Show me the books he loves and I shall know the man far better than through mortal friends - Silas Weir MitchellWayne Courtois is the author of a memoir, A Report from Winter, that it took me months to read, not since it was not good, but since it hit too much close to home for me, the telling of how a son copes with loosing a parent to cancer, when apparently he is an adult, but in reality he is still a son with a lot of unanswered questions, and the parent seems the only one entitled to answer to them. In the end I read it and I'm glad to have done it, as I'm glad to host Wayne Courtois today: again his list is, at the same time, courageous and involving.
Wayne Courtois's Inside Reader List
I am so delighted that Elisa has invited me to be an Inside Reader. However, selecting ten “best” titles from decades of reading is a daunting task! For this list I’ve tried to include different types of books, from some that would be universally recognized as classics to others—usually from independent presses—that could perhaps use a wider audience. As part of the generation that was hardest hit by AIDS, I have included some AIDS-related titles that have meant a lot to me as well.
Looking again at these selections, I see that I’ve included a disproportionate number of books from just the past several years. I think this is because they are so fresh in my mind that I’m eager to share them—and because the growth of electronic publishing has made current books more available than ever. I look forward to seeing many more books from the past becoming available in electronic formats.
1) I have to begin with The Front Runner, the first gay-themed book I ever read. First published in 1974, this story of the love between a track coach and a young runner has had a profound effect on countless readers. I have had the privilege of meeting the wonderful Patricia Nell Warren, who is still writing and publishing great books through her own independent imprint Wildcat Press. For a recent interview with Patricia, see the November 2009 issue of John Morgan Wilson’s Book Buzz column at http://www.lambdaliterary.org/resources/book_buzz.html.
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Wildcat Press; 20 Anv edition (June 1, 1996)
Publisher Link: http://www.wildcatintl.com/press.cfm?view=detail&detail=jacket&bookID=5
Amazon: The Front Runner
First published in 1974, The Front Runner raced to international acclaim - the first novel about gay love to become popular with mainstream. In 1975, coach Harlan Brown is hiding from his past at an obscure New York college, after he was fired from Penn State University on suspicion of being gay. A tough, lonely ex-Marine of 39, Harlan has never allowed himself to love another man. Then Billy Sive, a brilliant young runner, shows up on his doorstep. He and his two comrades, Vince Matti and Jacques LaFont, were just thrown off a major team for admitting they are gay. Harlan knows that, with proper training, Billy could go to the '76 Olympics in Montreal. He agrees to coach the three boys under strict conditions that thwart Billy's growing attraction for his mature but compelling mentor. The lean, graceful frontrunner with gold-rim glasses sees directly into Harlan's heart. Billy's gentle and open acceptance of his sexuality makes Harlan afraid to confront either the pain of his past, or the challenges which lay in wait if their intimacy is exposed. But when Coach Brown finds himself falling in love with his most gifted athlete, he must combat his true feelings for Billy or risk the outrage of the entire sports world - and their only chance at Olympic gold.
2) It’s so easy to fall into hyperbole when writing about books, but I firmly believe that Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast is one of the most beautiful books ever written. A memoir about the AIDS-related death of his partner Wally Roberts in 1993, Doty explores love, loss, and grief with the tender yet thorough tenacity of a poet. As a result of his journey he comes to accept the reality of death, and even find value in it: “Could we ever really know anything that wasn’t transient, not becoming more itself in the strange, unearthly light of dying?” Anyone who is facing grief or has ever known grief could profit from reading this book.
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (January 31, 1997)
Publisher Link: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780060928056/Heavens_Coast/index.aspx
Amazon: Heaven’s Coast
In this luminous study of illness and loss, the acclaimed poet (author of My Alexandria and Atlantis) recounts how his lover of eight years, Wally Roberts, learned from a Vermont social worker in May 1989 that he was HIV-positive (while Doty tested negative). In chapters that range impressionistically over the years that followed, Doty presents a kind of AIDS journal, tracing the gradual onset of the disease to which Roberts succumbed in 1993 and the painful healing process that engulfs Doty to this day. During this period, Doty also lost a close male friend to AIDS and a female friend to a car accident. After the diagnosis, the two men adopted two dogs, bought a cabin in the Vermont woods and, when Roberts began his gradual physical deterioration, moved to Provincetown, Mass., where there was a strong gay and lesbian support network. Mourning Roberts's loss, Doty finds powerful sustenance in poetry, letters from friends (excerpted here) and his own meditations on the New England landscape. Doty's love for Wally and the inner strength that sustains him lend this memoir a vitality that is sure to appeal to readers outside the AIDS community.
3) Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner is a play that I have seen onstage; I’ve also seen the excellent film version by Mike Nichols. But what I love most about this sprawling work is the beauty of its writing, and to fully appreciate that you have to spend time with the book. Here is one of my favorite lines of dialogue, spoken by Harper, the young Mormon wife: “It's all a matter of the opposable thumb and forefinger; not of the hand, but of the heart; we grab hold like nobody's business and then we don't seem to be able to let go.” In a time when the AIDS epidemic in America was at its peak, “not letting go” were words to live by.
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Theatre Communications Group (November 1, 2003)
Publisher Link: http://www.tcg.org/ecommerce/showbookdetails.cfm?ID=TCG1171
Amazon: Angels in America
Tony Kushner's Angels in America is that rare entity: a work for the stage that is profoundly moving yet very funny, highly theatrical yet steeped in traditional literary values, and most of all deeply American in its attitudes and political concerns. In two full-length plays--Millennium Approaches and Perestroika--Kushner tells the story of a handful of people trying to make sense of the world. Prior is a man living with AIDS whose lover Louis has left him and become involved with Joe, an ex-Mormon and political conservative whose wife, Harper, is slowly having a nervous breakdown. These stories are contrasted with that of Roy Cohn (a fictional re-creation of the infamous American conservative ideologue who died of AIDS in 1986) and his attempts to remain in the closet while trying to find some sort of personal salvation in his beliefs. But such a summary does not do justice to Kushner's grand plan, which mixes magical realism with political speeches, high comedy with painful tragedy, and stitches it all together with a daring sense of irony and a moral vision that demands respect and attention. On one level, the play is an indictment of the government led by Ronald Reagan, from the blatant disregard for the AIDS crisis to the flagrant political corruption. But beneath the acute sense of political and moral outrage lies a meditation on what it means to live and die--of AIDS, or anything else--in a society that cares less and less about human life and basic decency. The play's breadth and internal drive is matched by its beautiful writing and unbridled compassion. Winner of two Tony Awards and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Angels in America is one of the most outstanding plays of the American theater. --Michael Bronski
4) Arkansas by David Leavitt is probably not the most obvious choice for this author—most readers would probably pick The Lost Language of Cranes or The Indian Clerk—but I love this collection of three short novels, especially the last one in the volume, Saturn Street. It’s the story of a young man who delivers meals to homebound AIDS patients, only to fall in love with one of them. The offhand, semi-humorous tone of the narration allows breathtaking glimpses of heartbreak. Leavitt artfully uses an outmoded Los Angeles neighborhood as a symbol of lost possibilities in a time of plague. Still recovering from his embroilment in a publishing scandal, Leavitt chose the title of this book from a remark attributed to Oscar Wilde during the last years of his life: “I would like to flee like a wounded hart into Arkansas.”
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books (April 3, 1998)
Publisher Link: http://www.hmhbooks.com/catalog/titledetail.cfm?titleNumber=690004
David Leavitt's reputation has rested upon stories and novels that explicate a sedate, upper-middle class world of reserved emotions and sexuality. In his new collection of three novellas Arkansas, he explores new territory. Droll, surprising, and very sexy, these works often shock and startle the reader. In The Term Paper Artist, a writer named David Leavitt writes school papers for cute undergraduates in exchange for sexual favors, and in Saturn Street a gay man who delivers lunches to homebound people with AIDS falls in love with one of his clients. Beautifully written and alarmingly funny, Arkansas is one of the best works of gay fiction in years.
5) My third and final AIDS-related entry is Jameson Currier’s Still Dancing: New and Selected Stories. This handsome volume contains memorably written, tremendously moving tales from an author who has clearly “been through the wars.” In addition to stories from Currier’s first two collections Dancing on the Moon and Desire, Lust, Passion, Sex, this book contains some new stories and even a previously unpublished portion of his novel, Where the Rainbow Ends. As a result, this book serves as an excellent introduction to Currier’s work (which includes the recently published The Haunted Heart and Other Tales).
Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Lethe Press (December 1, 2008)
Publisher Link: http://lethepressbooks.com/gay.htm#currier-still-dancing
Amazon: Still Dancing
In Still Dancing acclaimed author Jameson Currier brings together twenty of his short stories that span three decades of the impact of the AIDS epidemic on the gay community. Along with stories from Currier s debut collection, Dancing on the Moon, praised by The Village Voice as “defiant and elegiac,” here are ten newly selected stories written by one of our preeminent masters of the short story form.
6) Seven Sweet Things by Shaun Levin is one of those books that I carried with me everywhere while I was reading it—it’s such a lovely and appealing volume that I felt a separation anxiety every time I put it down. A South African Jew living in London, Shaun has a unique perspective on the world, as does his narrator, a young gay man who is in love with a man who also has a girlfriend. This beautifully written book is informed by the knowledge that we live and love through all of our senses, including taste—and that sweetness does not exist without bitterness.
Paperback: 140 pages
Publisher: Knowledge Mine Solutions (June 2003)
Amazon: Seven Sweet Things
“Last night, when my love went back to his girlfriend and I forgot how much he loves me and that I still love him, I comforted myself with the making of a rum-glazed chocolate and coconut cake.” So begins Seven Sweet Things, Shaun Levin's brief, sumptuous, and deeply personal tale of love and appetite. The narrator and his lover, Martin, are two South Africans in London. An affair that begins in an internet chatroom takes them further into love than either imagined. Disturbingly honest and intensely erotic, Seven Sweet Things is as much an exploration of love as it is the lovers' exploration of the city. Eking out a living by selling cakes and desserts, the narrator loves reading Plato, sitting on park benches, and feeding his beloved. Each meeting between them is framed by the making, or the promise of a sweet thing. The landscape shifts from hidden archaeological mysteries in London to a fantastical stay in an old house in Yorkshire, and from Clissold Park in North London to Roslyn Glen in Scotland, where the narrator gets invited to prepare extravagant desserts for an aristocratic family. Shaun Levin's first novella is an unforgettable portrayal of a relationship between two men, and of a desire for integrity that slowly tears them apart. Seven Sweet Things is a reminder that each time we fall in love we re-invent our codes, our values, and our sources of inspiration.
7) Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse is a graphic novel with enough heart and soul for a hundred books. This semi-autobiographical work takes place in the South in the 1960s, and follows the adventures of Toland Polk, a young civil rights activist who faces inner as well as outer turmoil as he slowly realizes he’s gay. First published in 1995, Stuck Rubber Baby has won numerous awards, and will be reissued this summer in a 15th anniversary edition under the DC Vertigo imprint.
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Vertigo; New edition (June 8, 2010)
Publisher Link: http://www.dccomics.com/vertigo/graphic_novels/?gn=14589
Amazon: Stuck Rubber Baby
Art and story combine powerfully in this lyrical tale of a young man caught in the maelstrom of the civil rights movement and the systematic homophobia of small-town America. Told in flashback, this is the story of Toland Polk, the son of an uneducated white carpenter who has grown up in the Southern town of Clayfield. It is the 1960s, a time of passionate beliefs and violent emotions, and Clayfield's citizens are divided in the fight over segregation. As Toland fights on the side of the civil rights activists, he slowly begins to realize and try to deny that he is gay. With a subtle yet intricate plot, and distinctively evocative illustrations, Stuck Rubber Baby is an unflinchingly honest look at one man's world of fears, dreams and prejudice.
8) The IHOP Papers by Ali Liebegott is a wonderfully funny and touching novel about a young lesbian trying to make a life for herself in San Francisco. Her love life is a mess, and her job as a waitress at IHOP is a disaster; but in her free time she writes poetry with fire and abandon, pounding away on her typewriter in her underfurnished hovel of an apartment. Liebegott dives right into the trouble and squalor of life and manages to find humor and hope.
