Review: Hotel de Dream by Edmund White

(From Publisher’s Weekly) A biographical fantasia, White’s latest imagines the final days of the poet and novelist Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), who died of TB at age 28 in 1900. At the same time, White also imagines and writes The Painted Boy, a work that he has Crane say he began in 1895, but burned after warnings from a friend. Crane dictates a fresh start on the story to his common-law wife, Cora Stewart-Taylor. Interspersed within White’s impressionistic account of Crane’s life, The Painted Boy tells the tale of Elliott, a ganymede butt-boy buggaree. Once a farm boy used by his widowed father and elder brothers like a girl, Elliott escapes to New York and begins a new life as a street hustler. Crane, dying overseas, asks that someone skilled and open minded complete the novella. The wry Cora, in her earlier career as a madam at the Jacksonville, Fla. Hotel de Dream, has some ideas of who among Crane’s friends fits the bill.

Review by Erastes

It’s a book of two halves, really. The first half, with Stephen Crane–who spends the entire book dying–is as slow as a meandering river. Suddenly, the “book within a book” which he’s writing hots up and the pace increases–it’s just that the two don’t really gel with each other. If you had told me two different people had written the book I would have believed you.

It begins with lengthy descriptions of Stephen Crane dying of tuberculosis and living in Engand in preparation for travel to the Black Forest for a hopeful cure. Crane is writing the “O’Ruddy” and he regrets that a manuscript he began about Elliott, a boy-prostitute he met in New York and who he interviews with journalistic zeal, was burned by another writer friend, so he begins it again, dictating it to his common-law-wife, Cora. This book “The Painted Boy” has become a writing myth, as there’s only that, and rumour to substantiate its existence, but it makes an interesting premise.

What I suppose I couldn’t really get over is that White could easily have made this story about a fictional author and it would have worked just as well. The fact that he’d set himself to write The Painted Boy himself, to take on the task of emulating Crane’s style seemed to me to be rather hubristic. Whether he does it well I will have to leave to others, as I haven’t read any of Crane’s works, but I couldn’t really tell the difference in style between White’s prose and that of what he puts forward as Crane’s.

I must apologise because this book didn’t appeal to me in any aspect. It was really a case of “gah, how many pages left?” and I appreciate that makes me a bit of a illiterate slob as this book has been lauded all over the place as being a work of genius, but frankly I’ve read books labelled “M/M” that have more literary merit in my eyes.

I’m more than slightly baffled about a couple of things. One, it’s called “A New York Novel” and this doesn’t really come over. You would have to squint hard to see much about the city–it’s mentioned here and there, more so towards the latter end of the novel, when the book gets more interesting, but it’s certainly nothing on the scale of other books that are steeped in the late 19th century city. Gaderene by Tina Anderson and C.B. Potts is far more New York than this, as is The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Not only is Crane iving in Engand and travelling to Germany in the book, but when he,or any of the other characters, are shown in New York, they are inside somewhere, and very little flavour of the city at that time is shown. There’s one segment which smears on description, thick as lard, about the Five Points and Manhattan towards the end, but it really feels like the author had done a bit of research and wanted to shoehorn this local colour in instead of threading it through the entire book.

Also baffling is the title. Crane met his ex-prostitute Cora at the brothel “Hotel de Dream”, but unless I’m missing something (probably) it’s not mentioned otherwise, so any symbolism to the name entire skidded over my head.

That being said I liked the characterisation a good deal. From the real Elliott who Crane interviews–and has him take around part of the queer scene in New York of the time–namely a gay bar and a visit to an androdyne, to the characters they meet in their investigative travels, to Cora, Crane’s mistress who loves Crane so hugely and does anything it takes to try and get him the help he needs, from mumping off friends to writing her own hack stories (which sell) just to support them in their financial troubles. But the most compelling characters in the book for me were the fictional Elliott portrayed in The Painted Boy and his obsessed, entirely in love protector, Theodore Koch. The love that can come to an older man this late in love can be a frightening and destructive love and so it is here, the seven year itch taken to its nth degree. I think of all the characters in the book, it is Koch that will stay with me, as he’s so in love, and ultimately so destroyed–but hey, it wouldn’t be gay literature if everyone wasn’t as miserable as hell.

