Merlis Examines America Before Stonewall in ‘Studies’

Mark Merlis' 'American Studies.'

Mark Merlis’ ‘American Studies.’

A heart-wrenching book about love, loyalty, betrayal and the cruel repercussions of pursuing love in a society that seeks to suppress its expression.
Merlis parallels the stories of two men leading very different lives during the early 1950s: an aging, closeted professor and his more open protege, both of whom suffer devastating consequences as a result of their sexual orientation. One faces extortion during the McCarthy-era witch hunts, the other becomes a victim of violent crime in the post-Reagan years. Both have lived much of their lives trying to conceal their homosexuality in order to protect their social positions, jobs and reputations — as well as to avoid the criminal prosecution they could be subject to when their paths cross in the 1950s.
Merlis poignantly portrays a pre-Stonewall world in which aging gay men face few choices for love and companionship that aren’t accompanied by elements of danger. The author creates profound empathy for his characters even while pointing out their corruptive behaviors and sometimes craven attempts at feeling fully human.

Mark Merlis

Mark Merlis


Chabon’s ‘Telegraph Avenue’ Is a Story for Today

Michael Chabon's 'Telegraph Avenue.'

Michael Chabon’s ‘Telegraph Avenue.’

“Telegraph Avenue.” Even the title hearkens back to the past and speaks of obsolete technology; and Michael Chabon carries those themes throughout his new book, his first in five years. For fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, the beautifully written, nostalgia-inducing novel was worth the wait.
A master of exploring and revealing subcultures of American society to his readers, in “Telegraph Avenue” (HarperCollins) Chabon has amassed a cast of characters — primarily African-American and Jewish — who seem to be stuck in the 1970s, defiantly refusing to make the leap from analog to the digital age; preferring instead to romanticize a past filled with vinyl records, eight-track players, bubble gum cards and blaxploitation films. In “Telegraph Avenue” people still drive El Caminos, listen to “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas and use printed paper fliers rather than electronic Facebook invites to promote events.
Set in Oakland in 2004, the book opens with two teenage boys — one black, the other white — chained together hand-to-shoulder as they roll along the streets of Berkeley conveyed by a bike and a skateboard. For at least one of the boys, the aimless summer pastime is a romantic interlude allowing him to indulge an infatuation that is getting perilously close to first love.
As in most of his books, Chabon includes a gay character (and a transgender one), a literary choice that early in his career caused Newsweek magazine to include him in an an article about promising new gay writers. Chabon is admittedly heterosexual with a wife (fellow author Ayelet Waldman) and children. That makes the insight he brings to his gay characters all the more remarkable. Julius Jaffe, or Julie, as he is known to his loved ones, is a secondary but pivotal character in “Telegraph Avenue.” He symbolizes hope, loyalty, innocence and, perhaps, a future that will be more well-adjusted and stable than his parents’ current adult lives.
The protagonists in “Telegraph Avenue” are Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe (Julie’s father), also biracial best friends as well as longtime business partners in a vintage record store called Brokeland Records. Surviving more on passion than profit, the curators of rare jazz, funk and blues recordings suddenly take on the role of Ahabs against a corporate white whale. Gibson Goode, an NFL star-cum-business magnate, plans to open a megastore for music in the same neighborhood, a development that will certainly turn Brokeland’s name into a quite literal moniker.
Meanwhile, the partners’ wives, Gwen and Aviva, with a personal-business relationship that parallels that of their spouses, are striving to keep their own rooted-in-the-past business as midwives afloat after a confrontation with a doctor threatens to end their privileges to practice at a local hospital. Between these two plot lines, Chabon riffs on modern-day definitions of and adherence to community, family, father-son relationships, racism, celebrity and commerce.
The author injects conflict in lethal doses, none more volatile than the complications created when Archy’s previously unacknowledged 14-year-old son appears in town unexpectedly, driving a wedge between Archy and his pregnant wife and forcing the again-expecting father to reexamine his estranged ties to his own deadbeat dad, a washed-up actor who starred in a few martial arts movies in the ’70s.
Chabon evokes the Me Decade on nearly every page, not only by displaying an

