Monday, December 19, 2011

Butterfly’s Child by Alan H. Chin

Reviewer: Jack A. Urquhart
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Reading Alan Chin’s powerfully engaging novel, Butterfly’s Child (Dreamspinner Press, 2010) put me in mind of Vito Russo’s groundbreaking exploration of homosexuals in cinema, The Celluloid Closet (book, 1987). Employing painstaking documentation, Russo exposed the long and sorry history of homosexuals portrayed in film as creatures defined by their sexuality—men (and a very few women) presented as the butt of countless jokes, as victims of violence, and destructive self-hatred.

The trend Russo decried is, of course, no less evident or long standing in literature; think Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948), Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968), and, yes—Annie Proulx’s wildly popular 1997 short story, “Brokeback Mountain”. Even in so small a sample, the reader is hard pressed to find a single gay character who isn’t brought low by self-loathing or worse, destroyed outright—usually by an act of extreme violence. And while few would question the literary merit of the works cited, it is surely evident that, until relatively recently, there hasn’t been much (at least in literary fiction) that even hints at the possibility of a homosexual “happily-ever-after”.

A few mainstream exceptions do exist; Jane Hamilton’s under-appreciated gem, The Short History of a Prince (1998), Julia Glass’s Three Junes (2002) and its follow-up, The Whole World Over (2006) spring to mind. And now, count Alan Chin among the growing list of artists—more and more of them, self-identified Indie authors—whose work is helping lay to rest the cruel tradition Russo exposed. Witness Butterfly’s Child, Chin’s novel of fathers and sons, gay and straight.

Cord Bridger, the thirty-four year old ‘star’ of Butterfly’s Child, is most assuredly gay; but Chin casts his protagonist in 3-D creating in the process a complex, nuanced, fully fleshed, and yes—ever-so-humanly damaged hero. Cord’s back-story, presented early in the novel, yields suitably operatic clues (a metaphoric link to Puccini’s opera shows up in an early scene) to his psyche. Paternal abandonment, the subsequent suicide of his mother when he was four, and a youth passed on the culturally deprived high desert plains of Nevada, the reader learns, are the precursors to Cord’s adult existence on the fringes of New York City’s gay A-List.

The bearer of formidable musical gifts, including perfect pitch, Cord’s dreams of a career as a concert pianist—flames stoked by his years at Julliard—have long since cooled to smoke and ashes as the novel opens. Instead, Cord has ‘settled’ into a long-term stint at Steinway where he is the senior voicing specialist for the company’s concert grands—a career that brings Cord no closer to fulfillment than the fleeting moments of genius he sometimes experiences in tuning Steinway’s expensive pianos. In many ways, Cord is an instrument awaiting tuning himself, an emotional tuning, that is—a fact that does not sit well with his successful and increasingly dissatisfied lover, Cameron. In short, Cord’s life in NYC seems almost as lifeless and barren as the minimalist perfection of the Central Park West apartment he shares with his seldom-at-home partner.

All that changes when the necessity of settling his recently deceased grandmother’s estate draws Cord back to the Nevada ranch (appropriately named ‘Bitter Water’) that he abandoned years earlier. One could argue that Chin’s novel doesn’t take off until Cord deplanes in Nevada. That is because almost from the moment he returns, Cord confronts a host of jarringly inescapable challenges and responsibilities—not the least of which is the fifteen year-old son (the fruit of a teenage fling) that he never knew he had.

A young man bearing the crushing weight of his own abandonment and long-term abuse issues, Cord’s son Kalin and his seven-year old half-brother Jem soon become Cord’s responsibility in a twist that sets up the series of violent, gut-wrenching confrontations that mark the novel’s climax. Add to the cast a new love interest in the person of Tomeo, a practicing Buddhist; Jesse, the boys’ strung-out mother and her sadistically violent abuser, Jack (as truly a loathsome villain as this reader has ever encountered in fiction), and Blake, Cord’s estranged father, and you have the makings of a bona fide page-turner. It helps that Chin, a skillful storyteller, knows how to string the reader along with scenes that stack up and build—sometimes relentlessly, as Cord, increasingly in-tune with what matters, struggles to build and then protect his new family. The result is that Butterfly’s Child offers an exhilarating, moving, sometimes disturbing journey that nevertheless manages to gallop (literally) to a satisfying conclusion.

Speaking of which, I can imagine that some readers might find Chin’s somewhat tidy, Zen-like finish a stretch (given the formidable violence that precedes it). Likewise, it is possible some readers may stumble over the novel’s arguably un-necessary metaphoric dalliance with the Butterfly (Puccini’s and nature’s own variety) and/or the overlay of Buddhist philosophy that Chin delivers courtesy of several longish exchanges between Tomeo and Cord. But, for my part, these do not detract from the novel’s many strengths; indeed, the mini-dissertations on Buddhism seem central to Cord’s eventual arrival at a place of quiet gratitude and contentment.

