Book Marks: Missouri, Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man

by Richard Labonte

"Missouri," by Christine Wunnicke, translated by David Miller. Arsenal Pulp Press, 134 pages, $12.95 paper.

In a literary landscape littered with daunting doorstops, it's a tonic to come across a short novel - a novella, really - that packs an expansive story into just a few poetic pages. Wunnicke's atmospheric account of improbable romance was published to acclaim in Germany in 2006; Miller's translation, though occasionally rhythmically clumsy, captures the quirkily flat but compelling affect of a foreigner writing about a place and a time more wholly imagined than deeply researched - though there's a squirming authenticity to the writer's description of head lice plaguing two men as they warily confront mutual lust. Douglas Fortescue is a vaunted British poet and aesthete forced to flee to mid-1800s America with his brother after an Oscar Wildean scandal; orphaned Joshua Jenkyns is a wild-lad outlaw terrorizing the Midwest while carrying in his saddlebags Fortescue's collections of poetry - enigmatic words that speak to the boy's unarticulated sexual longings. Wunnicke's depiction of their doomed love, beautifully bleak and emotionally astute, is a most uncommon gay romance.

"Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man," by Bill Clegg. Little, Brown, 222 pages, $23.99 hardcover.

The moral redemption at the core of Clegg's relentless memoir about hapless addiction is likely as psychically searing for the reader as it was for the writer. This is a book of self-flagellating intensity and palpable paranoia, exhausting to embrace but impossible to put down. Clegg, young and handsome and in love and at the top of the literary management game in Manhattan, was everyone's ideal - until he encountered crack, at first an occasional high, soon a monster sucking away the essence of his life. The author ignored phone calls from long-suffering lover Noah, holed up in swanky hotel rooms for weeks-long binges, and eventually hit bottom, reduced to walking city streets in filthy clothes, shunned at hotel registration desks. Clegg braids his story of a heart-wrenching downward spiral with flashbacks to his college days and his family traumas, hinting that both nature and nurture contributed to his addictive persona - but at the same time taking full responsibility for his failings. The harsh truth contained in this book is both hellish and illuminating.

"Will Grayson, Will Grayson," by John Green and David Levithan. Dutton, 310 pages, $17.99 hardcover.

One Will is straight, his best friend is gay - which is often an embarrassment - and he just can't get along with an acerbic girl who hangs with them. The other Will is gay, and - except for an exquisitely intense online romance - is mostly a sullen, sarcastic loner. High school students living in Chicago suburbs distant from each other, they're fated to meet one evening at a midtown porn shop. What connects them? That would be flamboyant Tiny Cooper, first Will's queer pal, out and proud, at once a musical show queen and a hulking football player. In this young adult novel's alternating chapters, co-authors Levithan (gay Will) and Green (straight Will) capture with rollicking prose the angst of teen yearning. And the anguish: gay Will's online fellow was fabricated by a female friend, a discovery that shatters the boy, until, that night in Chicago, he encounters a compassionate Tiny. Though cheerfully hyperbolic, this jaunty novel delivers simple truths about love and friendship. And, in the last chapter, fabulous singing and dancing.

"Do Not Disturb," by Carsen Taite. Bold Strokes Books, 236 pages, $16.95 paper.

Ainsley Faraday is on the executive fast track, a rising star at the Steel Hotel chain, assigned to bring a new property in Santa Fe up to snuff. Greer Davis is a hard-partying pop star who flees notoriety - disguised with a fiery red wig - when a clean-cut country songstress is found dead of an overdose on her bathroom floor. A first-class flight from Chicago brings the opposites together, and the sexual attraction is vivid and immediate. There are complications: Ainsley is taking over a faded hotel owned until recently by the family that raised Greer and now managed by her cousin Drew; Greer is concerned that Ainsley will recognize her despite her disguise; and Ainsley's not really smitten by redheads anyway. But love will find a way, despite Drew's antipathy toward the takeover and Greer's spoiled-star personality. Taite's tale of sexual tension is entertaining in itself, but a number of secondary characters - including Ainsley's mendacious sister, Drew's wise father with stubborn cancer and Greer's flitty best friend Ethan - add substantial color to romantic inevitability.

Featured Excerpt

Joshua wanted many things and everything at once. He wanted to hold Douglas and he wanted Douglas to hold him. He wanted to close his eyes yet didn't want to be blind. He wanted to stand and fall, fight and surrender, he wanted the terror, the delight, the pain he had already sampled, and the ecstasy he had hitherto only glimpsed, he wanted all of this immediately and yet he wanted it to last for minutes, hours, until the end of the world - the desires of Joshua Jenkyns were mightily confused...

-from "Missouri," by Christine Wunnicke

Footnotes

BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: "I found that between my talk show, "American Idol" and my late night blogging, I didn't have enough ways to express myself," says Ellen DeGeneres - and so she's writing another volume of memoirs, a humorous look at her artistic and married life, as yet untitled but scheduled for Fall 2011 publication from Grand Central... MORE THAN 40 YEARS after it was first published, Flux Books is reissuing John Donovan's "I'll Get There, It Better be Worth the Trip," the first YA novel with a gay teen protagonist, 13-year-old Davy, confused by his sexual self after kissing a jock classmate; this anniversary edition includes essays about the book's impact by Brent Hartinger ("Geography Club"), Martin Wilson ("What They Always Tell Us"), and the late Donovan's niece, Stacey Donovan... TOMAS MOURNIAN'S DEBUT novel, about 15-year-old Ahmed's escape from a reparative therapy boot camp into an underground network of safe houses, is coming from Kensington Books next February... ARSENAL PULP PRESS continues its Queer Film Classics series this November with three titles: Thomas Waugh and Jason Garrison focus on Frank Vitale's 1974 Canadian film, "Montreal Main"; Helen Hok-Sze Leung considers Chen Kaige's 1992 Chinese film, "Farewell My Concubine"; and Shohini Ghosh assesses Deepa Mehta's 1996 India-set lesbian love story, "Fire."

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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