Book Marks: Travels in a Gay Nation, An Ideal for Living

by Richard Labonte

"Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans," by Philip Gambone. University of Wisconsin Press, 308 pages, $26.95 paper.

The big names stand out in this collection of 44 interviews with the lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders and queers who constitute the LGBTQ nation. Dorothy Allison and Alison Bechdel, Kate Clinton and Mark Doty, David Sedaris and George Takei: there's a voyeuristic buzz to the mini-biographies Gambone crafts from his thoughtful interviews, which are presented as short literary essays rather than as cookie-cutter Q&A transcriptions. But the lesser-known names truly anchor the book, investing it with a fluent diversity that encompasses a range of ages, races and religions. In his 20s, African-American Christopher Barnhill is 'the voice of HIV-positive youth'; Cleric Kim Crawford Harvie performed the first gay marriage in America, in 2004; University of Texas senior Russell van Kraayenburg co-founded a fraternity for queers; Dean Spade is an activist for trans legal rights; Sharon Kleinbaum is senior rabbi of the world's largest queer synagogue, Congregational Beth Simchat Torah. A thread of activism and universal accounts of coming out run through all the entries, but what really sparkles is the individuality of the interviewees.

"An Ideal for Living," by Marshall Moore. Lethe Press, 214 pages, $15 paper.

What better theme for a gay novel than the concept of self-loathing? Well-off housewife Grace desperately wants to woo back her philandering husband; her equally wealthy attorney brother, Robert, yearns to cuddle again with the Latino stud he shared a bed with in more slender days. If only they can shed a few - well, many - pounds. Both are obese in the American way, and diet and exercise as a way to slim dow, are too daunting - also the American way. So when Robert is introduced to a fit fellow with a spiritual mien and astounding supernatural powers, soon to see his avoirdupois melt away to reveal the muscled bod within, he believes all will be well in his world - and in his world, money can buy anything, a belief embraced by Grace when Robert connects her with his spooky guru. Both fatties are vulgar embodiments of self-centered entitlement, but Moore's snappy storyline, insightful character depictions and razor-sharp dialogue render their quest for beauty at any cost chillingly irresistible.

"Set Sail for Murder," by R.T. Jordan, Kensington Books, 304 pages, $22 hardcover.

It's hijinks on the high seas in the fourth Polly Pepper mystery, though deducing who did the deadly deed is more or less beside the point - Jordan's tart-tongued blend of comic camp and acidic gossip is hardly about the sleuthing. Fading celebrity Pepper, her investments devastated by America's economic collapse, is reduced to booking a fan appearance on the Kool Krooz liner Intacti (think Titanic), accompanied as always by her hunky young son, queer Tim, and her long-suffering servant, bisexual Placenta - for a reunion of the Polly Pepper Playhouse cast. Murder intrudes when someone slashes the throat (with a sharpened CD from the TV show's boxed set) of egotistical diva Laura Crawford, a much-loathed co-star. The suspect net is cast far and wide, almost capturing Pepper herself, but the real fun in this skewering of celebrity comes from Jordan's ceaseless stream of bitchy Hollywood asides, name-dropping everyone from Doris Day and Hugh Jackman to Barbra Streisand's son, Jason Gould, and Charlie Sheen, slammed for his 'fluke' of a hit TV show.

"Workin' It!: RuPaul's Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style," by RuPaul, with photography by Mathu Anderson. HarperCollins, 184 pages, $19.99 paper.

Give RuPaul credit. The drag icon has stretched her 15 minutes of fame into a stylish career, most recently with a second season of "RuPaul's Drag Race" for Logo TV. Piggybacking on that renewed visibility - and with back-cover acclaim from the likes of Tori Spelling, Jackie Collins, Debbie Harry and Barneys New York creative director Simon Doonan (three divas and a queen) comes this collection of fashion tips and lifestyle suggestions. A few are sort of serious: don't define yourself by wealth or power, never give up, avoid toxic relationships, kindness is the new cool and do what you want as long as nobody is hurt. Most have to do, breezily, with how RuPaul wakes up a man and transforms himself into herself. The process includes temporary plastic facelifts: 'My whole career is based on an intricate system of pulleys and lifts, smoke and mirrors,' reports RuPaul with an endearing candor that's a signature of this how-I-do-it account of life in and out of drag - and that includes a chirpy account of colonic irrigation.

Featured Excerpt

He turned to view himself from every angle. He still had a gut but it didn't jut out as far. His buttocks looked less like a large set of collapsing parentheses and more like ... well, buttocks. His back, not hairy now, shocked him. In addition to removing the tufts, Stefan had thinned out the galaxy of moles by at least an Orion and a Big Dipper. 'One day,' Robert said out loud, 'I'm going to have ... "obliques!"' He spun around like a runway model, lost his balance, and tumbled against the wall. Then he had a laugh at his own giddy stupidity. His next thought was, "I have to start getting laid. Without paying for it."

-from "An Ideal for Living," by Marshall Moore

Footnotes

DEATH COMES IN THREES: Peter Orlovsky, born in 1933, was poet Allen Ginsberg's sexual companion for several decades, after they met in San Francisco in 1954, where Orlovsky was an art model. Encouraged by Ginsberg to write, he eventually published several slim volumes of poetry, and taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, co-founded by Ginsberg. Orlovsky succumbed to lung cancer on May 30... DONALD WINDHAM, born in 1920, was an intimate of a constellation of queer artists, among them Christopher Isherwood, Glenway Westcott, George Platt Lynes, Lincoln Kirstein, Paul Cadmus, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, though their friendship was shattered in 1977 after Windham published "Tennessee Wiliams' Letters to Donald Windham, 1940-1965." Windham write several novels with sub-textual gay themes, including "Dog Star" and "Tanaquil," but received better reviews for his memoirs, including "Emblems of Conduct," about his early years in Atlanta, and 1987's "Lost Friendships," about his relationship with Capote and Williams, with whom he collaborated on the play "You Touched Me!," based on a story by D.H. Lawrence, which opened on Broadway in 1945. Windham died at his Manhattan home on May 31... JOHN STAHLE, whose "Ganymede Journal" showcased the poetry, fiction, and art of queer writers young and older, died alone in his New York apartment some time in April, apparently of a heart attack, shortly after issue Seven went on sale. In its run, the magazine featured work by Edmund White on writing gay, David Sedaris on loving his man, historical gay-interest writing by Robert Louis Stevenson, Glenway Wescott, Denton Welch, and Bruce Nugent, and the debuts of gay poets and fiction writers. Friends have set up a memorial site: rememberingjohnstahle.com.

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