Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hangin' With the Kids: Josh Kilmer-Purcell in Gum Boots

My dear friend, N., a.k.a. Signora Anita DiMartini, Book Club Queen of Seattle*, surprised me not a little in 2009 by picking Josh Kilmer-Purcell's memoir I Am Not Myself These Days as the March selection for the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Book Club. Surely -- sniff -- we were better than this? By that time, of course, we'd already abandoned the idea of reading only pre-Stonewall classics as having proved too depressing, even for us, but our reading list had still been pretty consistently highbrow rather than lowdown. The Signora's sudden enthusiasm for the then only three year old memoirs of a drunk New York drag queen, known as "Aquadisiac," and famous for keeping live goldfish in her plastic tits, was... unexpected. To that date, the book club hadn't much considered funny, or, for that matter: camp, drag, whores, booze or pets. True, Genet lay straight ahead, but then Genet was a classic, wasn't he? Dead, after all, and French, and that. Kilmer-Purcell, or rather, "Aqua," seemed something of a compromise of our standards, hardly likely company for Thomas Mann et al. Not even dead, this one, despite her best efforts.

Frankly, I questioned Anita's thinking on this one. But then, Signora DiMartini is always thinking, when it comes to her clubs. I, for one, have learned to trust her superior instincts, at least when it comes to book club selections. And again, she was quite right. I thought "Aqua" delightful. This queen was funny, and, I thought, she could write. Certainly reading that book was an unexpectedly happy experience for me. Had no idea. It was worth reading the book just for the story of the queen who'd decided to make a candy-cannon part of her act. (Read the book. I won't try to explain.) Besides the drag and the drugs and the drinking, at the heart of the book was a doomed romance with a high priced call-boy. That was not an unfamiliar story from the literature, but in Kilmer-Purcell's telling, the heroine not only survived, but didn't even get all preachy in her recovery. I loved it.

Not everyone in the book club did. Some seemed to think the author a bit too flippant about such serious dysfunction. Our group leader had hoped to entice some of the recovery crowd, who meet in the same space as the book club, to join us. Don't know how well that worked out, but there were those at the meetings I did attend who seemed to think the tone was lowered by the jokes. Recovery, for some, ain't the least bit funny. Oh well.

Still, when a reader's copy of Josh Kilmer-Purcell's latest came into the store, I was quick to snag it for Anita to read. Perhaps it was a case of once burned twice shy, at least in so far as the group's reformed tweekers et al were concerned, but for whatever reason, she chose not to make the new memoir an official book club selection. I might not have thought any more about the new book, had I not been surfing cable TV with the husband one night and come across a new reality show.The Fabulous Beekman Boys is the story of a successful Manhattan queer couple gone all Green Acres in upstate New York. Guess who?

Josh Kilmer-Purcell's new book, The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir, ought not to be my sort of thing. The show was amusing, because these queens are funny, but also uncomfortable to watch; the boys never see each other anymore, what with the tall one working sixty hours a week at an advertisement firm in The City, just to keep the country house weekends going, while the little one wraps individual bars of handmade goats' milk soap, dreams of empire, and washes the barn windows for a garden party. Not my kinda people, really. Still, it's a cute young gay couple mucking around in gum boots. Kinda fun, in a Jean Claude Cardinot directed, doin' it in the barn kinda way, and after just the first two episodes, I was sure the little one was going to at least get his ass spanked. So I've stayed tuned.

Now, having grown up in the country, grubbing root vegetables out of the back garden, and surrounded by farmboy homophobia, the country, for me, holds no special charm. I do rural roughly once a year, on our annual pilgrimage back to see the folks in Pennsylvania. That's usually quite enough rednecking for me, thanks. Goats, and the men who tend them, smell bad. Not an issue, just watching television, but I remember.

