Review: Better Angel by Forman Brown, writing as Richard Meeker

Written in 1933, this classic, touching story focuses on a young man’s gay awakening in the years between the World Wars and became an instant underground classic. Kurt Gray is a shy, bookish boy growing up in small-town Michigan. Even at the age of 13, he knows that somehow he is different. Gradually he recognizes his desire for a man’s companionship and love. As a talented composer, breaking into New York’s musical world, he finds the love he’s sought.

Review by Fiona Glass

The use of a pen name is important in this book. It was published in the early 1930s when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, but the subject matter is a (clearly autobiographical) account of a young man ‘coming out’ and coming to terms with his own sexuality. The author was unable to use his real name and it’s only in the last ten years that the book has been updated with Brown’s name on the cover and a new section of author’s notes and photographs at the end. The fact that the characters are at best thinly disguised, at worst wholly undisguised, real people was no doubt another reason why an alias was used and it’s only now when most of those named are dead that the true story can be told.

And an intriguing story it was too. From Brown’s early days as a penitent member of a strict Christian sect to his happy-ever-after love affair was a long and complicated journey encompassing two or three affairs with men, a misguided and ultimately ill-fated affair with his first lover’s sister, and a growing love for his first lover’s best friend.

As an autobiography it works well. As what ought to have been an important piece of social history it’s less successful, at least in my opinion. There’s little feel for the unbelievable danger of finding other gay men in such an intolerant society, and Brown packs in far too many internalized monologues on his state of mind and the condition of his love for ‘David’ which leaves too little room for anything else. Whether the hero Kurt is attending church as a child, holidaying in Italy as a young man, or having sex, he spends pages at a time micro-analyzing his life instead of telling us about it!

I found it rather too dry and tedious, and was more interested by the all-too-brief biographical notes after the story proper had finished. According to these, Kurt and his friends set up a travelling puppet theatre in the US later on in life. Oh for some (any!) description of this fascinating way of life!

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5 Responses

  1. I’m always thrilled to hear about new discoveries of forgotten novels that give a first-hand account of early gay life. Somebody needs to review Gordon Merrick’s “The Lord Won’t Mind” which is about gay life in New York in the late 1930s, with the late Merrick’s inspiration coming from his true-life experiences.

  2. I’ve been amazed (and pleased) at the books I’ve discovered browsing the shelves of the gltb section at Birmingham’s central library. It’s quite a treasure-trove.

    And ‘The Lord Won’t Mind’ might just be coming next. 😉 Thanks for the reminder – I’d forgotten it was set in the 30s…

  3. I was wondering how could I get this book? I’m in Indonesia and no stores sell this book nor could i find it through the internet. If you have any information please tell me.

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