Walking on Broken Glass

Sometimes I try to remember the first time I saw or heard or watched or read something, anything, that made me feel less weird, less like an outsider…often to no avail. I can never remember if it was That Certain Summer (a very SPECIAL ABC Movie of the Week), or reading Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, or discovering The Front Runner on the paperback racks at the News Depot on Commercial Street in Emporia; and then I will remember something else, some vague memory of something–hints about Richard the Lion-Hearted in Norah Lofts’ The Lute Player, or subtle hints here and there throughout history (Edward II and Piers Gaveston; Louis XIV’s brother Phillippe Duc D’Orleans; James I and Robert Carr; Achilles and Patroclus)…Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great series…I can never remember precisely the first time I was exposed to who and what I am in popular culture, nor can I remember if it was positive or negative. I do know that in my own life, it was made very clear to me when I was very young that what I am was not normal, was unacceptable, wasn’t what I was supposed to be. My earliest memories are of me not being like other boys, and it took me a while to realize that the others were just playing at being boys (something I was never very good at) and were actually like that; that they weren’t, underneath, just like me, just better at pretending than I was.

This is why we have emphasized, as a community, the importance of representation in popular culture; kids needs to see themselves reflected in the culture they consume so they don’t feel like they don’t belong. Queer kids aren’t raised queer; we don’t learn how to be queer by interacting with our peers (who are mostly straight when we are kids), nor do we learn anything about being queer while we are inside the educational system in this country. I’ve always firmly believed that queers take longer–at least in the olden days–to form lasting romantic relationships because we don’t have “trial runs” when we are kids; we don’t get to date, we don’t get to “go steady”, etc. We don’t get to play House with other kids of the same gender, we don’t learn societal and cultural expectations about relationships and how they work when we are actually kids. Our queer adolescence doesn’t actually start until we come out–admit it to ourselves without shame, and then start telling our family and our friends and our co-workers that we aren’t wired the same way they are. It’s very tricky, and very complicated and sometimes very messy.

Representation absolutely matters.

And we cling to that representation when it shows up. When a prime time show like SOAP introduces the first long-running gay character to the world in Jody Dallas (does anyone even remember this was Billy Crystal’s big break, playing gay on a sitcom in the 1970’s/early 80’s?), we watch–even if the depiction is problematic to the extreme (you also learn very early that your hunger for representation will also force you to turn a blind eye to some things). Steven Carrington on Dynasty, the terrible film Making Love from the early 1980’s, as well as some other problematic depictions and films along the way–we took what we got, and always had to remember that these characters and stories also had to be palatable to straight people…that, in fact, these characters and stories were created with straight people in mind.

As they used to say, “but will it play in Peoria?”

As i stare down sixty this month, I am very happy to see that representation becoming common-place. It’s lovely to see gay books–THRILLERS, even–being published by major presses with queer characters in them. It’s lovely seeing straight writers including sensitive depictions of queer characters and their stories in their books.

And over the year, yes, problematic tropes that can make you very, very tired have also developed–which makes me wary every time I approach a book by a non-queer person that takes on a trope without hesitation, as S. A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears does, and that trope is one of the biggest and most hated by the queer community: bury your gays.

Ike tried to remember a time when men with badges coming to his door early in the morning brought anything other than heartache and misery, but try as he might, nothing came to mind.

The two men stood side by side on the small concrete landing of his front step with their hands on their belts near their badges and guns. The morning sun made the badges glimmer like gold nuggets. The two cops were a study in contrast. One was a tall but wiry Asian man. He was all sharp angles and hard edges. The other, a florid-faces white man, was built like a powerlifter with a massive head sitting atop a wide neck. They both wore white dress shirts with clip-on ties. The powerlifter had sweat stains spreading down from his armpits that vaguely resembled maps of England and Ireland respectively.

Ike’s queasy stomach began to do somersaults. He was fifteen years removed from Coldwater State Penitentiary. He has bucked the recidivism statistics ever since he’d walked out of that festering wound. Not so much as a speeding ticket in all those years. Yet here he was with his tongue dry and the back of his throat burning as the two cops stared down at him. It was bad enough being a Black man in the goo ol US of A and talking to the cops. You always felt like you were on the edge of some imaginary precipice during any interaction with an officer of the law. If you were an ex-con, it felt like the precipice was covered in bacon grease.