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon

encyclopedic knowledge of obscure recordings and B-movies, but by referencing pop culture of the period in his descriptions, dialogue and lyrical prose. A generation of readers will have their memories vigorously jogged by a barrage of one-time household names — Roxie Roker, Minnie Riperton, Bruce Lee, Jim Jones, Leon Spinks, Wilson Pickett, Alf — that make Telegraph Avenue such an entertaining read.
A pre-presidential, pre-Al-Green-crooning Barack Obama even makes a cameo appearance in the book as a music lover who shows appreciation for Stevie Wonder’s 1973 funk hit “Higher Ground” and Bad Medicine’s “Trespasser” being played by Archy and Nat’s band at a fund raiser. With an offhand remark, Obama becomes a catalyst for change in one of the characters, who experiences an epiphany because of the campaigner’s casual comment.
The pleasure of reading a Michael Chabon book — and “Telegraph Avenue” is no exception — is the author’s selection and play of words as if they were notes being used to compose a musical score. His descriptions of quotidian objects, like Gwen’s hands — “freaky-big, fluid as a couple of tide-pool dwellers, cabled like the Golden Gate Bridge” — conjure vivid and indelible imagery. Others, like Archy’s recollections of a childhood treat from a neighborhood bakery, sound almost elegiac:
“When he was a boy, a Dream of Cream from Neldam’s–crumbly chocolate cake interglaciating floes and tundras of whipped cream, the outside armored in a jagged tectonics of wide chocolate shavings–was a prodigy, a work of wonder, five dollars no one could spare spent annually by stingy but cake-loving ladies to celebrate the coming into the world of a fatherless and motherless fatboy.”
As a child of the ’70s, Chabon also pays tribute to great but largely forgotten musicians of the time, who, like the circuit board-free tools they used to create their art, slipped into obsolescence. By reminding us of their talent and contribution to our history and culture, Chabon leaves his readers longing for yesterday with a book that couldn’t be a better testament to the current age of Obama.

Do Black Dagger Brothers Finally Do the Deed in J.R. Ward’s ‘Lover at Last’?

J.R. Ward's 'Lover at Last.'

J.R. Ward’s ‘Lover at Last.’

As the title suggests, in “Lover at Last” (Penguin Group), the latest installment of J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, readers may finally get what they have anticipated—seeing her two most prominent characters finally realize the physical consummation of their love for each other—but the afterglow may not be what fans of the novels expect.

Ward continues her vampire saga which, like Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight,” bridges a gap between horror and romance, an undyingly popular genre one might call “hormance.” In a gothic, gargoyled fortress somewhere near New York City, the Black Dagger Brotherhood remains cloaked in secrecy as it continues battling with a rogue faction of the vampire race as well as a group of so-called lessers who are out to annihilate both groups.

Ward’s faithful readers will pick up quickly where the last book left off; but her references to past events, old grudges and alliances will leave the uninitiated occasionally confused as they try to absorb the arcane world filled with bloodthirsty kings, queens, musclebound soldiers and the hapless humans who share that world.

Despite a glossary of terms prior to the prelude, the hierarchies of the vampire society are hard to keep straight as the author weaves power plays throughout the main plot. And a secret pregnancy remains perplexing until the reason for keeping it on the down low is revealed a third of the way into the book.

Ward’s beings are atypical of the vampires found in classical literature and pop culture:

J.R. Ward

J.R. Ward

they use GPS, watch Honey Boo Boo, drink Herradura tequila and read articles in gossip magazines about “The Bachelor”; and since they are vulnerable to bullets, they arm themselves with all sorts of weaponry aside from their piercing fangs. Ironically, the supernaturals even pray. But perhaps the biggest difference from creatures created by other hormance authors, Ward’s characters supply plenty of steamy homoerotic passages as well as scenes of heterosexual lust.

“Lover at Last” is not so much about coming of age as it is about coming out.While the union of Qhuinn and Blay is the novel’s centerpiece, there are a number of subplots involving intense longing felt by peripheral character who remain separated because of the vampire aristocracy and their ancient social mores.

