Hi all! This month’s diary is a trip down Memory Lane…step into the Wayback Machine with me to the 1970s! Don’t forget your cowbell!
I recently did a blog tour for “Would I Lie to You?” and one of the interview questions was about the books that had formed me as a gay writer. The first book that came to mind was Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer from the Dance,” a richly erotic, tragic, hilarious and eerily prescient novel, published in 1978. But after I remembered that book, a lot of others came back to mind.
Okay, now you’re gonna know I’m a little old (over 50, just). I gotta confess that, because this column is about the books I discovered in my teenage years that formed me as a gay man and a writer.
I was lucky, growing up in the 1970s. There was no argument about “free range children” back then – every kid in my neighborhood was a free range kid. We all walked to school alone, even in elementary school. In high school, I walked to my after school job, got off at nine p.m., and usually walked home from downtown because it was faster than waiting for the hourly bus.
When I was in high school, my mom was a nurse whose shift started at 7 am, so she dropped me off at a McDonald’s about a 20 minute walk from school. So I had a good hour every morning to eat something bad for me and, for another 25 cents, read the San Francisco Chronicle.
It was worth every penny then, because those were the days when Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” was being serialized in that paper. The world around me was full of hostility towards gay people. The Reno Gay Rodeo was about to be driven out of town by a fanatic group of holy rollers, and Anita Bryant was on the TV telling everyone that all gay people were child molesters and all gay teachers needed to be fired. So Maupin’s serial was like seeing Narnia beyond the back of the cabinet, a world where people like me not only lived, but thrived. Gay was normal in Maupin’s world, hell, it had to be normal for a whole city if its daily morning paper would publish the serial.
And I was lucky that my uncle was gay (the gay is strong in my family) and lived with his partner in San Francisco, a few hours’ drive from Reno. We visited the city a lot, and, again, I was a free range kid even there. My parents and my uncle and his partner would go off to do adult stuff, and I, fourteen years old, was given instructions on how to take the bus from Twin Peaks down the twisty streets to the Castro, where I got off and made my own way, hooking up with them at Tokyo Sukiyaki at Fisherman’s Wharf in time for lunch.
Yeah, that’s right. A fourteen year old boy alone in the Castro, and nothing terrible happened. Suck that, Anita Bryant! Okay, I was hardly a juvenile delinquent, so they trusted me not to do anything foolish…but they also thought of the city as a safe place for me. Yeah, Armistead Maupin was right; late 70s San Francisco really was a magic kingdom. You’d never do that in NYC at that time, for instance.
What did I do with all this wonderful terrible freedom? I went book shopping. Which in my mind was more dangerous than anything else I could get up to. There was a little bookshop on Castro, whose name I can’t find, but it was just up the hill past the Sausage Factory, between 18th and 19th. A little hole in the wall, with a gay and lesbian section about two shelves high (okay the lesbian section was pretty much Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle”). Two shelves doesn’t seem like much, but at the time, it pretty much covered every gay novel in print. I was in heaven.
Most gay lit in the late 1970s up to 1980 or so (anything pre-AIDS basically still being “The 70s”) wasn’t dark, heavy, or literary. It was…fun. Like Paul Monette’s “Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll” or “The Gold Diggers,” or Gordon Merrick’s preposterous romance novels (talk about terrible dialogue!), or Vincent Virga’s campy “Gaywyck.” Even Larry Kramer’s “Faggots,” mostly a condemnation of gay men’s hedonism, had its hilarious side. Avon Books was the primary purveyor of gay novels – if you saw a gay novel in paperback, it was probably from Avon. St. Martin’s would take up this banner later, publishing more literary and serious titles, but then again, after AIDS, not much about gay life was funny anymore.
Then I would walk down Market Street, to the old Tro Harper/Books Inc. store on Powell Street, just below Union Square along the cable car line. It was a massive independent bookstore (it went out of business months after Borders opened kitty-corner to it across Union Square), and the front shelves were heaped with new titles. And on one occasion, I saw a pile of one book, a lot of copies, as if the owners expected it to move as many units as a James Patterson would today. And that book was the paperback copy of “Dancer from the Dance.”
Remember, living in Reno, other than the SF Chronicle, I had no access to information about what was going on in the gay world. I had never heard of “Dancer” until I saw that Bantam paperback, with its shirtless model, sweater over his shoulders, and a kind look on his gorgeous face, completely appropriate for the character. (Today that model would never make a book cover, without a chest wax and about twenty extra pounds of muscle.) Naturally I snapped it up, ready to devour it greedily.
It was and still is the most erotic novel I’ve ever read – hot summer nights in Manhattan, the pre-Studio 54 discos, the cruisy parks, Fire Island before it cost a fortune to spend the summer there… When I went back to reread it a few years ago, I was somehow sure there were a lot of sex scenes, but there weren’t. Not one. The book’s heat is all about desire, the possible, the impossible, the search for love, the consolations of friendship, better than love in the end because more enduring. If you haven’t read it, you’re missing out on one of the best novels of the 20th century, which doesn’t get that credit on the usual lists because, well, it’s a gay novel, probably, about horny gay men.
Now, all this makes my youth sound pretty halcyon, which it wasn’t of course. It was still the 70s, and while I’d known since, well, second grade that I was gay (David Sly, you gorgeous bully, I’ll never forget you!), it was still a secret, something you didn’t want the world to know, especially your parents. So when we got home, I’d put all those books deep in my desk drawer, under a bunch of other stuff, right next to the cigarettes I bought out of the vending machine at the bowling alley.
My parents weren’t the prying type, but I still made sure to read those books only late in the evening, door almost closed, with Talking Heads ’77 playing softly on my Panasonic portable cassette player. They were my immunization against all the messages the world was trying to hit me with, all the messages from the holy rollers about the inherent evil of gay people, messages from Hollywood about the inevitable death of any gay character in a movie or TV show, messages from the kids around me calling each other “pussy” and “fag” as the worst slurs in the world.
And it taught me something else. The other thing I’d always known since second grade was that I was going to be a writer. My unfixably terrible handwriting (fuck that quick brown fox and the lazy sleeping dog he jumped over) meant I got a typewriter in elementary school. I was soon banging out stories about a lonely child rescued by interstellar beings who then nuked his tormentors into dust and took him home with them. It wasn’t a conscious lesson, but something that penetrated my subconscious, the knowledge that I could write about being gay, too, someday.
And I’m thrilled to see some of these books back in print. All of Paul Monette’s witty books are back in print (in Kindle editions, too), I discovered this morning, as are Gordon Merrick’s silly romances. And I can’t wait to reread them all, to relive the experience, to try and remember how they made me feel back then, peering through them as if through a telescope, to where those interstellar aliens waited for me to find them, and learn to rescue myself, with just a little help.
QUESTION: What was the first gay or M/M novel that you read that really made an impression on you?
Connect with Brad Vance
Each week, on our Wednesday Author Column posts we will gift to one lucky commenter answering the author question, a Kindle eBook from your TBR list.