“Yes?” Ike said.

My faulty memory doesn’t remember how and when I first became aware of S. A. Cosby. What I do remember is that I bought and read one of his earlier works (perhaps his debut?) My Darkest Prayer, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Hard-boiled with a healthy dose of noir, I had a great time reading it–and was thrilled when his Blacktop Wasteland debuted to raves and attention and lots of recognition. Cosby can write like a house afire; and while he keeps up a rat-a-tat pace of story, he also manages to construct sentences and paragraphs beautifully, with a poet’s gift for language–spare and tight, yet poetic and beautiful at the same time (Megan Abbott is the Galactic Empress of this).

So, when I heard the “elevator pitch” for Razorblade Tears, I inwardly winced a bit, even as I had to admit Shawn’s guts; taking on bury your gays is a ballsy move–and also a bit of a dangerous one. If you don’t stick the landing…you’re fucked.

For those of you who don’t know what bury your gays means, it’s very simple: a show, or a book, or a movie, will introduce gay characters (lesbians, queers, whatever initial in the all encompassing umbrella those characters might choose for their identity), get the audience (and especially the queer viewers) deeply vested in them–and then kill them off suddenly and unexpectedly, all so the other queer characters (but usually the straight ones) will experience some kind of personal growth…in other words, you introduce a gay man into your narrative simply to later use him as a plot device, so the other characters can mourn and experience personal growth.

That’s probably explained badly, but you get the gist: gays will inevitably die. A good example of this is the so-called groundbreaking AIDS movie, Philadelphia–but the Tom Hanks character in that movie existed so that Denzel Washington’s character could grow and develop and move on from his own homophobic beliefs and fears about HIV/AIDS; as Sarah Schulman, one of our community’s finest minds, once said, “the entire point of Philadelphia is to make straight people feel better about HIV/AIDS and the gay men dying from it.” (Sections of her book Stagestruck: Theatre, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America are absolutely brilliant; it should be required reading for any Queer Studies course.)

The plot of Razorblade Tears is so deeply steeped in “bury your gays” that the gays are already dead when the book opens. The gays in question–Derek and Isiah–were brutally murdered, and the police don’t seem to care too much about looking into who killed them. Their homophobic fathers–both ex-cons–decide to look for their son’s killers. Both Ike and Bobby Lee feel a lot of guilt about their sons and how they rejected them both–their relationship, their eventual marriage, their child–while they were alive; finding their killers isn’t just about revenge but also a matter of atonement. In some ways, it’s like this book is borne from the anger every queer child rejected by their parents feels–you’ll be sorry when I’m dead.*

Ike and Bobby Lee are, indeed, sorry now that their sons are dead.

This also falls into another long-existent fictional trope: don’t fuck with a father. How many films (I’m looking at you, Liam Neeson), books or television shows are about a father’s rage, a father’s revenge, what a father will do to save or avenge their children?

Ike and Buddy Lee aren’t supermen, though. Cosby’s strength (besides his ability with words and images) is how well he creates characters and makes them human through their faults and frailties. Ike and Buddy Lee don’t much like each other as the story begins to move along–I kept thinking of the old Sidney Poitier/Tony Curtis movie, The Defiant Ones–but their ability to look past their own internal prejudices to see the commonalities between them as they unite in this foolhardy crusade to avenge their murdered sons is the real strength of the book here. (As well as the language.) You eventually start to understand them, care about them, want them to get their vengeance…even as you know it will bring them no peace.

I have to admit, I was hesitant to start reading this. I really was concerned I wasn’t going to be able to read it with the empathy necessary for Ike and Buddy Lee and their suffering–that I would think, yeah, well, maybe you should have thought about that when he was alive–but the book ultimately isn’t about their redemption, either; which is a genius move by Cosby. He makes their pain all too real–I cannot imagine the pain any parent should feel when their child dies–but he makes it clear there’s no easy answers here for Ike and Buddy Lee, and that pain will go on even if they get justice for their sons.

Shawn is also a master of writing about the Southern working class–about the poverty, the lack of opportunity, the societal neglect and how those factors all combine to keep those already mired in it trapped with little chance of escape; he clearly loves the rural South but not so much that he can’t expose the tragedy and ugliness that exists there.

