A first-time novelist visits queer Harlem in the 1980s.
Founded in 1982, the House of Xtravaganza was the first strictly Latinx house to join New York’s ballroom community, the gay subculture brought to the popular consciousness in 1990 by Madonna's “Vogue” and the film Paris Is Burning. Although Cassara is careful to note that his debut is a work of imagination, this is a story about the House of Xtravaganza, the people who created it, and the people who made it their home. Angel—loosely based on Angie Xtravaganza, the first “mother” of the house—is 16 when the book starts, living in the Bronx and beginning the transition from “Angel the he” to “Angel the she.” A chance encounter with the gorgeous Jaime leads to the acquisition of a silver dress and satisfying sex but, more importantly, a sense of possibility. The newly liberated Angel becomes an acolyte to (real-life) drag queen Dorian Corey, which leads Angel to an affair with Hector, who will establish the House of Xtravaganza (in both fiction and fact). The word “house” is both a nod to Paris ateliers and an acknowledgement that ball culture functioned as a home to people who were not welcome elsewhere, just as the titles “mother” and “father” have a special meaning to queer, cross-dressing, and transgender kids rejected by their families of origin. As Hector and Angel build their family of choice, the novel acquires new characters and perspectives, and it presents a wide-lens view of the joys and sorrows of a culture created by racial and sexual minorities. AIDS, of course, casts a terrible shadow over the community depicted here. But this is not, primarily, a social novel. In terms of tone and style, it's closer to Valley of the Dolls than Giovanni’s Room, and this feels absolutely appropriate. Glamour is a refuge to Angel, Hector, and the kids to whom they give a home. Their stories deserve a bit of glitter.
Fierce, tender, and heartbreaking.