Book Mark: Biting the Apple

by Richard Labonte

November 5, 2007

"Biting the Apple," by Lucy Jane Bledsoe. Carroll & Graf, 272 pages, $14.99 paper.

One-time track phenomenon Eve Glass, an Olympic contender in her teens, has lived an inauthentic life filled with false starts and private fears. To an adoring public, she's a former golden-girl athlete turned charismatic motivational speaker, on the cusp of bestseller stardom with her second book, an exploration of grace. But she has private demons: a hellish childhood with an absent itinerant preacher father; a high school tryst with a baby dyke in the '70s that comes back to haunt her; a drug-addled past and an ongoing propensity to flirt with self-destruction by shoplifting; emotional overdependence on her ex-husband and former running coach; and a bad case of low literary self-esteem sparked by an affair with a reclusive poet suggestive of May Sarton in her middle years. Bledsoe's fourth novel, packed with a cast of complex female characters, is an intelligent, introspective - and sometimes smartly sarcastic - story about the shackles of the past, the pressures of a present built on falsehoods, and the promise of reinvention and renewal in the future.

"A Push and a Shove," by Christopher Kelly. Alyson Books, 314 pages, $14.95 paper.

Ben, bullied as a boy, is now a high school teacher, both bored by and defensive about his lack of accomplishment. His teenage tormentor, Terrence, grew up to be financially accomplished, socially connected, blessed with beauty, and somewhat sexually confused. When Ben witnesses a student at his school being bullied, memories of his own humiliation surface, and he sets out - with a stalker's irrational determination - to confront his past. Along the way, Ben morphs from shattered victim to unwitting villain with unsettling ease, while Terrence - the bad boy of Ben's tortured memories - turns out to be a relatively decent fellow, ashamed of who he was and unsure of who he is. Kelly's accomplished debut novel is a deft, dark, revenge-fantasy twist on the topic of what happens when queer kids are heckled and harassed by schoolmates - and of what happens when, years later, the bullied becomes the bully, inflicting the same kind of cruel psychic wounds he suffered as a child.

"Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story," by Kim Powers. Perseus Books, 256 pages, $23.99 hardcover.

As this fantasia rooted in reality opens, Truman Capote is weeks away from dying, despondent that his friends have deserted him, drowning in drink and drugs (fact), and haunted by nightmare visits from the Clutters (fiction) - the Kansas family whose massacre inspired Capote's true-crime triumph, "In Cold Blood." In his delirium, he reaches out (fiction) to Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," who accompanied Capote to Kansas as he researched the Clutter family's slaying and the lives of their killers (fact). The childhood friends have been estranged for years (fact), Lee long embittered by rumors that Capote really wrote the book that brought her fame - a pivotal bit of fiction in this terrifically intense meshing of imagination and truth. Powers folds his fiction seamlessly into facts; the result is a riveting, offbeat what-if novel. His heartfelt depiction of a Capote in tragic decline - but with flashes of crafty self-awareness - is haunting; his portrayal of Lee as a lesbian "manque" - though she's still alive, and as reclusive as ever - is heartrending.

"Nureyev: A Life," by Julie Kavanagh, Pantheon, 800 pages, $37.50 hardcover.

British ballet critic Kavanagh doesn't stint on the outsized personalities, critical high and low points, or choreographic genius of the dance world in this sophisticated warts-and-all biography of Rudolf Nureyev. There's more than enough of a savvy insider's astute assessment of the Russian-born dancer's flamboyant career and charismatic talent to satisfy the most earnest of ballet buffs. And there's no shortage of queer deep dish, either. Kavanagh chronicles the ballet superstar's hedonistic sex life with a wealth of detail that is surprisingly nonjudgmental - the parade of lovely young men he picked up and discarded, some rough trade and some well-bred; the passion of his tempestuous romance with Danish dancer Erik Bruhn; how he prowled gay bathhouses with unabashed abandon throughout his legendary onstage partnership with Margot Fonteyn; and his AIDS-related decline and death in 1993, after becoming infected in the earliest years of the epidemic, and living for years after in denial. This detailed portrait of an iconoclastic dancer's rebellious life adds up to a mesmerizing mosaic.

Featured excerpt:

Rudolf, however, settling for the first time into a stable domestic relationship, had never been less degenerate. He hardly drank, having switched from vodka to white wine. "He'd mellowed, and I'd adjusted," said Wallace, who had found ways to deal with his lover's extreme demands, treating any outburst with indulgence and good humor. Maude Gosling remembers how they would play together like children, "Wallace big and strong and galloping round the room with Rudolf on his back - both collapsing with laughter and falling onto the sofa."

-from "Nureyev," by Julie Kavanagh

Footnotes:

From the very autobiographical gay fiction of "A Boy's Own Story," "The Farewell Symphony," and "The Married Man," to the gay travel book, "States of Desire," and the sexual self-confessional, "My Lives: A Memoir" - heck, he was even an original co-author of "The Joy of Gay Sex"! - Edmund White hasn't shied away from his queer side. So it's surprising to see him celebrated in an October issue of "Newsweek" merely as "admired for his exhaustively researched historical novels." Move along, "Newsweek" readers: nothing queer here. The two historical novels cited by the newsweekly are "Fanny: A Fiction" - certainly one of White's least gay novels, savory as it is - and the just-published "Hotel de Dream," about a dying Stephen Crane dictating a new version of a long-abandoned sexually frank novel about a 19th-century teenage male hustler - a gay fact the magazine doesn't get into. White was asked to name "My Five Most Important Books": he favored "Lolita," "Madame Bovary," "Anna Karenina," "In Search of Lost Time," and "The Savage Detectives" (by dead Chilean writer Roberto Bolano). Asked what classic proved disappointing upon rereading, he cited "The Magus," by John Fowles ("thin"). And asked about "a much-recommended book you've resisted reading," White responded: "I've never read anything by Margaret Atwood - maybe because I found her double reputation as a feminist and a Canadian daunting."

Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s. He can be reached in care of this publication or at BookMarks@qsyndicate.com.

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