Oscar Wilde said this of The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

And I’m afraid you will think badly of me when I tell you that I roared with laughter at the denouement in Hotel de Dream. It was probably not meant to be funny, and I have a sick sense of humour but I thought it was hilarious. It reminds me of the best kind of shaggy dog story, so be warned.

Do I recommend this? It’s probably fifty fifty. I’d say get it from the library, and see what you think.

Author’s website

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Review: Missouri by Christine Wunnicke

Written in the language of the period, this vivid and utterly transfixing love story between two men is set in the nineteenth-century American Midwest. Douglas Fortescue is a successful poet in England who flees the country for America following an Oscar Wilde-like scandal insinuating sexual impropriety; Joshua Jenkyns is a feral young outlaw who was taught how to shoot a man at age six, and who, against the wishes of his father, teaches himself how to read, a skill that then unleashes a world of possibility beyond that which he knows. The two men meet when Joshua robs Douglas’s carriage and takes him hostage; soon, a remarkable secret is revealed, and these two very different men grow closer, even as Douglas’s brother tries to “save” him from his uncivilized surroundings.

Missouri was first published in Germany to wide acclaim. Now available in English for the first time, Missouri is destined to become a gay men’s camp classic for its earnest, romantic reinterpretation of a time and place in American history traditionally closed off to gay readers.

Review by Gerry Burnie (originally posted on Gerry’s Review Site)

Missouri by Christine Wunnicke[Arsenal Pulp Press; Tra edition, 2010] is a story that either pleases or displeases; there is very little middle ground shown by its critics to date. Therefore, I will have to say that I liked it. I found it wonderfully zany; offbeat; and unlike any other gay, American Western tale I have every encountered.

Douglas Fortesque is an ambitious court clerk in northern England, and not just a little bit of a con man. He therefore lets his hair down (literally), dyes it black, starves himself until he has that gaunt, poet-like appearance, and pens utter gibberish to the wild acclaim of an effete London literary society. Indeed, the more outlandish he becomes the more acclaim he receives from a pretentious, gullible public.

Eventually tiring of this masquerade he retires to the country, but legitimacy only makes him less interesting and also vulnerable to his critics, and in a thinly veiled allusion to Oscar Wilde’s persecution he escapes to the United States where his brother wishes to buy property.

Meanwhile, Joshua Jenkyns, the young, slightly psychotic half-breed offspring of a notorious American outlaw is terrorizing the Midwest, learning how to read and becoming enamoured by the disjointed words of one, Douglas Fortescue. In a bizarre turn of events, therefore, these two unlikely characters cross paths and Fortescue is hurried away on horseback to become Jenkyns’ coddled hostage.

Thus begins a process of assimilation whereby Fortescue is stripped of his pretentions, and Jenkyns of his savagery, until they meet in an ethereal love-making scene that is beautifully understated by the author. Any other approach—graphic for example—would have cheapened it.

One of the criticisms that has been leveled at this novella is that it is too short (134 pages) to develop a complex story of this nature; and I agree that it could have been longer. However, in those 134 pages Wunnicke has developed two very unforgettable characters, a unique love story set against a stark, primeval wilderness, and an outcome that is totally unpredictable.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

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Film Review: Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me

In the 1950s Frankie Howerd, the famous radio and film comedian, meets a young waiter Dennis Heymer, who,like himself,is a closet homosexual. Their relationship blossoms into a partnership, rather than a purely sexual one, and Dennis becomes Frankie’s manager. By the early 1960s however things are looking bleak for Frankie. He has lost popularity with mainstream audiences and suffered a nervous breakdown.He is full of self hatred about his appearance – he wears a wig – and his homosexuality, putting huge stress on his relationship with Dennis. Matters are not helped by the death of Frankie’s mother Edith. However, Frankie is able to reinvent himself as a satirical comedian, with a gig at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club and his fortunes soar,with successful television comedies and a well-publicised appearance at the Oxford Union.


