Saturday, 8 December 2012

San Francisco Gay; W. Virginia Momma’s Boy

A couple of good reads that have been out for a while:

Armistead Maupin’s Sure of You (Harper & Row, $18.95) is the kind of read that closet heterophiles who flinch at men French-kissing in public need to quiet their paranoias. There’s plenty of gay and lesbian sex, but it’s sweetly implicit, not hot, breathingly specific.

Not that Michael (from Orlando) and Thack (from Savannah) are closety about their union in San Francisco. Thack is furious about a gay designer who drags a blonde wife around at parties and on TV to protect himself from potentially gay-bashing clients or viewers. Thack is a real outer; his current project is building a triangle creeper frame that will bloom pink in the spring to tell the whole world where they lay.

Michael is an inner, hesitant to predict to his lover that roses don’t think triangle and may mess up his plan. Besides, Michael has bigger things on his mind, such as the purple spot he’s just discovered on his leg with a terrifying feeling that is may be Kaposi’s Sarcoma. (His last live-in lover died of AIDS.)

The other plot line is Mary Anne Singleton’s struggle to decide if she should leave her San Francisco homemakers show for a nationally-syndicated program in New York—and whether she should shed her infantile husband, Brian, and precocious moppet, Shawna, in the process. She does, and he goes puerile, as she feared.

Brian and Michael run a nursery. Plant Parenthood and the AC-DCing that threatens to go on with customers are the running gags of this farce about the Good Life in S.F. Strange—I lived in the Bay Area for three years but never once dipped into author Maupin’s serials in the Chronicle. Some strange allergy to serial fiction. (Would I have snooted Dickens?)

Well, it has been my loss, because Maupin is wry and witty and possesses a basilisk eye for the bullshit that ensues when the gay culture earthquakes the straight S.F. Talk about Richter rictuses! There’s even a subplot about lesbians doing Lesbos.

Wholly engaging narratives about an allegedly threatening subject. I’m pleased to note this is the latest of six such tales of the city. Some good reading (and loosening up of stereotypes, apparently.)

Mary Lee Settle’s Charley Bland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18.95) is a marvelously evocative tale of a “stone triangle” about a West Virginia woman writer who comes home at 35 after almost 20 years of expatriation in England and France.

The only other Settle I’ve read was a tale about Mother Jones helping the coal miners win a strike. This time, the perspective is the ruling country-club elite and their spiritual emptiness, in which snobbery has replaced religion as the locus of values.

The title character is a momma’s boy who commits suicide at 64—although he has killed his own spirit by his cowardly unwillingness to cut his umbilical. The mother in this “stone triangle” has bullied her too-intelligent husband into building her a fake Williamsburg mansion overlooking the river valley. It’s an emblem of her soullessness.

Snared, Charley compensates by philandering compulsively before, during and after he and the narrator consummate their denied childhood romance. This tale of “profane love” describes a hell on earth for the idle rich who have lost their spiritual center. They have to move the original country club because the slag heaps take over. They have already buried themselves under the debris of their pettiness.

Settle is a quiet but powerful voice, a Christian witness who doesn’t Lord it over her readers. It’s a measure of the untrustworthiness of our literary system that she is not heard above all the noise of the Glitz Lit youngsters like Janowitz and McInerney.

One of the pleasures of aimless reading through the stacks is to stumble upon a voice as clear and authentic as Settle’s. She also has a fine eye for the details of Southern culture, such as the ritual of Derby Day. I had never thought there could be worse hells than the inside of a coal mine. There is: cocktail parties in Corona, West Virginia. A crown of thorns.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 15, 1991

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