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Carroll & Graf
Amazon: The IHOP Papers
Liebegott's debut novel is a coming-of-age coming-out in the tradition of Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, but here, the portrait of an artist as punk waitress is more a celebration of sexuality than humanity. Twenty-year-old Francesca is a recovering drunk who finds comfort in cutting herself and harbors fantasies of her beautiful AA sponsor, Maria; her former philosophy teacher, Irene; and a soap opera heroine. "I wanted everything: Irene's cheekbones, empathy, and wisdom... the sheer beauty and curves of Maria—and the impossibility of Hope from Days of Our Lives," she confesses. Having followed Irene to San Francisco, Francesca lands a job at the International House of Pancakes, dreams of becoming "the kind of waitress who can carry five plates on each arm and glide around the room doing a dance of pancakes" and works on her memoir about losing her virginity and never quite finding love. The Lambda Literary Award–winning Liebegott (for her book-length poem The Beautifully Worthless) offers strikingly lyrical moments in an otherwise frank narrative of a writer teetering between adolescence and adulthood. - From Publishers Weekly
9) The Butterfly’s Wing by Martin Foreman, first published in 1996, is an affecting and engaging novel about a relationship between two men, and what happens when an act of terrorism forces them apart. Andy, an officer in a world aid organization, is kidnapped and held hostage in Peru, leaving Tom alone in England, not knowing what is happening to his lover or if he will ever see him again. The power of this story lies in the two voices that are telling it. Tom tries to relieve his pain by starting a journal, in the form of a long letter to Andy. Elsewhere in the world, in a miserable cell where he doesn’t even have enough food or blankets, Andy at least has pen and paper, so he’s writing too. But there’s nothing private in their world, and when the media “break” the news that Andy is gay and has a lover waiting for him at home, the new angle to their story has the potential to harm them both. Like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, Foreman seeks out those conjunctions of the personal and political where something as slight as the stir of a butterfly’s wing can change lives on the opposite side of the world.
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Lethe Press (March 1, 2009)
Publisher Link: http://lethepressbooks.com/gay.htm#foreman-the-butterflys-wing
Amazon: The Butterfly’s Wing
Tom Dayton, a some-time waiter, and Andy McIllray, a worker for an international aid organization, own a small farm in the English countryside, where they enjoy a quiet life until Andy, while in Peru, is kidnapped by guerrillas of the Shining Path movement. The diary format used here first introduces us to Tom nearly a year after Andy has vanished. Through his entries, we learn of their pasts and his hopes for the future, as well as how he copes with reporters, friends, and his farm. Provided with notebooks, Andy writes of his struggles to convince his captors to free him. The novel is filled with multidimensional characters, emotion, and wonderful descriptions of scenery, and the plot moves smoothly.
10) Walking Higher: Gay Men Write about the Deaths of Their Mothers, edited by Alexander Renault. I mention this book, not because it contains an abbreviated version of my memoir A Report from Winter, but because it is a unique book on a subject not previously explored. It was the editor’s idea to explore the relationships between gay men and their mothers through essays written by the men after their mother’s deaths. Though there are a few contributors to this volume who are writers, including myself, what really interests me is that most of the contributors are not writers. It’s always empowering to hear people tell their own stories in their own words, and that’s what this is: an empowering book.
Paperback: 401 pages
Publisher: Xlibris (September 30, 2004)
Amazon: Walking Higher
Walking Higher: Gay Men Write About the Deaths of Their Mothers is a collection of 30 voices dedicated to exploring their relationships with the women who gave them life, and managing the aftermath of their mothers’ passing. Ten to twenty years ago, gay sons were pre-deceasing their mothers in alarming numbers as out-of-sequence deaths from AIDS ravaged an entire generation. Now that AIDS is a treatable disease, more gay men are surviving their parents. Hence, it seems timely to offer a series of reflections on the special and unique relationship of mothers and their gay sons from the perspective of the surviving sons. A tribute both to motherhood and to memory, Walking Higher reaches across varying cultural boundaries in its honest exploration of the experience of loss and bereavement. Although focusing on the unique bond between mother and gay son, this collection is for everyone who has lost somebody he or she either chose to or was bound by duty to love and care for and who may even now be experiencing the loved one’s terminal illness. Writers from all over the U.S. and Canada, and one from Ireland, are gathered in this anthology to pay homage to their late mothers.