It’s a powerful book, and I do recommend it….although the people who probably should read it inevitably won’t. I can recommend it, and do, enthusiastically; it’s a very powerful book, and it made me think–and what more can you want from art?

*sadly, I have seen all too often that a lot of those parents aren’t sorry when their rejected child dies; far too regularly they will say something along the lines of “So-and-so died for me years ago.”

Left to My Own Devices

Thursday morning and here we are, with a mere two more days before we can call it the weekend again. I’m not really sure why I am looking so forward to it; I just have to write and clean and do shit all weekend. Yay? But I guess it’s lovely because I am on my own schedule, I suppose?

I didn’t sleep for shit last night, which was highly annoying. Also, convenient because I forgot to set my alarm. Fortunately, my eyes opened at promptly six this morning. Huzzah?

So, overnight my HBO app on my Apple TV magically converted to an HBO MAX app, and I got lost in there for hours last night, just exploring all the options. I doubt I’ll ever watch the eight or nine Harry Potter movies ever again, but they are there, along with all kinds of over things. Scooby Doo Where Are You in its original two series is there–I watched one last night, delighted, before making dinner–and of course TCM is there, and there are so many classic films I’ve either not seen, or haven’t seen in a very long time. One of my all time favorites, Body Heat, is also there; I can’t wait to rewatch, as I’ve been wanting to rewatch it for quite some time. Also a lot of classic Hitchcock films, many of which I’ve never seen, including North by Northwest and several others. Essentially, with HBO MAX, combined with Hulu and Netflix and Prime and Disney Plus, I really don’t think I ever will have an excuse to be bored ever again, as there’s always something I can watch on one of those streaming services. There’s also some very good classic Hollywood, thank to TCM (Mildred Pierce, Laura, Bringing Up Baby, etc.). In other words, I am quite pleased.

Alas, that will undoubtedly cut into my reading and writing time–but better that than Youtube black holes, right?

Larry Kramer died yesterday, and I thought, “you know, I’ve been meaning to reread Faggots for a really long time and perhaps this is the time to do so, as a tribute to Larry and everything he did for us all.” As I took the book from the stack, I also realized this meant pushing Night Has a Thousand Eyes back into the pile, and this was probably the kind of thing that has happened with far too great a frequency and why I’ve never gotten back to reading the Woolrich, so I decided to go ahead and read the Woolrich and then I’ll get back to the Kramer. Faggots was one of the first “gay” books I read after coming out officially (I had read Gordon Merrick and The Front Runner and The Swimming-Pool Library while in the closet. Faggots was recommended to me when I walked into my first gay bookstore, Tomes and Treasures, in Tampa in the early nineties; the incredibly sexy bookseller–on whom I had a major crush–told me I should read it and Dancer from the Dance, so I bought both and read them) and I sometimes joke that “it almost pushed me back into the closet.” The gay sexuality was so in in-your-face, and all the kinks and other variations depicted within the covers of that book–plus the clear misery and unhappiness of the main character, Fred Lemish–kind of was shocking to someone as naïve as I was when I first came out.

This also made me think about my life in those years prior to my thirty-third, which was when I stopped passively floating through my life and tried to take control of it–to start actively living instead of passively letting my life happen to me. I rarely talk about, or even think much about, my life between moving to the suburbs when I was ten and my thirty-third birthday; primarily because my existence was so completely miserable and tragic and pitiful. There was the duality of living as both a closet case in my more regular day-to-day life (and fooling no one, as I was quick to find out later), plus my hidden, furtive life on the edges of gay world. It’s difficult for me to look back at that twenty-three years and not wince or recoil in embarrassment at what a miserable life I was leading, and how desperately unhappy I was all the time. But that time was necessary, because it was also that same period where I was starting to recognize, and learn, that almost everything I was raised to believe was not just a lie but a horrible one. Unlearning those decidedly terrible values and lessons is an ongoing process to this very day, but it’s also terribly important and necessary to shed all that conditioning in American exceptionalism, evangelical Christianity with its bizarre morality and cognitive dissonance, and the true American legacy of white supremacy. As I thought about this last night–we watched the first episode of CNN’s docuseries The Movies on HBO MAX last night, and I was remembering, not only the unhappy first more-than-half of my life, but started unpacking the rest as well.

And it will inevitably show up in my writing at some point.

ANd now back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader.