Despite a treacly ending, Ward leaves enough cliffhangers to keep readers hungry for the next installment. At its heart,”Lover at Last” is a book about self-acceptance with enough powerfully emotional passages that could earn Ward a new legion of readers. So, the saga continues…

First published by the Louisville Courier-Journal


Sergey Nabokov’s Story Is Perhaps Even More Fascinating Than His Famous Brother’s

Paul Russell's 'The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov'

Paul Russell’s ‘The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov’

I’m embarrassed to say I have never read any of Vladimir Nabokov’s books and didn’t know much about the author’s life, let alone that he had a younger brother who had a very interesting life himself. But I have read several of Paul Russell’s other novels and liked them, so I gave this one a try, despite its dry title.
The book is a remarkable achievement in historical fiction, though tilted toward the latter modifier of the genre. The book is distinctly different from Russell’s earlier novels in construction, language and tone and vividly evokes an epoch spanning the time of tsarist Russia to the Second World War. As an aristocrat fleeing from a crumbling Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, Sergey Nabokov takes safe harbor in cities from London to Paris to Berlin as the story unfolds, falling in with some of the great artistic luminaries of the era, including Cocteau (Russell’s best achievement in creating a character that jumps off the page), Diaghilev, Gertrude Stein and, of course, his now immortal brother. Part biography, part fantasy and wholly imaginative, “Unreal Life” is completely absorbing as it traces a life filled with love, loss and extraordinary adventure.
My favorite passage comes when Sergey has a revelation about his seemingly

Paul Russell

Paul Russell

insouciant brother: “And I believe I have found something else as well– that we only, any of us, live in art. No matter whether it is in books, painting, music, or dance, it is there we flourish, there we survive. It has taken me many years to come to this realization.”
I great read. I hated for it to end.

Christopher Rice’s Sci-Fi Thriller ‘The Heavens Rise’ is One Hellish Trip

Christopher Rice's 'The Heavens Rise.'

Christopher Rice’s ‘The Heavens Rise.’

Christopher Rice’s new book “The Heavens Rise” is creepy from the get-go.

The author has created a monster and—unlike Mary Shelley’s golem, pieced together from cast-off body parts—Rice’s creature is all too human, which makes him all the more terrifying.

The book begins with an excerpt from a Niquette Delongpre’s journal, a passage that ends ominously, setting the tone for what’s to come after she and her parents disappear from the face of the Earth the night before a housewarming at their Arcadian home deep in the bayous of Louisiana on the fringe of New Orleans.

The young Niquette had brought a male classmate to the place called Elysium recently to show him the home and its swimming pool filled from a tainted artesian well beneath the muddy expanse that surrounds the house. But what she might have thought would be an innocent romp with Marshall Ferriot turns into a nightmare that will haunt her and everyone she loves for years to come. By then, readers know Marshall is a monster, but continue to discover how unimaginably sadistic he can be as the pages turn.

Christopher Rice

Christopher Rice

This is Rice’s best book to date, with evocative language, recurring themes and rich storytelling that will raise the hairs on the back of the neck. It rivals the best of Stephen King at times and sets a standard for psychological horror as Marshall emerges from a vegetative state, using paranormal powers to savagely exact revenge on the girl who rejected him and everyone around her.

The novel takes a sci-fi turn in the second half and monsters become more

Christopher Rice

Christopher Rice

hallucinatory and Frankensteinian as Niquette—afflicted with the same “gift” of mind control as Marshall due to an unexpected plunge into her pool—experiments with her power with different results; the novel then trespasses into H.G. Wells and Dr. Moreau territory.

With one or two implausible plot elements, Rice has created an original novel with characters that are smart, diverse, authentic and sympathetic—with the exception of the vindictive villain, who practices his own brand of voodoo.

The author uses the New Orleans setting to full effect, resurrecting the horror of Hurricane Katrina; commenting on a racial divide within the Crescent City; indicting oil companies for imperiling the environment; and creating a sense of foreboding and terror from the moss-draped morass that surrounds the murky waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Great Mississippi delta.

Within the pages of “The Heavens Rise,” readers will find that pure evil lurks, and they can only hope that goodness will triumph over it.

First published by the Louisville Courier-Journal




When Joan Has a Bone To Pick, Everyone Gets Hated Equally

Joan Rivers' 'I Hate Everyone...Starting With Me.'