11) The Other Side of Silence by John Loughery. This book is a comprehensive, in-depth look at homosexuality in America in the 20th century. It is impossible to come away from this work without a deep appreciation of those two abstract-sounding terms, “gay history” and “gay culture.” However, such history being what it is, this book is not for the squeamish. It’s all here—what it’s like to be reviled, to be the trash of civilization. To suffer meaninglessly, to die in vain. To know that the world will never change fast enough to outpace bigotry. To know that some gay people, like those in Uganda, must continue to live in fear. But on the other side of silence is the quiet triumph of living openly as who we are. It is the only triumph that most of us will ever know.
Paperback: 544 pages
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks (June 15, 1999)
Publisher Link: http://us.macmillan.com/theothersideofsilence
Amazon: The Other Side of Silence
The writing of gay history has been a relatively recent invention. Starting with such books as Jonathan Ned Katz's Gay American History (1976), Arthur Evans's Witchcraft and the Gay Counter Culture (1978), and Lillian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men (1981), gay and lesbian historians have charted both the presence of gay men and women in the world as well as their influence upon it. John Loughery's The Other Side of Silence builds on this foundation to great effect. Books of gay history (dealing with enormous amounts of new material to interpret) have tended to discuss politics and culture as separate concepts, and the complicated interrelationships between the two have often been confusingly contradictory. Loughery has pieced together--using the work of such historians as Katz, Alan Berube, John D'Emilio, and George Chauncy--a highly readable survey of eight decades of gay male life that knits together the political and the cultural. He is thus able to explain, for instance, how the openly gay career of Tennessee Williams existed during the homophobia of the 1950s, or how the Supreme Court's 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision (maintaining that same-sex couples do not have a right to engage in consensual sex in private) could be made at a time when gay arts and culture were flourishing in America. Loughery is as mindful of the passage of anti-gay laws as he is of the plots of gay novels and developments in gay theater; as a result, he manages to assemble--with wit and intelligence--a complex and illuminating social history of gay male lives of this century.
I notice that a lot of the books on this list deal with tremendous conflicts—emotional, political, and even historical. My memoir A Report from Winter belongs in the “emotional” category. Covering the brief period of time that I spent in Maine with my mother during her last days, the book also reaches back into childhood memories, and to the first days of my relationship with my partner, Ralph—who did more than anyone else to help me through the difficult time of my mother’s passing. Ralph and I have now been together for 21 years.
About Wayne Courtois: Author of the memoir A Report from Winter, published by Lethe Press in 2009, and the erotic novel My Name Is Rand that appeared in 2004. A second novel is forthcoming. His short fiction has appeared in many anthologies, including Best Gay Erotica and Country Boys, and in journals such as The Greensboro Review and Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly. His latest critical essay appears in the forthcoming The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his longtime partner. Please visit http://reportfromwinter.com and write him at email@example.com.
A Report from Winter by Wayne Courtois
Paperback: 280 pages
Publisher: Lethe Press (July 20, 2009)
Publisher Link: http://lethepressbooks.com/gay.htm#courtois-a-report-from-winter
Amazon: A Report from Winter
A Report from Winter is a death-in-the-family story, a love story, and a meditation on the meaning of ''winter''--as a season and as a metaphor for family relationships.
It's January 1998, and southern Maine is recovering from one of the worst ice storms in history. Into this unforgiving environment comes the author, flying home from Kansas City after a ten-year absence. His mother, Jennie, is dying of cancer. Though receiving excellent care in a nursing home, she has lost the ability to communicate. Needing support, Wayne makes an SOS call to Ralph, his longtime partner. Ralph boards a plane to Portland for his first exposure to a Maine winter, and to Wayne's family as well, including a feisty aunt and an emotionally distant brother. The contrast between a nurturing gay relationship and dysfunctional family bonds is as sharp as the wind sweeping in from the sea.
Stubbornly unsentimental, A Report from Winter weaves childhood memories of winter with the harsh realities of living in a family where there's not enough love to go around. The memoir is a tribute to hard-won relationships defying an uncaring world.