Ultimately, his explorations of gay memory and the gay past offer a vision of how the cycles of violence can be broken and individuals join hands across the divides that separate them.
In American Studies (1994), Reeve, the elderly victim of a brutal beating by a hustler he brought home late one night, spends his time while recuperating in the hospital recollecting how Tom Slater, his college mentor, was driven to commit suicide when outed during the McCarthy era.
In An Arrow's Flight (1998), Merlis sets the events of the Trojan War in a late twentieth-century Mediterranean or Caribbean milieu, adapting the ancient myth of Philoctetes--who was abandoned under miserable circumstances by his fellow Greeks en route to Troy when a leg wound festered so badly that no one could bear its rank odor--to illuminate American attitudes towards the gay body in general, and towards AIDS-sufferers in particular.
Courtesy of Mark Merlis. Bob and Mark (©15)
Mark Merlis is an American writer, author of the novels American Studies and An Arrow’s Flight. Bob Ashe retired as an executive of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, part of Johnson & Johnson. They live in Philadelphia, where they were married on June 13, 2014. “We met in Leon’s, a dive bar in Baltimore, in 1982. Each of us was cruising someone else; each of us struck out; it was last call. We saw each other and thought, ‘This will do for one night.’ We’ve been together ever since.”
And in Man about Town (2003), Joel Lingeman, a middle-aged civil servant specializing in health care issues who has just been abandoned by his longtime partner, searches for a bathing suit model about whose image in a magazine Joel fantasized as a youth. Only by deconstructing the illusions of his past is he able to address and move beyond his present alcoholic inertia.
In all three novels, Merlis examines how the chains of power that render gay men second-class citizens can be broken. These chains include the power that the past has over the present; the power that straights have to intimidate gays; and the power of desire to make one vulnerable.
Born in Framingham, Massachusetts, on March 9,1950, Merlis was six years old when his father, a physician, moved the family to Baltimore. Here Merlis attended a Society of Friends (i.e., Quaker) school.
After completing a B.A. in English at Wesleyan University in 1971, and an M.A. in American Studies at Brown University in 1976, Merlis returned to Baltimore where he took an entry-level position at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to support himself while writing.
His efficiency as a health policy analyst, however, earned him a series of promotions, allowing him to move in 1987 to the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress as a Specialist in Social Legislation. Here, in addition to being closely involved in most of the major health legislation that emerged from three successive Congresses, he devised the original grant allocation formulas for the Ryan White AIDS Care Act.
Merlis comments on his webpage that, unlike other gay writers who "are at their best when drawing upon their own experience, I find that my past is an empty well." While he has not yet produced (and does not seem likely to do so) the kind of autobiographical novels that Christopher Isherwood, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, and Felice Picano have made a staple of gay fiction, he does draw upon his knowledge of academe in American Studies, and upon his experience as a "senior health policy analyst in an agency that provides nonpartisan analysis and research for members and committees in Congress" for Man about Town.
Since 2001, Merlis has worked as an independent health policy consultant, while living with his partner in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He is currently at work on a fourth novel, tentatively titled The Anarch.
Merlis notes that his novels "are about breaking the chain of power and violence that permeates both straight and gay culture." He explains, for example, that the mix of ancient and modern materials in An Arrow's Flight "is a way of easing the reader into the drama and of rephrasing, without fundamentally modifying, the questions Sophocles asked: what country are we really citizens of, and what do we owe to one another in that country?"
Merlis's approach to social issues is as intellectually engaged as it is emotionally powerful and often wryly humorous. His protagonists are, in their dissimilar ways, all concerned with building the polis--that is, with creating a community sensitive to the needs of all its members.
In American Studies, Tom Slater (whose career parallels that of influential Harvard scholar F. O. Mathiessen, who committed suicide in 1950) is the author of a ground-breaking book titled The Invincible City, which celebrates the "triumph of comradeship" in nineteenth-century American writers such as Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Slater enthuses that through his book he hopes to foment "a revolution built on love and not bloodletting. A world where I can watch a Billy Budd walk away and not want to obliterate him because I can't get inside his skin."
Tragically, Slater's own efforts at "comradeship" fail: his advocacy of socialist ideals rings hollow while he continues to live off inherited family wealth, and he has difficulty acting upon his erotic attraction to men.
At first glance, conversely, Joel Lingeman of Man about Town is just another cog in the boring grind of government. When a newly elected, conservative senator draws upon Joel's expertise in drafting health care legislation in order to deny Medicare benefits to gay men who contracted HIV through "irresponsible" (i.e., unprotected) sex, however, Joel recognizes that "we're all in this together," and argues that government is a "covenant" guaranteeing that the fortunate will care for those who are less able to care for themselves.
Even An Arrow's Flight's Pyrrhus, the runaway prince cum gay stripper and hustler who seems so self-involved as to be incapable of thinking about the polis, comes to understand how a person can function as "a country of your own" (just as, Reeve notes, Tom Slater managed in his American Studies seminars to "make a little country of his own").
For Merlis, what keeps "the invincible city" of comrades from being realized is the retributive anger that straight men direct at gay men for refusing to wear the impenetrable armor of masculinity, and the consequent shame that gay men feel regarding their sexual orientation.
