Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A Brief Introduction to an Old Friend

Some of us didn't die. That's obvious now, but it wasn't at the time. Far too many people -- a generation -- did die as a result of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome: friends, family, lovers, strangers, artists, innocent babies and villains like Roy Cohen. People still do die of it, but for gay men of our generation, there was an agonizingly long stretch when it felt like we all would sooner than later. Then a lucky few lived long enough to just survive. New medicines, new hope. New lives? Well, sorta. Pleasantly surprised doesn't do it justice, but calling it a miracle still sounds unseemly when we think of all those for whom it came too late. As Browning said, “how sad and bad and mad it was - but then, how it was sweet.” 

Brian Bouldrey's novel is that rarest of fictions that tells the ever-after. I can't really think of another in this context. There were tragedies of course, tributes, valedictories, memorials, memoirs, politics, yards and yards of poetry, and fiction long and short. Much of it was good, all of it was necessary and some of it should last. But who tells us the story after the surprise party, the days, weeks, and years after the happy ending? And who on earth would read it?

Well, not nearly enough did. By the time The Boom Economy, Scenes from Clerical Life was originally published in 2003, the fashion had changed, the news had cycled on, and the market for gay fiction was not what it had been, or so we were being told all the damned time. And this story? 

It's 1999, in Vancouver, BC, and three unlikely friends, Isabelle, Jimmy, and Dennis are sitting in a most unlikely bar, and no-one is having a very good time, except us:

"They studied the menus, full of too many choices that tried to span the cuisines: chop suey, burritos, spaghetti, hamburgers. Dennis felt queasy around such icky heterodoxies, common along the Pacific Rim. In San Francisco there were at least four shops called 'Chinese Food and Donuts,' and other stores sold Indian Food and Pizza,' 'Deli, Ice, Bait, and Liquor.' Was there nothing pure left in the world? Sex and food, both nice ideas, but not together. Even if he were his old self, unvested."

Come on. That's delicious because nothing sounds good together except those sentences. And did you catch that last word? Sneaky.

Our hero Dennis Bacchus has not died and neither has his best friend, Jimmy but that is not the story, though it would seem to be the point. Seem. Dennis has decided to become a priest. Of all things. The world is new. And yet, old friends and old habits -- made with every expectation of mortality -- carry on. And maybe that's the point? Remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the ride is starting again, so hang on. Bouldrey is a traveler of the best kind; excitable, brave, peripatetic and genuinely good company even when or specially when things are not altogether as they should be. Life happens in his fiction and as in life, real life, some of its pretty ghastly but even the worst of it can be entertaining and the best of it quite moving when it is written this well. Even the simplest thing can be beautiful and funny, as when we first meet dear Isabelle, very French, on a train six years earlier: 

"Out on the platform, he saw a girl get on, maybe twenty years old at most, in a short skirt that was pink with white polka dots. She had no hat, but she should have had one, to match her little brown suitcase. She was not sacking Europe."

As George Eliot says, "Nice distinctions are troublesome." I would just add that here is another writer who knows how to make the most of trouble. Dennis, our hero, the survivor and would-be priest, is trouble -- also troubled, troubling, and distinctly unsuited for either sainthood or Hell. Asceticism seems to suit him, but then so did being a bit of a sybarite, back in the day.

"He'd been trying to get away from all his stuff for years now, the things, the friends, the sex, the freedom burdens all. But oh, the pleasures (...) Dennis loved the pleasure and its attending pain: the bee's sting that is the price of honeycomb, tickling, the rose and its thorns, attempting to tell a joke to Isabelle in French, buttfucking, a productive cough, horror films, cracking walnuts to get their meat, the goofy, funny last words of a dying friend, the spectacular crash to the floor of an ornate dish."

Perhaps that's another reason this particular novel was denied a proper audience back in the day. Perhaps we were all still a bit too tender? Maybe we weren't quite ready yet to have our assumptions about romance and death and the nobility of our poetic cliches mixed quite so barbarously and brilliantly up and dropped like a sack of angry cats on our doorstep?

Why we should want to read it or reread it now. The spiritual journey of a man redeemed from death would be about as interesting as it sounds. It happens. Meh. But this isn't that novel. Yes, it's about a man in search of all sorts, from assignations to abjuration, from God to guide-books. And yes, Dennis is in flight from his past, from the jokes and the friends and fun that may not have been (poor Jimmy), but that isn't the point of reading it now. It's the voice. That's the point of it now. There hadn't frankly been anything quite like it then and there hasn't really been since, alas. 