Then there is the whole Martha/Oprah connection. (If I had to pick the two women in my lifetime who have done the most to undo the Women's Movement in America, these two would top my list. Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey, between them, taught a whole generation of women how to just be girls again. " Want a pony? Well, I got one. Everybody deserves a pony. Every one's getting ponies! Wish hard. Nothing wrong with wanting a pony, just make sure you only feed your pony organic carrots and pure, unprocessed cane-sugar. I'll show you how to make your own, homemade sugar-cubes!" It's female -empowerment by means of Disney princess fantasy. It's fatuous celebrity-capitalism, talk-show-tycooning, in which opportunities simply come to those who deserve them, as opposed to those who do well well in supposedly unscripted media, and hard work is rewarded with money, power and "a staff." Fame, real estate portfolios, ostentatious wealth and guardian angels, these things aren't just compatible with feminism, in this brave new world, but the natural outcome of personal growth. It's as if of all the labors of all the movements for social equality in this country were sweated and bled just to make a Martha Stewart Living Ominimedia, Inc. and or a Harpo Inc., possible. It's repugnant.) Kilmer-Purcell's adorable husband, lil' Dr. Brent Ridge, worked his way through medical & business school, to become Martha's director "of healthy living." In his new book, Kilmer-Purcell describes attending a taping of the Oprah show and coming away convinced that he too deserves to be living his "best life," or at least to be the star of a reality TV show. Oh dear.

So, why'd I read this book? Because Josh Kilmer-Purcell is not inspired. Thanks be. Inspiration, as it turns out, is dangerous as hell, hard as hell on a marriage, and a shitty business model. I realized as soon as I'd read the "Author's Caution," that I was in familiar and welcome company:

"This book is about living your dream. It will not inspire you," he begins.

What the television show can only uncomfortably suggest, and what the book is really about, is lovers in some deep shit. To use the language of the television chat shows, can a long term, committed, gay relationship survive separation, economic hardship and conflicting personal agendas? Now that's interesting, at least as Josh Kilmer-Purcell tells it in the book, largely because the author hasn't got an answer, or, often as not, so much as a clue. (I've been in just such a domestic situation for more than twice as long and my own understanding of how and why is still, at best, notional.) What Kilmer-Purcell does have is wit, a strong sense of narrative, and a beautiful, ridiculous house in the country. We don't have one of those. This might be interesting.

I should say, what Kilmer-Purcell and his partner have, is a mansion, the Beekman Mansion, by name. A beautiful, big old house, built in 1802 -- thus the eventual name of their farming enterprise/life-style-website, Beekman 1802 -- and the book is all about their struggle to keep it, and their marriage, going. It seems that, once upon a time, on their annual jaunt into the countryside to go apple-picking, the city-boys came across a restored house in a bucolic farm setting, and on something like a whim, they buy the joint. Keep in mind, this is a roughly million dollar whim, but at the time, lil' Dr. Brent is an on-camera cog in the vast Martha media machine and Josh has long since hung up his aquarium brassiere for a partnership in a Manhattan ad agency. These boys have done well, economically, and personally. Then came the market crash. Ad agencies don't do well in down markets. The good lil' doctor gets unsentimentally shit-canned from Martha's magic kingdom. There are dead flies all over the place. What was to be a country retreat for the weekends, in roughly a year's time, becomes a working goat farm (don't ask, it's a charming story,) a full time home/business for lil' Dr. Brent, and something of a curse for the boys. This then isn't a book about dreams, but about mucking through, the part of life called reality, with which media goddesses no longer concern themselves and about which they talk hardly at all. Not perhaps the story Kilmer-Purcell intended to tell, but the one he had the sense and grace to instead. It's a good story. Go looking for dreams and you'll find yourselves... weeding at night.

But what they also found in the country, besides a community, were some uncomfortable, and often hilarious, truths about what it means to lead what Martha/Oprah would call "an authentic life" and, by contrast, what authenticity really means: dirt, mess, imperfection, misunderstanding, hurt feelings, but also: tenacity, faithfulness, friendship, hope.

In the end, both in the book and on television, maddening as they can be, The Fabulous Beekman Boys are good company. and the artisan cheese looks delicious.

*Seems I'm the only one to call him that, or find it funny, but maybe if I just keep it going long enough...

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