Last Song

Sunday morning, and so much on my plate this morning. That’s okay, Constant Reader, I slept really well and once I have enough caffeine in my system, I will be up for the challenge. I still need to do some chores around the apartment today as well, but I am going to be keeping my head down and focussing on the things that need to be finished today–or at least, that’s the plan this morning. Being distracted is, of course, always a possibility; I may even close my web browsers to avoid that once I get started on my work.

Yesterday I spent some time with S. A. Cosby’s My Darkest Prayer, which is absolutely fantastic. That voice, and the influence of writers of color–Walter Mosley and Gary Phillips–are apparent, as are the biggies of crime–Chandler and both MacDonalds (Ross and John  D.) are also there. The result is staggeringly original, a little raw, and completely absorbing. One reason I want to get all my writing and chores done this morning is so I can curl up in my chair with the book later today.

I also started streaming a CNN documentary series last night on Hulu–The Movies, which is very similar in set-up to their decades documentary series; a history of film by decade, which is quite frankly the smartest way to go; you certainly can see the difference in film by decade. It was fun to see films I’ve either not seen nor heard of (or had but forgotten) talked about, along with the blockbusters, the big movies, the award-winners, and how stars built their careers from their big break movie. I highly recommend The Movies, even if you aren’t a film fan; it’s also an interesting look at how films reflected the times they were made, which is always, for me, the best way to examine popular culture. (I really wish someone would write a non-fiction book about the gay publishing boom of the 1970’s, a decade that saw a gay novel, The  Front Runner, hit the New York Times bestseller list; saw the birth of a queer literary sensibility, and also saw the enormous success of the Gordon Merrick novels–and no, please don’t say why don’t you write it, Gregalicious? There’s no time for me to write anything like that, and as it is, I have to start reading VOLUMES of research about gay life in post-war Hollywood, as well as what was going on in Hollywood in that time as well, and again, so very little time.) I think literature also holds up a mirror to society much in the same way as film and television does; it would be interesting to see a series of essays on how books published not only reflected, but influenced the society which produced them.

As I was reading My Darkest Prayer yesterday, I was thinking about how some of our larger cities, with their more cosmopolitan and international feel, should be reflected more in crime novels by, about, and for minorities. I’d love to read some crime fiction about New Orleans about people of color by people of color–whether it’s African-American, or Latino, or Vietnamese, for that matter. I’d love to see the same for cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, to name a few. I loved Steph Cha’s Juniper Song novels, as well as her soon-to-be-released Your House Will Pay, which is, simply stated, genius. I’ve always wanted, for example, to give Venus Casanova, the African-American police detective who is both my Scotty and Chanse series (as is her partner, Blaine Tujague) her own story–but at the same time I have never thought myself capable of telling her story, or having the right to do so, at any rate. I have a great idea for such a story–a way of writing the end to her story, as it were, which would of course mean removing her from the two series I already write afterwards, which would probably rank up there with shooting myself in the foot as it would mean introducing a new cop to both series…although that in and of itself might not be such a bad idea, either. Could be just the thing to shake both series up a little bit.

I’ve also thought about writing a stand-alone Colin book. I’d once thought about spinning him off into his own series–wouldn’t a gay undercover operative make for a great series? I had thought, originally, that after the initial Scotty trilogy I would write Colin out of the series (SPOILER) and possibly give him his own series. I thought it would be fun to do a gay kind of Indiana Jones/James Bond hybrid with our boy Colin as the lead of the story. (It’s always fun to revisit ideas I had in the past.) Katrina of course ended that possibility, but I am still thinking it might be an interesting idea to write a Colin stand alone before tackling the next Scotty, which is going to be Hollywood South Hustle. There are–I will tell you this now–some unresolved Colin issues left over at the end of Royal Street Reveillon, and it might be interesting to tell Colin’s story before we get around to getting back to another Scotty book. I’m also probably going to do at least one more Chanse novel as well, but I don’t know when I’m going to get to either of these stories–Chanse, Scotty, or Colin’s.

But the Venus story is reverberating in my brain, and I might just have to write it to get it out of my system. It’s working title is Another Random Shooting and I’m jotting ideas down in my journal as they come to me.

And on that note, tis time to get back to the spice mines. I want to get the Major Project done today, and some work on the book, too.

We’ll see how it goes.

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