Saturday, October 25, 2008

Spine Intact, Some Creases by Victor Banis

Reviewed by Ruth Sims

As important as this book is (not to mention just plain fun to read) I'm surprised there isn't a raft of reviews. Yes, it's a little pricey and I'm as cheap as the next person. But this one, trust me, is worth the money. Victor Banis was a hero who didn't set out to be, and doesn't even claim the title. But he is.

I love good fiction, but I've always been partial to nonfiction, especially biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. I've read good, bad, and ick. There are many reasons to praise this book, not least of them is that Banis was a pioneer in gay writing at a time when that was a hazardous thing to be, an openly gay man before Stonewall, a time when there were no gay pride parades and gay pride itself was almost unthinkable. Homosexual characters in fiction were required to be miserable, self-hating, and preferably suicidal.

Well, somebody forgot to tell Victor Banis that he couldn't create cheerful, brave, happy gay characters. So he did. If you've never read any of The Man From C.A.M.P. books you should. Banis was young when he wrote them and they are a trip. They're fall-down funny, and the indomitable hero, Jackie, makes Batman look like a wuss (although in appearance he may be closer to Robin). Banis is a writer who clearly delights in what he does and who he is. A master of the written word, he has written 150 books that he can remember and others he has forgotten, under various names, in a career that stretches across nearly fifty years. He knew everybody. He even talked to Hef inside the Playboy mansion, of all places for a gay boy to find himself. Jackie, of C.A.M.P., would have made the most of it.

Spine Intact is a difficult book to write about simply because of its scope. It encompasses a tremendous amount of political history regarding publishing, censorship, gay people, homophobia, and more. Banis was subjected to spying by the government, and during his writing and publishing years he had the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head in the form of possible arrest, prosecution, and jail time. He saw the McCarthy Era as it happened. He had packages and letters opened by the Post Office. Yet through it all, the reader doesn't get the feeling of someone who is frightened, bitter, angry, or full of "why-me". He may very well have been all of those things from time to time; he would hardly have been human if he hadn't. But Victor Banis is quite possibly the most balanced (he would probably say, with a laugh, that he's unbalanced) individual around. Banis has become an icon without intending to be, and any author who writes books with gay characters and every reader who reads them, owes Banis and people like him. They took the lumps and the risks, and defended free speech.

Spine Intact has humor, wit, gossip (but not the malicious kind), history, and compassion. He tells stories of a family that lived in poverty in every way except that of spirit. In fact, when you read about the Banis family you feel that you may be reading about the richest family on earth. They're not a group of Pollyannas and they had their ups, downs, and tragedies but they had each other. There's a delightful story of him and his mother in a bookstore, with his mom calling out the titles of books ("Here's Lesbians On Parade." Is that one of yours?") to the sound of dropping jaws. He doubts she even knew what a lesbian was. I fell in love with Mother Banis at that moment.

There is so much in this book that a complete review would be as long as Les Miserables. My only complaint, and it's not really a complaint but just an observation, is that it should have been two separate books, one dealing with the his autobiographical material and gay history aspect, which were so intertwined, and the other with his sprightly comments on writing and the world, comments that are pithy and wise. It's hard to say if he is amused or bemused by life. Both, I think.

Just as an example of the comments and of his breezy, reader-friendly way of writing, I hope he and his publisher will indulge me in quoting a couple of my favorite lines (there are so many!) "...regret [is] just another...way of flagellating oneself. ... If you like yourself what is there to regret?" (page 326) On supposed Biblical condemnation of homosexuality: " I just know some are dusting off their Sodom and Gomorrah mantelpiece villages at this very moment."(page 342) In the last chapter, writing about not worrying about offending someone because you're going to, sooner or later (he says it much better than that and throws in a great quote from Winston Churchill's wife) he ends by saying "...serve the cheese balls anyway. Someone will love them." (page 358). Trust me. There's a story behind that!

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