Imdb page

Director:John Alexander

Writer:Peter Harness

Stars:David Walliams, Rafe Spall

Review by Erastes

I went into this with a little trepidation because I am a huge fan of Frankie Howerd and wasn’t sure if someone so entirely unique could be done with the respect I feel he demands. While I never really thought Walliams captured Howed as perfectly as Michael Sheen did in Fantabulosa! it was clearly a studied and well-prepared performance, and going on the reaction of Dennis Heymer, Howard’s lover and manager (see further reading at the end of the review) it was certainly convincing for those who knew him well.

There’s two aspects to this film that I liked a great deal. Firstly that Williams didn’t do an out and out impression of Howerd, and other than prosthetics to imitate Howerd’s baldness (strange how I never really acknowledge his wig, when it was so very obvious) he relied on performance to play him, rather than make up. Secondly, that although the film touched on much stress–such as Howerd’s denial that he was homosexual, (despite being notorious for trying it on with every pretty boy who passed his way) his treatment to be “cured” and clashes between Heymer and himself–despite this, I felt the overall tone was quite upbeat and the ending in particular had me smiling like a loon.

The affection between the two men comes over well–even if there may have been more love from Dennis’s side than Frankie’s–it’s hard to tell over time and distance. The whole thing does seem a little rushed, which is hardly surprising seeing as how they cram 20 odd years into the film, and would have worked better as a three-parter perhaps. You would almost believe from this that Howerd had no friends other than a fag-hag and Dennis and never socialised, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s a little bleak, and certainly does not hold the glamour of something like “Mad Men” – because it’s set in austere 1950’s Britian, still reeling from the war and rationing. Howerd was one of the best paid entertainers and he lives in a brown-coloured flat such as Mad Men’s Don Draper wouldn’t rent for his maid. There was glamour there, in fact Dennis says “I’m not in this for the glamour” – but it’s not really shown on screen, and a touch of that, mixing with the Carry On crowd and the Krays, might have enlivened this up a smidge.

But on the whole it was a solid and interesting watch, especially, if like me, you grew up not having a clue that Howerd, who portrayed himself as a lech in films, was homosexual.  I wasn’t convinced by Walliams’s performance, but there’s no doubt of the man’s depth of talent.

Further reading: There’s an indepth article here as Dennis helps Mark Walliams and Rafe Spall prepare for the film. Frankie Howerd’s lover breaks his silence.

Review: Living the Spirit: a Gay American Indian Anthology, compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe

“For centuries throughout America, both before and after the arrival of the Europeans, gay and lesbian Indians were recognized as valued members of tribal communities. Combining make and female roles, gay Indians worked as mediators, artists, healers, and providers for their tribes.” (from the back of the book)

Living the Spirit: a Gay American Indian Anthology, compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe, Coordinating Editor, St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Review by Tedy Ward

Rather by accident, several years ago, I found myself studying Native American cultures and writing about them. I did my graduate work focusing on European history, particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, and while I took the requisite courses in American history, it wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as the darkly complex European periods. But when I started writing fiction, I found myself drawn to the period of American expansion referred to as ‘the American West’, a period from about 1830 to 1930 in which American ‘white’ culture spread itself economically, politically, and culturally across the wide plains and deserts of the heart of continental America.

Of greatest interest to me is the cultural clash between the indigenous peoples who lived there and the ‘American culture’ that moved in and took then over. The study of these Native American cultures – and there were far more than ‘one’ – is ongoing and probably always will be. Most of these cultures did not leave behind written documents, and the more they were exposed to ‘white’ culture, the more they changed, even when they didn’t want to.

Most of the records we have of the various cultures were left by Europeans and Americans who encountered them. It is from the French trappers who wandered through many of the Native American settlements that we get the word ‘berdache’, a term they used “to describe Indians who specialized in the work of women and formed emotional and sexual relationships with other men” (Preface, page 1). This concept, of the Native American acceptance of alternate gender and sexual roles, is the focus of the book Living the Spirit, compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe, Coordinating Editor, published by St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

The book is an interesting collection of modern writings from gay and lesbian Native Americans – poetry, short stories, essays – and historical studies of alternate sexuality in some of the tribes. “Tinselled Bucks: a Historical Study of Indian Homosexuality” by Maurice Kenny discusses the problems of lack of primary source material, and also the differences between the berdaches – men who lived as women and women how lived as men – and men and women living their gender roles who preferred to be sexually and emotionally involved with others of their gender and gender roles. He discusses the different terms and customs of berdaches in various tribes, as well as the levels of importance that many berdaches held in certain cultures, where they were often respected as people of great magic.