And the times described, and the characters met, can now be read without the burden of our aching self importance then. Sad but true. Surely the world would note? But, no. There were very few writers of Bouldrey's generation who entirely escaped that rather formal, almost Cornelian hauteur and nobility of profile in the face of you know what. For all his generosity of heart, and the accuracy of his time-keeping, Brian Bouldrey takes everything so seriously that he can't help but occasionally laugh. It is redeeming. Poor, dear, benighted Dennis! Perhaps if he got a decent haircut? 

"When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." So said the very lamentably long late Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. I wouldn't know. Theology is not my subject. Maybe Brian could explain that to me, though I wouldn't dream of asking. Questions are better than answers anyway, particularly and perhaps peculiarly in novels. For me, having read my friend's novel again after nearly twenty years, the question he asks is better than the theologian's mystery because the paradox makes me smile. What happens when a man is called to live? No less profound, I should think.  The answer, if there is one, is up to you, dear reader, to find or not herein.

I can't think of better company on the way.


Saturday, July 11, 2020

My Dear Clerihew


Sherlock requiring a foil,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Slots in Watson --
To tie knots in.

Daily Dose

From The Portable Rabelais, selected and translated by Samuel Putnam


"I'm a creator, you say, and of what? Why, look at all those nice little creditors!"

From Book Third: Pantagruel, Panurge Praises Debtors and Borrowers

Friday, July 10, 2020

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann


“I've got a library copy of Gone with the Wind, a quart of milk and all these cookies. Wow! What an orgy!” 

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Help Me Now

I'm not going to lie, I don't know that I have a damned thing to say. And I can't help but feel, it's not my place to talk.

I'll try to explain.

I'm listening to Mavis Staples. Have been for I don't know how long. Years of course, but tonight? At least an hour now. Longer. Listening to her sing with an Irish boy named Hozier, on a great song called, "Nina Cried Power." Then her most recent album, We Get By, with Ben Harper. Then all those  otherworldly, immortal recordings of The Staple Singers. I listen to "Great Day" and just her father's opening guitar is enough to make me cry.

"Who shall be able to stand?"

Nobody needs me to say this is hard, that these are hard times, that times continue hard for more than not. I'm pretty sure I don't need to tell you. I have no right to tell anyone's hard times back to them as if I was there, or did a thing about it much worth doing, or as if their hard times were mine.

Come to that, this music from which I draw inspiration and strength and catharsis, this music isn't mine. I've no right to it. I can only accept it as a great gift, an act of unearned generosity. Hell, I don't even share the faith from which so much of this music came. And to say that this music is art, great art -- which it is -- does not entitle me to any share in it. I am no part of such a dispensation and can only be grateful to have found a quiet place to listen to what I frankly may not and may never deserve.

All I can be is humble. Do you understand?

I wish I did. I wish I knew. I wish I knew what to do and what to do next and what to do after that. I won't say that I wish I could help. (Was there ever a more meaningless contribution to any conversation than that?) I can't do nothing, so I don't, but what have I done to change myself, and my country, and the world that I might not have done anyway, when so much more is required, even if I don't know what all that might be?

Lately, one thing I've felt the need to do more of was shut the fuck up. (I told that to somebody recently and they smiled and said, "that's harsh", but they didn't tell me I was wrong. I'm not.) I still remember the first time somebody told me how important my silence as a white man could be. It was my first time ever in a Women's Studies class. First day, there were about four men. By the second session, there was just me and one other fellow and he either had the sense to not, or a general disinclination to speak up. Not me. About the third time that class met, we had a guest speaker. It was an evening class, and because it didn't meet as often as a day class we stayed longer and had a break after the first hour. When the break came, the speaker came up to me and took me aside in the hall. Ever so gently she burned me right down to the ground. She asked me to look at all the women in that class, and specifically at the women of color and see if I could remember any of their names. Did I remember any of them asking a question, as I did so often? Had I listened to any one of them as I seemed to expect the teacher and all of them to listen to me? She explained to me that women, even grown, better educated, far more intelligent women might defer to me, as a man, even a boy, might let me talk over them as I had, and she could not have that happen again. However good my intentions in taking that class, I brought who I was with me. Time I looked at that before I spoke again. That woman never raised her voice to me and when she saw I was shaken by the things she'd said, she took my arm to comfort me -- me -- and said she wasn't going to call on me again, but if I had any questions she'd stay after class and answer them if she could and did I understand why? And I began to, right there and then.

