Victor J. Banis (May 19, 1937 – February 22, 2019)
Victor J. Banis is a writer.
Yes, I do see it is a bit terse, but it seems to me to cover the salient points well enough. And yes, I do realize I could add adjectives—say, Victor J. Banis is a wonderful writer.
I am an introvert, however. It is an ordeal, to say the least, to read my own material aloud to other people, as some writers enjoy doing, let alone toot my own horn. Anyway, I have long believed it is better to be more than you seem. It is so much nicer, as an example, to mention to others your "little shack in the woods," and let them discover for themselves that it is really a country estate, than to tell them about your "country estate" and have them discover that it is really a shack in the woods. So, no, I'd rather not tell you how wonderful I am as a writer, lest you decide afterward that I am only "a shack in the woods" and not the estate you envisioned.
I suppose I could let others tell you. I have certainly received plenty of praise over the years. Publisher's Weekly credited me with "the master's touch in storytelling," and the Nashville Banner echoed that with, "a master storyteller." Eminent scholar and critic D. Wayne Gunn called me "a national treasure." Thomas L. Long, editor-in-chief of the Harrington Gay Men's Literary Quarterly, said I was the "godfather of modern popular gay fiction," and William Hewitt, professor of gay studies at Westchester University, referred to me as "one of the Grand Old Men of Gay Fiction." Cultural historian Michael Bronski calls me "one of (his) heroes" and credits me as one of a quartet of writers "who pioneered what we now call gay and lesbian literature."
Hmm. Very nice, of course, and pleasant to bask in, but it seems to me a dreadful burden to bear, since I must measure every word I subsequently write against such fulsome praise. I am reminded of a friend who once looked at a particular photograph of me and said that I looked so good in it that I should never be seen in person again. I have an uneasy feeling when I read those reviews that perhaps I should quit where I am—if only I weren't having so much fun.
And, since those little blurbs mentioned above, some of them, at least, touch upon the subject, I suppose I ought to talk about my gay writing history.
I have no embarrassment in doing so, and my only reluctance is my reluctance to label myself a "gay writer," since in fact gay writing has been only a part of my literary output, and not the larger part. I think that I did sit down in the earliest days of my career to write gay novels (I think, because it was so very long ago), but I have long since ceased to think in terms of genre or subject matter or even style. I don't think today I can even correctly say I write "stories." I write people. They come to me and talk to me—often I literally hear them whispering in my ear—and they are who they are, and I don't get to dictate whether they are gay or straight or Martian, anymore than I would with the person next to me on an airplane. They tell me their stories, these visitors, and I think it would be presumptuous of me to try to tell them what their stories should be, or how they should be written, let alone that they must fit into some preconceived "genre." So, just a writer, then, and not a "this writer" or "that writer."
On the other hand, if I have had an appreciable impact upon the world of books and writing, it is certainly in the genre of gay publishing, where I have become something of a cult figure over the years and a hero to some writers and critics.
That was not something I planned. I'm afraid my writing career has been rather a haphazard thing, to tell the truth. I suppose as much as anything, I was the right person in the right place at the right time. To be honest, I suspect much of history happens that way.
In 1963, Fresno, California publishers Sanford Aday and Wallace de Ortega Maxey were sentenced to twenty-five years in federal prison for distributing obscene material, some of the material in question being gay-themed paperback novels.
In 1964, I was indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute obscene material, this for my first novel, The Affairs of Gloria (Brandon House, 1964), which had no sexually explicit words or phrases, but did contain one "damn," and, more to the point, a couple of very tepid lesbian scenes.
Clearly, in the early sixties, the U. S. Government thought that writing about or publishing books depicting homosexual behavior, male or female, was in and of itself obscene, and they meant to stamp it out.
That is not to say that there had not been books before which addressed the subject of homosexuality. The publishing world of the time did not have a specific code, like the Hayes code in Hollywood, but there was a sort of tacit understanding that homosexual characters must be portrayed as naughty, naughty people, doing wicked, wicked things, for which they must be punished by the final chapter, either by death or by a miraculous conversion to heterosexuality. A publisher portrayed homosexuals in a positive light, or gave them happy endings, at his own peril, as Misters Aday and Maxey—and I—learned to our grief. I had ten years in federal prison hanging over my head; not the cheeriest of prospects for a young, pretty (if I do say so myself) and certainly effeminate gay man.
