Three Gay Books for August

Out comedian Bob Smith (as I remember, the first “mainstream gay comedian”) has penned his first novel, Selfish and Perverse (Carroll & Graf) and in it, one immediately recognizes his comic voice: “For the past six months … I hadn't written a word … It made me wonder how writers procrastinated in the Homeric era. Did bards of yore talk endlessly about their plans to someday tell a story?” Or “I hated when my job interfered with my real vocation: getting a boyfriend.” Finally, “My passage from childhood to adulthood was simply realizing a security blanket worked better with two people snuggling under it.”

This is funny stuff and the best line is one I can't repeat here. In fact, while reading, I folded down the corners of the pages with funny parts to read them out loud later to my boyfriend and found that I had creased nearly the entire book!

But don't be misled into thinking the book is nothing but one-liners. Selfish and Perverse (the title is taken from a quote by Beethoven that “true art is selfish and perverse”) is a great big love story, too.

Thirty-four-year-old writer Nelson Kunker is fired from his job as a Hollywood script assistant and rescued from the La Brea Tar Pits on national television. Looking for a fresh start, he travels to Alaska to visit a new beau, Roy Briggs, a handsome archaeologist and part-time salmon fisherman. Not only is this a love story between two gay men, it is also a paean of love between the protagonist and his newly found state of choice, Alaska.

Dylan, an A-list Hollywood actor who met Roy in Los Angeles, suddenly appears in the same Alaskan town to do research for his next movie role. Dylan takes himself very seriously as an actor, so he wants to live the life of a salmon fisherman by accompanying Roy on a fishing trip. The very handsome Dylan is also an ex-con, an ex-druggie and a practicing sex addict. And, not surprisingly, he wreaks havoc with Roy and Nelson's love life.

Dylan is intent on getting Nelson into bed, even though Nelson already has a boyfriend in Roy. Despite that, Nelson finds it hard to ignore the Hollywood heartthrob with his handsome, stubbled face, gym-toned arms and chest, artfully unkempt blond hair and overt, constant touching. Of course, complications ensue. Can Nelson endure his stay in Alaska? What's up with the hunky movie star? Will Roy and Nelson sustain their romance?

The Alaskan wilderness, breathtaking in its natural beauty and exotic in its uniqueness, makes for an interesting – and refreshing – setting for a gay novel. When was the last time you read about a nagoon berry or an oostic (a whale penis)? But an unusual venue is not all that sets this book apart: it is the intelligence with which the story unfolds. One realizes as the plot moves along from one comic moment to the next that the author has an impressively broad knowledge of the world and human nature.

Smith's characters are layered and complex. Roy has a quiet, dark side such that Nelson doesn't always know where he stands with his new love-interest. Dylan is well-read and sometimes even insightful while Nelson is a kind of everyman (though probably better looking than most), but is also endearingly honest, insecure and full of one-liners.

In a possible act of authorial self-revelation, Nelson explain to Dylan, “I think my being funny is mostly about entertaining myself. It's a way of having fun or avoiding thinking about something sad or depressing or hopeless.”

Tangential characters — such as Dee, Roy's independent mother, Alex, the Native performance artist, and Wendy, Nelson's loudmouth lesbian friend — are all fully-formed characters as well.

But ultimately this is Nelson's story and we see him develop from a procrastinating writer-wannabe to someone with a firm grasp on life and the passion to create something real with his writing talent. Smith's novel is one of the strongest books I have read recently and is what I would consider a keeper — a book that I would want to keep on the shelf for re-reading, even though every other page is bent over to mark where I found chuckles.

Changing Tides is Michael Thomas Ford's fourth novel, instantly recognizable by another of its iconic jackets by out artist Steve Walker. This jacket features a sexy painting of a man wading into the ocean, his muscular back showing through a water-soaked shirt. Now that is a beach read.

The novel is set in Monterey, California where Ben, a serious-minded, forty-something marine biologist, is spending the summer with Caddie, his sixteen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Hudson, a 26-year-old graduate student researching writer John Steinbeck, arrives in town and fortuitously meets Ben.

