Books find their way to reviewers by various means. Sometimes I see a delicious-looking book in a bookstore and I buy it, or a publicist will send me a book that needs attention. Recently, I received an e-mail from a talented writer whose book I had just positively reviewed. He had a friend — could I possibly read his friend’s book and, if I found it worthwhile, write a book review? Yes, of course. An email quickly followed from the author — in Paris — and the book arrived in two days from the publisher.
Paul Schmidtberger’s Design Flaws of the Human Condition is an original paperback from Broadway Books at Random House and I laughed from page one. It should win a literary prize for sheer funniness if only they gave such an award.
Schmidtberger is like a gay Jonathan Ames (The Extra Man), just off-center enough to catch your attention with his odd, endearing take on life. This is a hilariously funny writer, with a capital “H”.
Design Flaws tells the story of a gay man and his straight female friend. You’ve read this before, right? But wait. This is a unique comic riff on the oft-told tale and you will love every minute of it. Ken, our hero, has just lost one of his three jobs as well as his hot actor boyfriend. Meanwhile, a judge has sentenced Iris to the same anger management class to which Ken’s university chair has also sent him. Even worse, Jeremy, her boyfriend, might be involved with another woman.
So the two protagonists “meet cute” in anger management class (how twenty-first century), but this is not Sally meeting Harry to fall in love. They meet to soothe each other’s wounds inflicted by the cruel, albeit comical world.
Schmidtberger expertly captures those odd, random thoughts that Ken and the rest of us so often have. At the college reference library where he works one of his two remaining jobs, he ponders old-fashioned, detachable shirt collars: “You starched and ironed the collar and then you attached it to your dress shirt, and if you were in a cartoon or an early slapstick movie, the nice, stiff collar would always come undone at some incredibly inopportune moment with an ummistakable boing!”
As for the novel’s plot, Ken dreams up a very funny ruse to fix his and Iris’ love lives, which plays out like clockwork right to the very end. Along the way, there are moments of clarity that are beautifully written. One of them is when Ken, at his City College composition class (his other job), asks his students to write about happiness.
Several of the essays are interesting and some downright inane, but one captures his attention and thereby comes his own description of happiness: “Happiness is having somebody he taught sit in a cold, bare classroom in the middle of December and write so beautifully, so longingly, so lovingly about a warm summer’s night.”
Ken’s English department co-worker Maxine, a minor but well-written character, explains one of life’s most irksome design flaws to Ken: “Just because you love someone won’t make them love you back.” Her words finally startle Ken into re-evaluating his former relationship which had so long obsessed him.
While speaking of flawless design, one must mention Helvetica Carlyle, another very minor character. Her name seems perfect for the well-manicured, coiffed, and botoxed Upper Eastside witch that she is. She both opens and ends the book, as seems appropriate in a story with no visible design flaws at all.
[img_assist|nid=8658|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=200|height=306]Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers (Pantheon) is a fascinating novel concerning those years in the 1950’s when Joseph McCarthy was sweeping gays and communists — in that order — from the dark corners of political life in Washington, D.C.
It centers on a love affair between the handsome Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official and Tim Laughlin, a cute, stuttering college graduate newly working for a United States senator.
The tension that makes this novel buzz comes from the subtle paranoia over homosexuality during that era and the fear gay men endured from the threat of having their private lives exposed and their livelihoods and reputations destroyed. As a State Department special agent darkly states, “The moral perversion and emotional immaturity inherent in homosexual behavior makes those who engage in it targets of blackmail by anyone seeking to undermine the government of the United States.”
The search boils down to who is straight … and who isn’t.
Despite the precariousness of their involvement, the appropriately-named Hawkins finds easy prey in Tim, an inexperienced, younger man who will do anything to get close to this well-connected, worldly figure. Hawkins’ seduction of Tim, a devout Catholic, gradually loosens the young man’s self-restraints, although Tim keeps going to confession.
One senses that Hawkins’ seemingly casual manner is misleading and that his place in the ever-so-fragile, layered social world of Washington D.C. is more important to him than any enjoyable, romantic fling.
Mallon expertly drops boldface names throughout the plot such as Perle Mesta (the party-giving socialite immortalized in the musical Call Me Madam), President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the young Richard Nixon, the closeted Roy Cohn, and handsome, entitled John F. Kennedy.
More than just mere name-dropping, these details add a rich context that helps to color the characters’ lives. One such character comments about Princess Grace’s future heir looking like William Holden. Referring to her own tensions at home with a new baby, Tim’s sister Frances casually observes in a letter that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio are also having marital problems. Mentions are made of Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby” and the plays Tea and Sympathy and Peter Pan (starring Mary Martin), both on Broadway.
Besides Hawkins and Tim, there is Mary Johnson, whose untraditional romantic life spent in the company of married men, gives her an unusually nonjudgmental, and long-term willingness to support Tim’s problematic romance. And in the broadest sense possible, there are all the gay men trying to live authentic lives during this highly homophobic time in our nation’s history.
The last line in the novel hints at those men’s desperate situation when describing Hawkins’ glass paperweight, sweetly given to him by Tim: “It had traveled with him for many years, from one country to another, throughout a world grown unexpectedly, and increasingly, free.”
This novel is truly a tour-de-force.