I was acquitted (on a technicality) of the charges brought against me, but I continued for several years to be the target of governmental harassment. My mail, e.g., was routinely opened and left at my doorstep atop the envelopes, so I would be sure to know that it had been read. Yes, Virginia, it was and is illegal.
Surely, in bringing charges against me for what they certainly knew was my first novel, the governmental censors must have intended in part to discourage me from writing any more.
The irony of all this is that Gloria had been written on a whim, as a lark, really—the old "Gosh, I could do this" business. Probably, I would never have gone on to write any more books in this vein. It was my ambition to be a "serious" writer (I don't think I know now what that is) when I grew up (I don't know now what that is, either.)
I was outraged, however, by what had been done and was still being done to me, and to the constitutional guarantee of free speech, and being bullheaded by nature, I thought—perhaps a bit foolishly, in retrospect—that I would "show them." Far from being dissuaded from writing more sexy paperbacks, I felt obligated to give it a few more whirls.
The problem was, I had many friends who were lesbians but I personally was not, so the books I could write in that vein were unhappily akin to the faux-lesbian books popular then and mostly written by heterosexual males for the pleasure of other heterosexual males.
What I wanted to write were gay novels; and after the Aday and Maxey convictions, there was little enthusiasm on the part of publishers for material of that sort; and the potential popular gay market had not yet been tapped. "Who would buy them?" publishers asked repeatedly.
Undeterred, I wrote my gay novel, The Why Not, and after a time it fortunately landed on the desk of Earl Kemp at Greenleaf Classics. Greenleaf had not done any gay material up till then, and Earl himself was resolutely heterosexual and, as he himself has admitted, really quite ignorant of the gay world and especially of gay fiction. He was, however, an iconoclast, and firmly committed to battering down the barriers to sexual expression in print, and he was happy to take on the anti-homosexual forces as well. Greenleaf published The Why Not, it sold well, and got good reviews, and Earl indicated that he was amenable to seeing something more.
By this time, however, I had become a gay activist, and I began to look askance at that "sad-young-men" school of gay writing, in which, I regretted to admit, I now included The Why Not. When I read it again, I was dismayed to realize that there was hardly a happy character or incident in the book. Mostly it was gloom and doom.
Now, it is true, gay life in those early years could be painful, burdensome, and dangerous; but in dwelling exclusively on those aspects of our society, I thought those books, mine included, were essentially dishonest. I decided that I wanted to write a book about a happy homosexual who remained happy, and alive, and gay, in the final chapter.
The result was The Man From C. A. M. P., a spy spoof featuring agent Jackie Holmes, who worked for a super secret organization, C. A. M. P., dedicated to the protection and advancement of homosexuals everywhere.
I think Earl Kemp must have blinked and gasped when I sent him the manuscript. I am convinced that there was not another editor in the U. S. of A. at that time who would even have considered publishing that novel; but gamely publish it Earl did, and the rest is truly a part of gay history.
Delighted gays took to this new kind of offering like ducks to the village pond. The book sold phenomenally well, so much so that an entire series of books followed, eight more Jackie Holmes adventures, and several spin offs.
More importantly, having seen that the market was far greater than anyone heretofore had imagined and that gays were enthusiastically receptive to books that portrayed them in a positive light, Earl and Greenleaf published over the next several years a variety of gay material in just about every genre imaginable: mysteries and histories and comedies and sci-fi and adventure and cowboys and sailors, the whole gamut of gay experience—no, make that human experience. Many of those books were written by me or by writers that I tutored, and for whom I became a de facto agent. It was joked in the industry that the gay publishing revolution had mostly happened around my kitchen table, and there was more than a little truth in the statement. At one time, some seventy five to eighty percent of the gay novels being published were written by me or by my protégés.
In short order, other publishers became aware that Greenleaf was making lots of money catering to this "new" market, and they soon enough jumped on the bandwagon, and a revolution in gay publishing was truly and irrevocably launched. In the ten years leading up to 1966, when The Why Not appeared, there were only a few dozen genuinely gay novels published. In the decade that followed, there were thousands, some say as many as ten thousand. A revolution indeed. And many historians believe that it was this explosion of gay publishing that first led to a sense of community among gays, and so was a major contribution to the larger social revolution that followed.
So, yes, I can look back with I think justifiable pride in having played a part, if a minor one, in opening doors to gay writers in particular and breaking down barriers in expression for writers in general. The freedom mainstream writers enjoy today springs directly from that publishing revolution of ours. It would be dishonest of me to pretend that I do not take some gratification from that fact.
