhaps we were friends first, and lovers second. But then perhaps this is what lovers are
by Rakesh Satyal (2017)
Boy, can I relate! And not just to the title.
In a Cleveland suburb, we meet three members of a large Indian immigrant community. Ranjana writes secretly about romance while lacking any in her own marriage. Her son Prashant, a Princeton freshman, struggles with expectations and traditions of his community while seeking normalcy as an American college student. Then there’s Harit––quietly selling menswear in a department store by day, donning his late sister’s sari to appease his ailing mother by night.
The idea of duality is something Satyal handles brilliantly as he did in his debut novel Blue Boy. The separate lives these characters lead get more robust and intertwined as time goes on. They each in their own way, do not readily accept their personal evolutions.
Ranjana befriends a gay youth looking for a mother figure, yet she worries about how this would go over in her circle. Prashant grapples with his attraction to an Indian girl at school while trying to further integrate into campus life. Harit begins to come out of his shell with the help of his flamboyant out co-worker Teddy while adjusting to his own sexuality.
Immigrants, especially South Asians, in general always have mini-mental battles concerning assimilation. Can I? Should I? Could I? What will people say? Society and community are not always the same thing. Just as blood and family are not necessarily connected givens either.
Satyal’s book beautifully explains that when you leave the country of your birth for a new life you can’t take everything with you, just as you can’t leave it all behind.
Favorite Quote ––
Life wasn’t a circle but a line. The blurry opening of the film may have taken place on the subcontinent, but it’s counterpart, the fading into darkness, was decidedly American.