This is not such a different place we are in now. Makes me sad to say it, but it isn't. Not for women, not for African Americans, not for me. Am I different? Are we?

Nobody needs me to count the ways we are and are not and yet might be.

Another time I remember tonight. I had just started dating the man with whom I would come to spend my life, hadn't even moved in with him yet. I was getting a ride from a friend and like any fool in love I must have talked a blue streak about how wonderful he was and how handsome he was and how lucky I was and on and on I went and my friend? My friend was genuinely excited for me. Neither one of us might have foreseen my good luck, frankly. My friend was a dancer and cute as could be: with thick, natural curls -- it was the eighties -- and long, black lashes with which he could paint a barn, and he was adorable. Were we going to a party? Coming home from a movie? I don't remember. I just remember that when we got where we were going, my lover was there and I got to introduce him to my friend. Nice. Again, someone took me aside then, this time it was my friend and he was furious with me. Why hadn't I told him my boyfriend was black?! Again, I did not understand.  It had never occurred to me to mention that I guess, just as it had never occurred to me that my friend, that a gay man my own age, could have a problem with this. And then he couldn't admit that he did. "It was just such a shock," was what he said.

And again, not just from that instance but probably starting there, I had to learn that being gay did not  of itself make any of us not racist. It sounds stupid to even say this now, but somehow I had thought one thing led naturally to the next, that our oppression made us sympathetic if nothing else to the oppression of others. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn't. The point being that it wasn't enough to change us, any of us, of itself, that sympathy when it was even there. My sympathy didn't change me, didn't lift me anywhere out of who I was, where I lived, what I did. If I changed at all it was because I had to and to the extent that I have, I have had to do that work and still have work to do.

So am I to be congratulated? Do I deserve praise for contributing less than I might have done to the hard times of others? Am I now, unbelievably expecting to be thanked for perhaps taking slightly less advantage than I otherwise might have consciously done as a man? As a white man? Now as an adult man?

Or ought I to sit down? Is that what I should do now?

I am inside my own house and glad to be here. I am with someone I love and that is lucky. I believe in that luck because I know as you can't how many times I might have lost it. I am glad not to go out unless I have to and to try not to bring anything home with me that might kill my husband whose health is even less certain than my own. With this at least I am certain of the right thing.

What else though?

Black lives matter, but how much do they matter to me? Other than the people to whom I am now related, to the people I know and love, to my friends, what do I owe to all the others? To the people who are being murdered by the police, what do I owe them? To the men and women who are marching, what do I owe them? To the people who have made my life possible, to the artists who have made my life better, to the people who may be killed tomorrow, what do I owe them?

And to the people I still know who do not understand even the little that I do of our history and who deny the moment we are in, what do I owe them? To the people I may know who still would deny the humanity of George Floyd, what do I owe them? To the people who will not so much as wear a mask at the grocery store, what do I owe them? To the people who continue to support a criminal administration, who would preserve the symbols and the systems of racism and colonialism and economic injustice, what do I owe them?

"If you're ready, yeah
Come on go with me"

That's from another great song from the Staples Singers. I'm listening to it now, again. Well, am I ready?

Mavis Staples has been quoted as saying that she sings these songs, her songs, her family's songs, to inspire us, to keep us going, to lift us up. Am I part of that or am I not? Have I earned that gift or might I yet?

I can't tell anyone what to do now. I can't speak for anybody and right now I wouldn't if I could. I am not enough for this moment. My life is not over, but neither has it been enough. Sitting safe here in my house, knowing what I have, knowing I am loved, all I can say is that mine is not the voice we need. It just isn't. All I can do is ask everyone to listen to voices better than my own, as I must do. Listen. I've talked enough.

I will do what I can, I will try to do more, but I've talked enough.

Now I'm listening.

"I know a place..."

Daily Dose

From Wife of His Youth and Other Stories, by Charles W. Chesnutt


"She spoke to them of the hopeful progress they had made, and praised them for their eager desire to learn. She told them of the serious duties of life, and of the use they should make of their acquirements.  With a prophetic finger she pointed them to the upward way which they must climb with patient feet to raise themselves out of the depths.

Then, an unusual thing with her, she spoke of herself."

From Cicely's Dream