On the other hand, the C.A.M.P. books and the scores of gay books that came after them were, on balance, only a small part of my total output. At the time I wrote them, I was just starting out on what has proven to be a far longer and more felicitous career than I would have imagined then.
I have written in all somewhere close to one hundred and fifty books (I stopped counting long ago), and many short pieces as well, under a variety of pen names. From 1970 until just the last couple of years, none of them were gay oriented, though I now find myself turning back to those roots and enjoying rediscovering them.
So, how does one neatly summarize that sort of checkered career? Really, I think I had it right to begin with, and I'm going to stick with that:
Victor J. Banis is a writer.
Victor J. Banis
Author Victor J. Banis
Release Date February 15, 2008
Cover Artist Deana C. Jamroz
Paperback: 240 pages
Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and often bawdy, Lola Dances ranges from the 1850 slums of the Bowery to the mining camps of California and Montana, to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco.
Little Terry Murphy, pretty and effeminate, dreams of becoming a dancer. Raped by a drunken profligate and threatened with prison, Terry flees the Bowery and finds himself in the rugged settlement of Alder Gulch, where he stands out like a sore thumb among the camp's macho inhabitants--until the day he puts on a dress and dances for the unsuspecting miners as beautiful Lola Valdez--and wins fame, fortune and, ultimately, love.
Review by Elisa
Lola Dances is not a simple book. It's a powerful novel, and it's strong but real. Terry is a skinny Irish guy in the Bowery of New York, with a dream: he wants to be a dancer. He loves all the things that are artistic, like the opera he eavesdrops outside Castle Garden in Battery Park, or the beautiful dresses he sees on the stage. He has a lean body and he knows he can be a dancer. Even if he has to suffer the mocks of the other guys. But even if those guys moleste him, he sees among them a young guy, Tom, who looks at him with hungry eyes full of... desire? Is it possible? Terry doesn't know nothing about sex and even if he knows that in the Bowery there are places where men who want men can go, he has never imagined that someone could really want him.
And so he is totally unprepared when a spoilt child of a wealthy family rapes him. He doesn't know how to react and decides to face him openly, but he ends being accuse of blackmailed. Tom helps him and he would be even willing to help him more, cause he has feelings for Terry, feelings that nor him or Terry can place. But Terry can't believe in the gentle eyes of Tom and he runs away. His brother Brian, even if he believes it's all fault of Terry, brings him on the wild moutains, on a miner small town.
Here Brian takes Terry as a beaten housekeeper, and after some time, also him rapes Terry, and continues to do that for months. In his misery, Terry finds another dream to clinge to not fall apart: he falls in love for Joshua, who lives near Terry's cabin. Joshua seems interested in Terry, but he can't move on the fact that Terry is a man.
When life for Brian and Terry go worst than ever, Terry makes an hazard move: when the saloon's singer of the town leaves suddently her work, Terry takes her place on the stage, disguises himself with the features of Lola Valdez, a singer and a dancer. Success strucks immediately, and Terry manages also to have a night with Joshua, but the morning after he discovers that Joshua and Brian have left the town together and Terry is lonely again. But now Terry is not more an helpless boy, now he is Lola, SHE is Lola, and fortune smiles on her.
Years after she arrives in San Francisco, wealthy and beloved, and she finds again Tom... But is Tom her first love, of is Joshua who helds the key of her heart? And Tom wants Lola or Terry?
This is a wonderful rides along the ups and downs of Terry's life, and you will feel sorry for him, but also happy for his fortune. Terry is a shy guy, and strangely he seems to acquire strenght when he wears Lola's dress: where like a man he can't protect himself, like Lola she is the master of her destiny.
All the men in Terry's life, Tom, Brian, Joshua, will help to forge the man who will become Terry, but only the one who wants nothing from him if not his love, will be the one who will have him forever.
Even if I'm not an expert of that part if history, I think the book is wonderfully detailed, and also the use of words is carefully crafted. For example it's tender to see the change in Terry's speaking from the poor boy of the Bowery to the dance star of the Barbary Coast.
Terry Murphy fits not at all into the rough miners’ camp of the gold rush - little, effeminate, the constant butt of jokes and abuse - until the day he stops at the Lucky Dollar Saloon, looking for a job….and arrives just when the entertainer there quits…
“I came by,” Terry stammered, “I’m looking for work. I thought, well, maybe I could get a job here, at The Dollar. Maybe you needed somebody.”
