Book Marks: Secret Historian, Water Mark, Hot off the Presses

by Richard Labonte

"Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade," by Justin Spring. FSG, 478 pages, $32.50 hardcover.

Among queer erotic connoisseurs of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, Phil Andros was a star; his fact-based collections of sizzling literary erotica were several notches better than the porn norm. But not many of his fans knew the man behind the name: Samuel Steward, whose extraordinary and exuberantly sexual life is the subject of Spring's exhaustive and compassionate biography. Steward never became the accomplished novelist he set out to be, but he did befriend Gertude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, had youthful flings with Rudolph Valentino and Rock Hudson, had an affair with Thornton Wilder, supplied the Kinsey Institute with intimate details of his trysts (his "stud file") with a life-long array of hustlers, and - as Phil Sparrow - was the official tattooist for the Hell's Angels. Spring bases much of his research on a trove of personal papers, long thought lost after Steward's death (in his later years, he lived alone in a decrepit cottage of a hovel in an Oakland slum). Quoted at length, those writings enliven and illuminate this enthralling reclamation of a heretofore unheralded queer icon.

"Water Mark," by J.M. Redmann. Bold Strokes Books, 288 pages, $16.95 paper.

Life remains mostly miserable for Michele "Micky" Knight, the New Orleans private investigator who at the end of "Death of a Dying Man" - the previous book in Redmann's hard-boiled series - was mourning her city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and her romance in the wake of her partner's infidelity. She's living out of her vandalized office where there's neither heat nor hot water, and the only job that's come her way is retrieving family papers and photographs for a client from an abandoned, waterlogged house. Cue the body, though, discovered by a crew of evangelical cleanup teens in the similarly trashed house next door, and Knight's sleuth juices are flowing again. Tangled pasts, gender identity, emotional trauma and the angst of a baby dyke all figure in Redmann's propulsive plot, and though the aftermath of hurricane horrors remains as stark a backdrop as in the previous book, there's more mystery - and a hint of both personal recovery and new romance - in this taut and textured book.

"Hot off the Presses," by Elliott Mackle. Lethe Press, 302 pages, $18 paper.

A high-profile young, black lad on the down-low, a world-class Olympic gymnast committed to his closet, an evangelical black mayor deep into African-American AIDS denial, a crusading queer journalist coping with the hang-ups of the wealthy straight couple who inherited the gay Atlanta newspaper their dead son founded: Mackle's meaty novel packs in a lot of provocative plot. Central to the story is crusading editor Henry Thompson, who has shied away from commitment since the AIDS-related death of his lover, until a bathhouse hookup with a Games-bound muscle god develops romantic overtones, even though the athlete lives with a fiancee. Though it's set around the time of the 1996 Olympics - which Mackle covered for the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution" - the story's several potent themes remain relevant. Homophobia in both the black and the jock communities is addressed; so too is the sometimes vexing question of how the queer press ought to cover the queer community's own foibles and failings. Mackle tackles these topics with a delicious mix of wisdom and wit - and with titillating dashes of sex and romance.

"The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings," by James Baldwin, edited by Randall Kenan. Pantheon, 336 pages, $26.95 hardcover.

There was a time when writers had real intellectual presence, not just TV talk show moments and anointment by Oprah Winfrey. This momentous collection of essays, book reviews, speeches, letters and journalism - and one short story - is a fierce and felicitous reminder of how towering a literary figure James Baldwin was. None of the 54 pieces appear in two other collections, "The Price of the Ticket" and the Library of America's "Collected Essays"; it's a testament to how prolific the author of "Giovanni's Room" was that Kenan pulled together such a powerful, and readable, book. Homosexuality is all but ignored, except for scattered, scathing mentions of black radicals like Eldridge Cleaver who disdained gays. Nonetheless, Baldwin's sense of outsider-ness permeates the collection. There is seldom a dull thought or a slapdash sentence in what editor Kenan describes as a "grab bag" of a book, and one of the more journalistic pieces, "The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston" is as muscular and majestic as the boxers whose 1962 fight it chronicles.

Featured Excerpt

Floyd seemed all right to me at first. He had planned for a long fight, and seemed to be feeling out his man. But Liston got him with a few bad body blows, and a few bad blows to the head. And no one agrees me on this, but at one moment, when Floyd lunged for Liston's belly - looking, it must be said, like an amateur, wildly flailing - it seemed to me that some unbearable tension in him broke, that he lost his head. And, in fact, I nearly screamed, "Keep your head, baby!" but it was really too late. Liston got him with a left, and Floyd went down.

-from "The Cross of Redemption"

Footnotes

BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR... Two Samuel Steward-related titles coming this fall complement Justin Spring's epic biography. The first is "An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward" (Antinous Press/Elysium Press), a collection of his erotic drawings and paintings, images of his sculptures and decorative objects, and a sampling of the candid Polaroid pictures Steward shot of most of the men he bedded over the years; the edition is limited to 1,000 copies. The second is an anthology of Steward's lost or unpublished writing - including excerpts from his secret sex journals, samplings of his erotic fiction and gay-related journalism, and his correspondence with Gertude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Thornton Wilder, photographer George Platt Lynes, and sexologist Alfred Kinsey; not yet titled, it will be available as a Lightning Source print-on-demand book... EMMA DONOGHUE'S NOVEL, "Room" - already a "New York Times" bestseller, and a contender for the prestigious Man Booker Award (and about $80,000) - is in the mix for another literary award, Canada's Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize of $25,000. Irish-born Donoghue, now a Canadian resident, is one of five nominated authors, along with Kathleen Winter for "Annabel," a novel about an intersex child coming of age in Labrador, a remote region of Newfoundland, on Canada's east coast... GAY PLAYWRIGHT Victor Lodato won the PEN USA fiction award for his first novel, "Mathilda Savitch," and the Lambda Literary Award-winner in Bisexuality Nonfiction, Minal Hajratwala, won PEN USA's "research nonfiction" prize for "Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents."

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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