A debut literary novel addresses issues of identity, family, and personal history.
Returning to her alma mater as a professor is a mixed bag for Nickie Farrell. Windfield College is a liberal enclave in a conservative section of northern Virginia and holds warm memories for her. But as a transgender woman, she must grapple with the fact that she presented herself as male when she attended the college. Her history becomes a more pressing issue when Cinda Vanderhart, an overzealous student reporter, violates her privacy. Nickie grants her an interview, and Cinda reveals that the professor is trans in the school paper. At the same time, Collie Skinner, a waiter in town, struggles with his grief over his mother’s serious illness and her recent revelation—that his biological father was a Windfield student who seemed to disappear shortly after their affair. Matters only escalate from there, as violent bigots follow and menace Nickie; Collie and his co-worker and confidante Robin Thompson start digging into his past; Cinda investigates the abnormal heterochromatic eyes Nickie and Collie share; and they all become embroiled in a deadly threat to the entire campus and all it represents. The prose in Woulff’s novel is solid, but its true strength is in giving multiple perspectives their own unique voices. Nickie communicates her uncertainty, anxiety, and pride as she deals with her trajectory and shifting relationships. Early on, she’s optimistic about teaching at Windfield (“Maybe she had finally discovered her niche, her purpose in life. After everything she’d been through, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be at peace with herself and the world?”). Collie’s story has a resonance through his sense of loss and the difficulties of self-knowledge without fully understanding his roots. And Cinda too has sympathetic turns even as her thread demonstrates how a passion for truth can be harmful and how attitudes within LGBT communities can threaten trans people. That said, the book contains much more than a character study, and readers who enjoy a good thrill should be happy to be along for the ride even as the more emotional segments tug at the heartstrings. Ultimately, this novel is a deft and nuanced study in contradictions, clashes, and mismatches and a stirring reminder that so often that’s exactly what life is.
A rich web of complex questions, rendered beautifully in this tale of a transgender professor.
Gay men struggle to find love in straitened circumstances in this volume of short stories.
Alley (Precincts of Light, 2010, etc.), a University of Oregon literature professor, sets his tales mostly in the Pacific Northwest, especially the fictional burg of Carleton Park, Oregon. He populates them with gay men, many of them in their downwardly mobile but still studly 50s—running-and-gym culture is a prominent milieu—engaged in June-November romances with hot dudes in their 20s and 30s. A retired judge helps a young cop ease into gay culture; a minor league umpire navigates boyfriend trouble while fielding homophobic catcalls from the stands; a depressed, jobless psychologist starring in a local production of The Full Monty faces the departure of his house painter lover; and a boy weathers his dad’s attempts to beat manhood into him and finds a haven in his stepfather’s tender solicitude. Other tales feature a laid-off electrician edging toward a rapprochement with his estranged son, a playwright who has written a terrible but very popular King Lear spoof; a bankrupted shopkeeper wallowing in drink, drugs, and rough trade until a near-death panic reinvigorates him; a disgraced ex-mayor reduced to being a bellhop providing emotional sustenance to a distraught track star; a teenager in the early 1960s, inspired by Beat culture, opening the closet door; and a homophobic Christian conservative in denial about his attraction to men going ballistic when a running pal comes out. In the title story, a man revisits his estranged lover, now dying of AIDS, and regales him with beautiful imagery. With sensitivity and deadpan humor, Alley’s luminous stories explore a wealth of characters and social types thrown into fertile combinations. His prose is limpid and straightforward, laced with droll psychology—“Garret found himself in the midst of a very familiar position where everything that was happening was his business, but even so he had nothing to say”—and sometimes opening into an evocative, elegiac poetry: “Times when in high school, looking out on a late afternoon, I would enter that bricklit life of deserted curbs in the city, newspapers blowing under cinderblocks at newsstands with no one seeing, and would wonder what it was like to be lonely.” The results are funny, poignant, and engrossing.
A fine collection that explores and celebrates the ebb and flow of gay life.
A small-town hairdresser is not quite what she seems in this novel of life under cover.