Willis laughed mirthlessly. “You want a job? Why don’t you put on one of those dresses and go out there and dance for those damn fool miners. That’s what I need, sonny.” He stormed out, muttering angrily to himself.
Alone in the dressing room, Terry glanced about, and his eyes fell on the dressing table. Lizette had left most of her stage make up. There was a Spanish fan there, too, He picked it up and snapped it open.
Back in the Bowery, in the dressing room at the theater, Rosaria had entertained her fellow dancers often with her fan. “In Spain, a señorita doesn’t need words to tell a man what she wants to say, she can say it all with her fan,” she told them.
Clicking the fan open and shut, Terry strolled to the rack of dresses that stood along one wall, the costumes Lizette had left behind.
Why don’t you put on one of those dresses…Willis’s words seemed to echo inside his head. He thought of that time as a child when he’d dressed as a girl, how different he’d felt. He took one of the dresses from the rack and held it up before himself and looked speculatively into the standing mirror. The dress was black, vaguely Spanish in style, and lavishly trimmed in ruffles.
Even at a glance, he could see it would fit perfectly.
* * * * *
Willis was back a bit later. “You still here?” he said, coming in, “I thought I told you…”
He stopped inside the dressing room door and gaped in astonishment at the beautiful woman seated at the dressing table, scarcely able to believe what he saw. “Jesus H. Christ,” he swore aloud. “It can’t be, but…but it is, isn’t it? It’s…is it really you, Murphy?”
“Not any more,” Terry said. “Not tonight. Tonight, I’m Lola Valdez. And I’m going to dance on your stage.”
“You must be plumb loco. Do you have any idea what kind of men those are out there?”
“A pretty good idea.”
“They’d kill you for fooling ‘em like this.”
“They won’t know, if you don’t tell them,” Terry said. “Look at me, Mister Willis. If you didn’t know, would you ever suspect?”
“You go out there and tell them there’s a new entertainer just arrived in town tonight. Lola Valdez, you tell them, just back from a triumphant tour of the continent, where she danced for the crowned heads of Europe. And tonight, Lola dances for The Lucky Dollar Saloon.”
“They’ll string me up with you,” Willis said, but after another long, hard look at the face in the mirror, he gulped and shook his head, and hurriedly disappeared out the door.
Terry followed him more slowly. He paused at the edge of the moth eaten curtain, peering past it at the crowded saloon. For just a moment, his legs felt like they would fail him.
“He’s right,” he told himself. “You must be crazy, Terry Murphy, to think you could get away with this.”
There was a mirror tacked up just off stage. He looked at himself carefully in it. His hair hadn’t been cut since he had come here, and by this time it naturally hung all the way down to his shoulders. He’d used Lizette’s pins and a couple of Spanish combs to pin it up, and let the dark curls tumble down either side of his face.
He’d had to leave his glasses behind so he saw things through a faint myopic haze that, he did not realize until later, gave his glances a peculiar intensity. He had outlined his eyes to make them look even bigger and darkened his lashes. His mouth was painted a little fuller than it really was, and he’d made his complexion a bit lighter with powder, carefully not too much, and painted roses of rouge on his cheeks.
Other than his face and neck, there wasn’t much skin to be seen. He’d put on a trio of red petticoats under the black dress, and cinched it all at the waist with a gold chain. The skirt came down far enough to cover his stockinged legs but managed nevertheless to offer glimpses of scarlet ruffles when he walked. There were more ruffles that hid most of his bodice as well, and he had pinned a flowery lace shawl around his shoulders, that screened the rest of it while the glimpses of flesh showing through it created the illusion that they were was more to be seen than there actually was.
If someone who knew him, and especially someone who had any reason to suspect, looked closely enough, they might recognize him. But, who knew him here? Hardly anyone. He had almost never come into town, and then only briefly. They wouldn’t be seeing him up close, either, but from a distance, and as they had said more than once in their dance classes back in the states, distance lends enchantment. Besides, there was no reason for anyone to suspect, to think he was anyone but who Willis was announcing to them at this very moment: Lola Valdez.
Willis came offstage, looked at Terry and, with a nervous grin, shook his head in wonder. “Go on, get our fucking necks wrung for us, if you’re going to do it,” he said.
Still, Terry hesitated, until someone in the saloon yelled, “Well, where the hell is she?” and someone else echoed, “Let’s get her out here, then, and see what those crowned heads were so het up about.”
