I wasn’t going to read Sky Gilbert’s latest novel, Sad Old Faggot, until a friend said, “It’s awful,” and giggled. I wasn’t disappointed. From the in-your-face title to the endless jibes at celebrities and gay culture, it’s a very funny book. Inspired by a raft of semi-autobiographical fiction (see Sheila Heti), a very lightly fictionalized Gilbert rabbits on about his super-sad life as a 62-year-old gay man. Being a slut has always been part of his identity and now, well now he’s not so sure. And so we get a lot of stuff about his cock and his ass and his very sad sex life, and it might easily be seen as a case of way too much information, except that it’s funny and cutting and anyone who has been out for more than a few seconds will recognize some of the highlights. Dirty assholes and Daddy worshippers, it’s all here, and all delivered in a garrulous, chatty style that’s blessedly free of literary angst.
Things get a little weird in the final third of the book when he goes off on an almost Hollywood-style quest to find his true gay father, not least because the childhood reminiscences the search occasions are almost too charming. After chapters of very satisfying, true-to-life whining, it’s a bit jarring. And then in the very final pages, he gets all defensive about his relationship and how real it is and solid and important, despite the fact that he’s already established this in an earlier chapter and I think most readers would just take his word for it. As usual, Gilbert’s greatest weakness seems to be a beleaguered defensiveness that can cause you to shake your head in amazement. The guy co-founded one of the first gay theatres in Canada and has written 30-odd plays, so why is he so insecure? Still, he’s got verve and energy and he’s a winning guide to the vagaries of gay life. Who else is going to tell an “old ugly guy” how to get laid? (Hint: persistence.) Buy it for the cringe-making revelations, stay for the laughs.
Gregory Woods, author of Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World, has posted his Top 10 landmarks in gay and lesbian literature on the Guardian site. No Forster, Isherwood, Vidal or White, but still a very interesting list. I’ll have to give No. 4, Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, a try. It’s sitting unread on the shelf.
I read a terrific gay short story by Colm Tóibín and wondered why it hadn’t been published in The New Yorker. He must be one of the best short story writers on the planet and some of his other works have appeared there. But I realized as I was reading “The Pearl Fishers” that it was far more sexual than most of his other work, describing rimming and cock sucking and priests wanting to “stuff” their penises up church boys’ bums, and also that I’d never read a frank description of sex in the pages of The New Yorker. Not sex of any kind, gay or straight. Decades after William Shawn, his influence lingers on.
Interesting piece on Stanford historian Paul Robinson. He didn’t come out to colleagues until 1982 but now writes and teaches gay culture. He published Gay Lives: Homosexual Autobiography from John Addington Symonds to Paul Monette in 1999 and started teaching a freshman seminar on gay autobiography in 2000. Robinson is not the only Stanford academic to expand the reach and sweep of gay life. Art historian Richard Meyer co-authored last year’s big gay coffee-table book, Art and Queer Culture, more than 400 image-heavy pages on everything from San Francisco street scenes to Charles Demuth’s fabulous Dancing Sailors (1917).
Novelist Caleb Crain asks how gay can a gay novel be and still succeed and the answer seems to be: Not very. After a brief heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, the gay novel has fallen into decline. There aren’t enough gay readers to support it and straight readers tend to be squeamish about gay sex. It was worse in the past, of course. Some of the most telling and touching parts of Crain’s essay concern the changes forced on J.R. Ackerley’s 1960 novel, We Think the World of You. The tale of two men and a dog, the novel is tame by today’s standards but it still freaked Ackerley’s publisher who demanded cuts to innocuous phrases like “I kissed him.” Risible though they were, the cuts changed the tone and meaning of key scenes, and robbed the novel of tenderness. The cuts were restored in the most recent edition of the novel, but the lesson remains: our love can disappear on a whim.
The irony, for an article on gay visibility, is that Crain’s essay is not itself terribly visible. Posted in the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, it’s available on-line, but not in the more prestigious print edition, where his own first novel, Necessary Errors, was lavishly praised only last September.