Charlie Bader, a dentist living in Dallas in 1933, is happily married until his wife catches him lounging in her nightgown doing his nails. She runs off to New Boston, Texas, to train for missionary work in Africa. He relocates to Chicago, where he finds a circle of secretly cross-dressing men—most of whom, like him, are staunchly heterosexual—who give him fashion advice, invite him to drag teas, help him cultivate a high-pitched lilt, and call him “Charlene.” But Charlie’s life is still lonely, as he feels unable to approach a woman, for fear she will discover his hidden passion and reject him. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, he emerges feeling even further alienated from his manhood. He goes to the town of Heaven, Indiana, to live as a woman, using well-honed makeover skills to open a hairstyling and manicure salon. Charlie’s perspective shifts from studying womanhood through the eyes of a man to connecting more intimately with it through the lives of Charlene’s customers. Her beauty shop becomes a gathering place for the ladies of Heaven to trade gossip, hatch plans, and share confidences with the always sympathetic and discreet Charlene. She initially basks in Heaven’s seeming quiet and orderliness, but tension builds as she falls in love with a customer, knowing that she might be run out of town if she voices her feelings.
Maher (Heaven, Indiana, 2000, etc.) treats Charlene’s story with sensitivity and nuance, letting it entwine organically with the life of the town that first appeared in her previous novel. Charlie’s early exploration of femininity is portrayed as less sexual than sensual, consisting of a fascination with elegant outfits, perfectly poised manners, and the seductive tactile pleasure of women’s clothing: “The silkiness felt exquisite and forbidding, soothing and terrible, comforting and dangerously damning.” The author’s limpid prose also captures the subtleties of women’s lives, from catty fencing—“Elizabeth Tipton had a way of complimenting you, Minnie thought, that almost made you feel like she didn’t take you seriously”—to a 10-year-old’s clumsy stabs at sophistication to the exasperated kindness of a daughter caring for her parents. The writing is suffused with deadpan humor but resists caricatures; Charlene balances her furtive yearnings with sober restraint, and her customers aren’t small-minded yokels but complex, curious people who are willing to expand their horizons. Heaven is a richly textured place of church socials, quilting and pie-making contests at the county fair, and neighborly help for families burdened by sickness and age. But there are darker elements, as well, such as a con man who threatens to expose Charlene and a mystery involving a teenage girl who died after giving birth to a now-missing child. In Maher’s tapestry, the unconventional, even subversive, impulses of misfits and “ordinary” folk find a place in a convincing whole.
A quietly luminous tale of folksy gender-bending that’s entertaining and authentic.
Celebrities—and some ordinary people—keep the party going as the AIDS plague gathers in these elegiac stories of gay life in the 1980s.
Walker’s debut collection imagines encounters between iconic gay men, drag queens, clubgoers, and warmly empathetic female divas in a vibrant but increasingly shadowed demimonde where news of the deaths of friends becomes routine. Designer Halston, Andy Warhol, and Liza Minnelli attend a fashion show and then repair to Studio 54 to snort cocaine and toss off bitchy one-liners; flamboyant rocker Freddie Mercury escorts Princess Diana, dressed as a man, to a London bar where she takes in a man impersonating her; a humble handyman bonds with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis when they visit a gay bar in New York; an aging Rock Hudson, unaware of his coming rendezvous with the HIV virus, cruises a gay nightclub and finds a hot young thing who still considers him a stud; a San Francisco drag queen channels Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker while Bette Midler beams from the audience; an average-looking gay man feels he is safe from the mysterious disease he dubs the Hot Guy Flu because it only seems to strike the handsomest men. And in the title story, artist Keith Haring erupts in spontaneous image-making at a Danceteria party, with Madonna herself belting out a benediction to him. Walker registers and skillfully evokes the intensely image-bound nature of these boldfaced names—a coked-up Minnelli is “bubbling, a bit manic, laughing. Like a tall puppet”—but also manages to give these brittle narcissists inner lives of needy vulnerability. His supple, fluent prose evokes the inchoate dread haunting the frantic party scene (“The strobe lights from the balcony flickered in just the right way so that, for a second, everyone looked as if they were frozen in time, suspended from the ceiling by wires”). Too cleareyed for nostalgia, this volume paints an evocative, painful, but sympathetic portrait of a cultural watershed.
A fine collection of tales about people dancing frenetically on the edge of doom.