No, Terry told himself. I’m not crazy. I can do this. And I’m not Terry Murphy, either. I’m Lola Valdez.
And the moment he stepped out past the curtain, strolled to center stage, sashaying and making the ruffled skirt and the petticoats swish and sway with each step he took, that was who he became, and Terry Murphy was left behind in the wings.
Lola held the Spanish fan before her face and gazed out at the men over the top of it, smiling with her eyes as Rosaria had demonstrated for them, her gaze sweeping the room. It was a gesture that said, “I find you very attractive,” and her huge, dark eyes, just slightly out of focus, conveyed that message to every man in the packed room.
Something happened that had never before happened at The Lucky Dollar. The room went silent, a thunderous silence. No one spoke. Even the slap, slap slap of the cards at the poker tables went still. A hundred mouths hung open, a hundred pair of eyes were suddenly riveted on the little figure standing before them.
“Like a rose, suddenly appearing in the filth of that dirty room,” one of them would put it later, a description that would be long remembered by many.
It lasted half a minute, that eerie silence—a full minute, longer yet. You could almost hear the seconds tick by until Lola took the satin skirt between her fingers and lifted it ever so slowly, ever so slightly, offering more flashes of scarlet petticoat and one slender ankle—even an inch or two, but no more than that, of net clad calf.
She gave the fan a quick, sudden snap, revealing her face in full for the first time, and smiled, brightly—and there was not a man in the room who wouldn’t have sworn afterward that the smile was aimed directly and personally at him.
Pandemonium erupted. Male voices bawled like cattle in lightning, boots stomped, fists pounded on tables—so much noise that the very rafters shook and you half feared the roof might collapse, the building fall in on itself from all the noise and commotion.
Lola took a single step, rolled her shoulders. The silence fell again, as completely as before, as quickly as the noise had exploded.
She hardly knew afterward what she did. She was aware of the pianist banging out something on the piano, trying to follow the rhythm of Lola’s dancing feet, the notes nothing more than a discordant jangle.
No one cared. No one heard them. There was attention for nothing but that slim-waisted figure twirling about on the stage, tossing her fan, flashing her ankles, laughing and winking and weaving in hellish abandon. When she spun about, they saw more womanly leg than it was possible for a man to see anywhere outside of Belle Blessing’s whorehouse, and these legs were shapelier by far than any to be seen there. The mining camps didn’t generally get the prettiest women. Certainly, here, none as pretty as this.
At first, they watched in a stunned, almost disbelieving silence, but then men began to cheer and clap, and now they were throwing money onto the stage, vying with one another to see who could throw the most: coins, paper money, even and increasingly, little bags of gold dust.
Lola rewarded them by dancing still faster, with ever greater abandon, until the stage was littered with tributes to her spell and she could hardly step without bringing her slippered foot down on piles of money or bags of gold.
Finally, she leapt into the air, gave a final spin, and sank in a weary heap to the floor of the stage, panting from exertion.
“She’s fainted,” someone shouted from the audience and there was a shifting of many feet and a scraping of chairs being pushed back.
At once, Terry sat up and scrambled to his feet, knowing that he dared not let them rush to the stage to help him.
He smiled out at the audience and curtseyed, and again there was that roar of approval, and finally, for the first time in his life, little Terry Murphy knew love, felt it sweep over him in great waves from those cheering, shouting, clapping men—all their loneliness, all the grubbiness of their lives in this dismal place, their affection and desire, their excitement, coalesced into a great bubble of happiness that enveloped Terry and that it almost seemed he could float away in.
There was movement about the room, and no doubt some of them would have charged right up onto the stage, but Willis had the good sense to quickly whisk the curtain closed, and the last glimpse the miners had of Lola Valdez was the kiss she blew to them.
Terry quickly scooped up the money strewn across the stage, making a pouch out of his skirt to hold it, and ran for the dressing room. He had barely gotten there when Willis followed him in. The saloon owner was grinning from ear to ear, showing his blackened teeth, his face flushed with excitement.
“By God, you did it,” he cried, dancing a jig. “You did it. I can’t believe it. The toughest, orneriest men this side of creation, and you had them eating out of your hand.”
“Yes,” Terry said, sinking into a chair and looking at himself in the mirror. But it was not himself he saw, not the sissy boy whom others taunted or used for their pleasure, not the unwanted orphan, the butt of a lifetime of jokes. He saw someone beautiful, someone very much wanted, someone who brought happiness and pleasure to all who beheld.
He saw Lola Valdez.
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