As for any possible objections to the novel’s gay protagonist-triumphs-over-all ending, I can only wonder how Vito Russo might have addressed that concern—perhaps with an appropriately dismissive “isn’t it about time”?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book Review: For the Ferryman by Charles Silverstein

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Chelsea Station Editions
Pages: 336

Charles Silverstein is not a name that I’ve heard pop up in discussions about the Gay Rights Movement, yet he quite possibly may have had more impact on securing equal rights for the lgbt community than Harvey Milk and others more famous. In this fascinating memoir, Silverstein uses the first half of the book to recount his career of fighting for gay rights, particularly in the psychiatric community, and he uses the second half of the book to narrate his twenty-five-year relationship with his life-partner, William Bory.

Silverstein’s most important contribution to the gay community was his historic 1973 presentation before the “Nomenclature Committee” of the American Psychiatric Association which led to the removal of homosexuality as a mental illness from the diagnostic manual, which eventually was responsible for decriminalizing gay sex between consenting adults. He went on to establish two gay and lesbian counseling centers in New York, and also was the founding editor of the Journal of Homosexuality, now in its fifty-seventh volume.

Silverstein is best known for co-authoring the groundbreaking 1977 The Joy of Gay Sex with Edmund White, and co-authoring the sequal 1992 The New Joy of Gay Sex with Felice Picano, which brought the original book up to date with regards to the AIDS crisis. Silverstein also authored a book geared to the parents of gay youth: A Family Matter: A Parents’ Guide to Homosexuality, 1977. So as you can see, the author is no lightweight. He has had a tremendous impact on gay rights, and the personal accounts of his activism are both fascinating and inspiring.

The author’s relationship with William Bory was both touching and riveting. Silverstein speaks candidly of their relationship, their travels to many exotic locations, William’s plunge into drug addiction that included crack cocaine and heroin, and William’s battle with AIDS. The author paints Bory as an eccentric genius that Silverstein loved deeply despite titanic flaws. Their relationship was loving, yet vexing, and the reader is never sure what will happen next.

I’d like to include a passage that shows the author’s personal and humorous style of writing:
When God gave out physical attributes, he did not do it equitably. For all-around attractiveness, the Germans cannot be beat (“God’s little joke,” William mused.) The Scots were given the most perfect asses (not that they knew what to do with them the year William and I were in Scotland.) To the Dominicans he gave large, beautiful penises that hung snugly over their testicles like those drawings of male genitalia in anatomy textbooks that make one wonder whether they are the sexual fantasies of the artists. I did not know about this physical attribute until I arrived at the Hotel Victoria.

So as you can see, this book is not some dry recount of someone’s career, but rather a fun and interesting account of two fascinating people during a time when equal rights for the lgbt community was exploding.

This is a book that is mandatory reading for anyone who has an interest in the Gay Rights Movement, politics during the AIDS crises of the ‘80s and ‘90s, or for anyone who simply wants to read an enthralling love story that happens to be true. For The Ferryman is a bold self-portrait of a distinguished and astounding life.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Junction X by Erastes

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing
Pages: 198

On the outside, Edward Johnson seems to have a perfect pin-striped life—wife, couple of kids, white-picket fence in one of the better suburbs, country club membership, and works as a stockbroker. He even gets an occasional blowjob from his buddy, Phil, on the morning train into work. Could life get any sweeter?

But then a new family moves in next door, and they have a beautiful seventeen-year-old son, Alex. A slow but powerful attraction grows between Ed and Alex. Ed has never considered himself a pedophile, so he fights the urge to flirt with Alex, but each time they are together, try as he might, Ed can’t control his growing desire for the boy. He stalks the boy until they have a sexual encounter while driving.

Ed is filled with gilt and remorse, and knows he’s going down an immoral path, but at the same time he lures Alex into a steamy affair. But how long can Ed juggle the responsibilities of family, office, and a teenaged boyfriend? And can Alex, being so young and inexperienced, control the volcanic feelings churning in his heart.

The first half of this story reads rather slowly, skillfully building in tension, and seems like a typical romance novel, albeit one with a middle-aged man falling for an underage boy. But shortly past the halfway mark, I realized two things: first, Ed was not the protagonist but rather, the antagonist; and two, this wasn’t a romance novel that would have a happily-ever-after ending. I was right on both counts.

This is a story about how unbridled obsession can ruin lives. Ed begins as a morally upright person with only a few skeletons in the closet. But his passion for Alex slowly leads him into being a pathetic, cheating scoundrel. And of course, he drags everyone connected with him into that same train wreck.

The plot is a simple one, without any subplots to cloud the water. But there is something to be said for a simple story told well, and this story is told extremely well. Erastes has obviously worked hard to improve her writing style and voice, and it shines here.

It is not often I come across a novel written in first person where the narrator is the antagonist. It gives the reader a rare glimpse into an unstable character, giving Edward tremendous depth as the author peals away his layers. He becomes a fascinating character, even as he disgusts. Yes, he’s a train wreck, but the reader can’t look away.

I did have one issue with this story. I felt that in the first ten pages, the author gave away too much, to the point where I knew most everything that would happen in the first 90% of the book. At midpoint, she broadcasted the other 10%. I would have been happier had she given away less and surprised me more.

That said, this is a passionate, emotional story. The characters pull the reader in and keep building the tension until the very last page.

If you are searching for a typical romance that will steam your glasses and make you feel good in the end, keep looking. If you enjoy a serious story of how mistakes cause pain, how passion can injure as well as please, then by all means, give Junction X a read.