“Toleration of the berdache varied from tribe to tribe. Some tribes, such as the Illinois, actually trained young men to become homosexuals and concubines of men. The Cheyenne and the Sioux of the plains may not have purposely trained young men to become berdaches but certainly accepted homosexuals more readily than perhaps other tribes.” (“Tinselled Warriors”, page 26).

The thesis of “Sex/Gender Systems in Native North America” by Midnight Sun is as follows:

“Social, and specifically sexual, life is embedded in the economic organization of society – an organization that gives rise to a variety of cultural forms.” (page 32). This article discusses Native American sexuality as a function of the roles that men and women played in the survival of the various tribes. The author uses three specific case studies, of the Mojave, the Navajo, and the Peigan. All three tribes acknowledged cross-gender identities. “The Mojave believed that cross-gender individuals, especially hwames [female cross-dressers] were lucky in gambling and could become powerful shamans, while shamans and chiefs often married alyhas [male cross-dressers].” (pp. 37-38).

In Navajo culture, cross-gender people were called nadle:

“Because they were believed to have been given charge of wealth since the beginning of time, a family with a nadle was considered fortunate and assured of wealth and success.” (p. 41).

The Peigans, whose culture placed more importance on the role of men and the masculine-warrior ideal, had the ‘manly-hearted woman’, who was, unlike with the Navahos and Mojaves, not a sexual identity but an economic one. The ‘manly-hearted woman’ was a woman who dominated her husband but who was respected by the tribe because she was able to win and control property in traditionally masculine ways – inheritance, ingeniousness, and gifts of respect. The discussion of this article centers mostly on the roles that sexuality played in the respective tribes, and how equal the respect for women and men were, which seems to be dependent on whether the tribe supported itself through farming and agriculture (Mojave and Navaho), where women were often seen as equals to men, or hunters (Peigan) where men were more important and allocated more power and control.

“Strange Country This: Images of Berdaches and Warrior Women” by Will Roscoe, the contributing editor for the book, is a collection of short essays about cross-gender people in specific tribes, as seen in primary sources from European and American explorers during their early exposures to these tribes. Most of these essays are accompanied by pictures, either drawings or photographs taken at the time of these encounters or soon thereafter. There are twelve different Native American tribes represented in these essays and illustrations, covering all regions of North America. “Ever Since the World Began” is a collection of myths and tales from ten different tribes involving their cross-gender members or icons.

The second half of the book is a collection of autobiographical essays, short stories, and poems written by contemporary gay Native Americans; while many of them are modern, they often include family histories that discuss life on the reservations in the mid-1900s if not before, and the struggles that gay Native Americans faced then and now as their tribal culture has changed, taking on the values of the European and American culture.

This anthology isn’t technically an academic study; while some of the essays have internal notes, they don’t have individual bibliographies which makes it difficult to find the primary sources. That said, the history is fascinating, especially the individual views into various tribes and how tolerant and receptive they were to the ideas of homosexuality and cross-gender roles. To be clear, not all tribes were tolerant; the respect and tolerance varied depending on the tribe and how balanced the roles of women and men were in the tribe’s survival.

Overall, it is an interesting read, and a good resource for Native American concepts of sexuality and gender roles. It’s a little dated, politically as well as historically, and I’d very much like to see an new anthology from the Gay American Indians Organization, especially with the more recent interdisciplinary studies between anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. It’s appeal may be a little more specific than other books studying gay history, as it’s focus is on gay Native Americans, a very select group historically and currently, but it’s also an interesting look at how a dominant culture – in this case, European/American ‘white’ culture – interprets and eventually changes and redefines other cultural values.

I’d rate this at a 4; it’s informative and engaging and in many ways, a view into an alien world.

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