This is the work of an assured writer, and Ford handles his multiple story lines deftly. We care about the three main characters and their issues equally: teenaged Caddie and her relationship with her father; Ben, as he deals with a daughter he barely knows as well as his own unexplored sexuality; and Hudson, whose obsession with Steinbeck and his developing relationship with Ben are the glue that holds the entire novel together. Chapters flow from one storyline to another with grace.

What makes this novel interesting is the unapologetic way it handles sex. Young Caddie is sexually active and meets several young men during her stay in Monterey. For her, sex fulfills a kind of affirmation. For Ben, his scientific mind has apparently kept his own sexuality at bay and there is a moving scene where he masturbates, trying to imagine the young graduate student Hudson in front of him.

Later, there is a touching scene where Hudson confronts Ben after Caddie has suggested to Hudson that her father is in love with him:

“'Whoever you are — whoever you turn out to be — you're a good man.'

Neither spoke for a long time. Ben's mouth trembled, and Hudson felt his whole body shaking, like the first stirrings of a coming earthquake. He pulled Ben to him and held him as it broke.”

This is a novel of breakthroughs — not just Ben's realization that he is gay, but also Caddie's awakening to the need for some kind of normal relationship with her father, whom she is just beginning to know, and Hudson's awareness that he can move on from his deceased lover's dream that the two of them pursue a possible Steinbeck literary find. (“Changing Tides” is the title of a newly-found manuscript reportedly by Steinbeck which Hudson is researching and that may have a gay theme.)

The California setting is strongly realized, and Ford describes the underwater scenes off the Monterey coast and the practical details of scuba diving with fantastic detail.

My only disappointment is that the details regarding the newly found Steinbeck novel fragment are dispensed with rather facilely at the end — after a fascinating suggestion that Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts might have had a romantic attachment — but this is a slight quibble with a powerful, solid novel.

Gwen Cooper's first novel, Diary of a South Beach Party Girl (Simon Spotlight), is set in the hot-hot world of South Beach, Florida. Rachel Baum, who grew up in a suburb of Miami (like the author herself), moves into South Beach with her friend Amy. Rachel is a self-confessed fag hag with long legs, great hair and big boobs.

It's no surprise that she quickly becomes the toast of the town and the center of SoBe social life. There is a great visual in a scene where Rachel dons a long, yellow feather boa and becomes the center of attention at yet another fabulous party, entering like a drag queen in full possession of her powers.

A first, Rachel's life is as beautiful as the outdoor scene: “I watched through my window as the morning sky turned a pale pink. I thought drowsily that I'd love to have a dress — one perfect party dress — in exactly that shimmering, delicate, shell-pink color.'

However, her perfect existence is soon sullied by drugs, one of the excesses of the fast life on the social scene. Rachel describes the sensation bestowed by cocaine: “It comes on you immediately like a flash of sheer exhilaration that you somehow feel isn't even related to the drug. You think to yourself that you simply didn't realize a minute ago how good you felt, how sexy and confident and how much you liked talking and laughing and dancing.”

Various men flock in and out of Rachel's life like moths to a flame: the new divorcé, Ethan; the sexy, alleged-hoodlum known only as John Hood (perhaps her true love); Peter, the government prosecutor; a British writer/producer, Michael; wealthy Lebanese Yusuf; British architect Andrew; as well as her gays Ricky, Kojo, and Mike.

Ricky, Mr. Nightlife at a local radio station, is perhaps the most sympathetic secondary character in the novel, as needy as he is affectionate. He could populate his own novel with his larger-than-life personality.

By the end of Part I (there are three sections), Amy and Rachel are no longer friends, and Rachel has to move out of her apartment. She also moves in and out of jobs as quickly as she changes outfits: one hilarious irony places her in a Save-the-Kids campaign when she can hardly pass a drug test herself.

Gwen Cooper's novel is an honest look at South Beach and the magic that makes it sparkle for so many people. One senses that the author, while admitting to its mesmeric pull, had to leave for her own sanity and well-being. But, while it lasted, what a fabulous life!