Pyrrhus's inheritance and eventual rejection of the armor belonging to his father, Achilles, is a powerful metaphor that informs all three of Merlis's novels in which gay men are repeatedly despised by straight men for having made love the center of their lives, rather than arming themselves in "the seemly reticence that makes men talk only of sports and cars and bosoms."
Taken together, Merlis's novels offer an extended meditation upon the ways by which homophobia creates feelings of inadequacy, and even self-loathing, in gay men. Each novel contains multiple scenes in which a gay man is made to feel small by a hearty.
Reeve, who was repeatedly "browned" by male classmates as a boy, is both intimidated by Tom Slater's openly disdainful brother into relinquishing his claim upon Tom's estate and humiliated to be evicted from his apartment building for daring to disrupt the peaceful night's sleep of other residents with his screams on the night of his beating.
The conservative senator whose homophobic legislation Joel's non-partisan status requires him to support is as presumptuous of his privilege as Joel's low-ranking status as a government functionary and gay man renders him deferential and eager to serve. The United States Senate is one more group of privileged straight boys, like the ones that excluded Joel in high school.
And Odysseus understands only too well how to play upon Pyrrhus's sense of inadequacy after growing up in the shadow of his super-macho father, Achilles, in order to get Pyrrhus to manipulate the errant prince into doing the Greek general's bidding.
Merlis displays a profound psychological insight in his representation of the ways in which gay men render themselves all the more vulnerable by their attraction to the emotionally impenetrable straight men who are most likely to disdain them.
Pyrrhus, for example, acknowledges the erotic fascination that his father's body held for him--the same stupidly over-masculinized body that causes Pyrrhus to test the attractiveness of his own far more elegant form.
Tom Slater's afternoon sherry hours with his Harvard students "always looked like a casting call for an Arrow Shirt ad." Reeve describes the men to whom Tom was attracted as "Wheaties eaters." Reeve, his vision damaged by the beating that he suffered at the hands of a hustler, nevertheless casts sideways glances at the working-class heterosexual boy who is in the hospital bed next to his.
And Joel, obsessed with finding the model in a thirty-year-old swimming suit advertisement, must unexpectedly confront the effects that unsolicited gay desire has had on the boy, who proves to have been heterosexual.
But, while "the invincible city" of comrades may not be immediately available, and while gay men are most likely to feel that we are living in a "war zone where no covenants held," Merlis holds up for examination an alternate form of heroism: the reaching of two hands across a seemingly unbridgeable distance.
In breaking his bow, Philoctetes displays to Pyrrhus that gay men can simply refuse to give straight men power over us by turning away from straight warfare and joining hands to create "a country of your own."
At the end of Man about Town Joel quells his suspicions concerning a new boyfriend's petty thefts and enters into a biracial relationship.
And whereas Tom Slater proved unable to cross "the abyss between the two beds" when he lay awake as a boy at boarding school with the object of his desire sleeping in a nearby bed, Reeve can "cross between the beds" in his hospital room. Falling while returning to his own bed after pulling up the covers on his sleeping roommate, he is startled to have a helping hand extended to him by the straight boy he initially feared was going to strike him.
Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean
Entry Title: Merlis, Mark
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2006
Date Last Updated July 13, 2006
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/merlis_m.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date March 9, 2012
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.
My own novels are adaptations of fairy tales, so I adored An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis a brilliant, tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the story of mythic Achilles’ son Pyrrhus, who works as a naked go-go boy in ancient Greece. The inventive prose in An Arrow’s Flight is as irreverent as it is clever, and I’d wager that you’ll laugh as much as your loins will stir. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Dazzling. --Nick Nolan
Mark Merlis‘s American Studies is the novel that demonstrated more than any other, when I found it at the age of 26, that the kind of gay sensibility with which I found myself in sympathy could, at its most sophisticated, synthesize wit (a pair of bottoms are described as ―two tunnels with no train‖), intellect (the literary critic F.O. Matthiessen is the model for a character, and the writing rings with intelligence throughout), eroticism (the interplay between the narrator and his young hospital roommate is quintessentially sexy), and emotional depth in a story that‘s riveting, memorable and fun. Merlis‘s novel, published in 1994 (his first and best so far), is for me the literary achievement par excellence. --Rick Whitaker, The Lost Library, Gay Fiction Rediscovered
Mark Merlis, 1999, by Robert Giard (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1121538)
American photographer Robert Giard is renowned for his portraits of American poets and writers; his particular focus was on gay and lesbian writers. Some of his photographs of the American gay and lesbian literary community appear in his groundbreaking book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, published by MIT Press in 1997. Giard’s stated mission was to define the literary history and cultural identity of gays and lesbians for the mainstream of American society, which perceived them as disparate, marginal individuals possessing neither. In all, he photographed more than 600 writers. (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digital
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
CreateSpace Store: https://www.createspace.com/4910282
Amazon (Paperback): http://www.amazon.com/dp/1500563323/?tag=e
Amazon (Kindle): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MZG0VHY/?tag=e
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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