Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Well, that was cheerful

There are a few comparisons I'd make with Felice Picano's Like People in History, but "The Gay Gone with the Wind" as Edmund White blurbs on the cover isn't one of them. Actually, the two things that kept coming to mind as I read it were Stephen King's IT and a mid-90's movie, It's My Party. 

Having not read this before, I guess I stumbled across one of those "loved by more than a few people" books. Which is not to say I didn't enjoy the journey, I did, but I also spent more than a few passages either wanting to reach into the prose and give a character a "Get Over It!" Cher slap or rolling my eyes and saying "Oh, get her!" I realize some of this is due to being closer in age to our narrator's boyfriend in 1991 than the narrator himself, but....

Anyway, People is told mostly in flashbacks, framed by events transpiring in New York City in 1991. Our Narrator, Roger Sansarc, an author, professor, and several other titles, is taking his much younger boyfriend Wally to Roger's cousin Alistair Dodge's birthday party somewhere off Central Park West. Alistair lives with a boyfriend everyone refers to as the White Woman. As it turns out, Roger's birthday gift for his cousin is a bottle of sleeping pills to assist his AIDS ravaged cousin die. From there, Wally and Roger head out to an ACT UP rally involving chaining AIDS patients to Gracely Mansion to protest the mayor not releasing funds to help the plague ridden victims of the city. Wally an Roger fight on the way there, because Wally thinks it's wrong for Roger to help his cousin kill himself. Roger agrees to go back to Alistair's after the protest to stop him, but instead gets arrested after helping drop a large banner off the mansion's roof. He eventually gets out of holding that evening, and finds a very angry Wally, who thinks Roger planned everything that lead to his arrest. That eventually gets settled, and the two reconcile before they gat back to Alistair's early in the morning. Where Alistair has taken the pills, leading to Roger riding in the ambulance with Alistair and deciding on saving Alistair would best be served by letting him die or making sure he recovers.

In the meantime, we look in on Alistair and Roger's relationship, starting first in 1954, when young Alistair comes to Suburban New York while his parents are fighting over custody. Alistair makes short work of taking over Roger's circle of friends.

In 1961, Roger visits Alistair in California (LA), ostensibly to lessen his depression. Alistair has become some kind of junior real estate magnate, working through his mom and her current boyfriend. Alistair hangs out with the surfers, most of whom seem to be what today would be considered casually bisexual. Alistair is also schtupping the landscaper, which eventually gets found out, leading to said landscaper getting deported.

We next check in with Roger in 1969, as he rather druggedly makes his way north to a certain concert in upstate New York along with a girl he thinks can be his first. Let's see, the girl joins a commune, Alistair, who's at Woodstock, gets Roger hooked up with a fictional bassist from a British band, who ends up becoming Roger's lover briefly. Roger falls out of love with the bassist, falling in with a revolutionary working against the war in Vietnam. Roger goes before the draft board under the influence of codeine from oral surgery, passes out, and figures out Alistair had helped the revolutionary set Roger up as part of a protest against the draft.

And on to 1974 San Francisco, where Roger is running an upscale bookstore that his cousin Alistair is trying to set up an art gallery in. Roger eventually meets Matthew Longuidice, a former Navy man who's been serving in Vietnam. Matt has a bad leg, but he and Roger are in love. Alistair marries a woman and moves to Europe.

1979 finds Roger working for a NYC magazine and weekending in the Pines on Fire Island where Matt is more or less living all summer. Matt has become a rather famous model for Drummer. Alistair sails in from Europe, in the process of divorcing his wife. Roger is dealing with more than a little jealousy over Matt's flirtations, even though the relationship is presented as being open; it's kind of implied that the rule seems to be once with one person is ok, twice with the same person is verboten. Matt's obviously jealous of Roger as well, and Alistair stirs the pot all summer before making his final moves at the Jungle Red party. Which ends with Roger having a one night fling with Alistair's brother in law and Matt leaving with Alistair for Europe.

And in 1985, we find Roger still in New York, this time helping produce a play he wrote about gay history, ending at Stonewall. Alistair is back in town; they run into each other at a supporting character's memorial. (This gets really painful, as only one person tells the truth about Calvin. It gets mentioned later that, true to history, Calvin's cause of death is listed as Herpes, not AIDS. Since no one died of AIDS. If you were really good, it was "liver cancer".) Over dinner with Alistair, an old acquaintance informs Roger that not only is Matt back in town, but he's in the hospital. Roger gos to visit, and he and Matt reconnect over Matt's eventual deathbed. Matt asks Roger to get his parents to come see him, which is heartbreaking. Matt's parents love him dearly and are very proud of him, which is a damn sight better than many people in the era got. Matt's mother tells Roger of Matt's love of a children's book retelling of Patroclus and Achilles, and how she still relates that story to hiw she and her husband held on to Matt's (now amputated) leg after he was born as her parents tried to take him away. As happened all too often, Matt dies and Roger is listed as next of kin. When he collects Matt's belongings, he finds some of the last poems Matt wrote for him, and we find that the two of them still loved each other.

While I had a few issues, as mentioned above, by the end I was attached to the characters and better understood why Roger makes his eventual decision. I also spent much of the book in tears, since much of the last part covers my era of coming out. The Fire Island chapter is filled with Disco earworms.

It's a good read, and one that the younguns who don't know any of the history might benefit from. Or for those of us who are older, serve as a reminder of who we are and where we came from.