Joan Rivers’ ‘I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me.’

Let me start by saying I have never hated Joan Rivers. In fact, at one time, I loved, loved, loved her. Early in my career, back in her can-we-talk days, I interviewed her for a feature story and I still keep that yellow-edged article in my portfolio because I enjoyed our conversation so much.

But in recent years, I haven’t loved her as much as I used to. I saw her live a few years ago and felt like she lost her edge, relying too much on the F-word to get her jokes across. I guess when you get to be her age — as it should be — you don’t give a fuck what people think or say.

Well, Joan, you’ve won me over again with your latest book, “I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me” (Penguin Group). Within 10 pages, she had me in tears from laughing so hard. I think it was her definition of a tween: “which is just a teen who hasn’t given a blow job yet.” Actually, even before the book begins, the dedication page lets readers know they’re in for a very un-PC diatribe because she dedicates it to two killers, including O.J. Simpson, because “maybe the lippy ex-wife had it coming.”

Too soon? IT’S A JOKE, PEOPLE! And if you don’t like that one, you probably won’t enjoy ones about 9/11, the Holocaust or abortion, either.

Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers

That is the thing I’ve always loved about Joan: the courage to say inappropriate, funny things that will make people gasp both from horror and from laughing so hard. I believe the phrase “Oh no she di-ent” was first uttered at a Joan Rivers show. I said of her those many years ago after our interview that there were no sacred cows in Joan’s pasture. And that statement remains as true today. She’ll take potshots at anyone — ugly babies, dumb children, lip-smacking old people, rude airline passengers, gay wives and lesbian grooms, and especially other celebrities — skewer them and serve them up with a delicious punchline.

Actually, one of the best chapters is one about food and restaurants. Here’s a juicy morsel: “I hate it when the waiter comes to the table and asks, ‘Would you like to see a menu?’ What’s the correct response to that question: ‘No. Let me guess what you have in the refrigerator.’ Or ‘No. I’m not worthy. I’ll just eat the crumbs off of the lap of the old lady at table seven.'”

joan2She writes with the same rapid-fire delivery that she uses on stage so that when you’re reading the book, it’s her voice that you hear in your head saying things like, “I hate ‘dry’ weddings where they don’t serve alcohol. If I want dry, I’ll spend time in the Mojave Desert or take pictures of my vagina”; or “I’ve undergone more reconstruction than Baghdad.” As the title indicates, Joan continues to do what she has always done best: make fun of herself.

To be frank (can we talk?) not all of the jokes work and some of the comedienne’s references are so dated they show her age. I’m not sure one-liners about Sylvia Plath, Mickey Rooney or baby Jessica falling in a well in 1987 work that well today. But she makes up for it with plenty of current zingers about Jerry Sandusky that are spot on. But Joan knows her audience better than I do; and in the end, it’s a testament to her own longevity in show business that she can reference everyone from Clara Bow and Senor Wences to Kim Kardashian and Beyonce in her jokes, or stretch a comparison between Shirley Temple and kidnapping victim Jaycee Dugard.

And it wouldn’t be a Joan Rivers book without at least a few Liz Taylor fat jokes. When they come from Joan, those are always funny, even if Ol’ Violet Eyes is dead.
And Bea Arthur being a man. Again, always funny. Even if the Ol’ Dickless Baritone is dead, too.

Not that she’s ever gone away, but in my book Joan is back with a vengeance and a very funny new book. The world would be a happier place if there were more hatemongers like her.

Scotty Bowers Says He Was the No. 1 Stud of Old Hollywood

Scotty Bowers 'Full Service'

Scotty Bowers ‘Full Service’

A lot of people might admit one of their guilty pleasures is reading a magazine or book that dishes the dirt on Hollywood stars. In his new book, Scotty Bowers (with Lionel Friedberg) doesn’t just dish the dirt; he gets down on all fours and rolls around in it, dragging the reputations of many beloved stars through the mud — or in the case of Charles Laughton and Tyrone Power, through something even filthier.

In “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars” Bowers paints a portrait of himself as the uber gigolo of Tinseltown during its Golden Age. It’s a book full of salacious stories, scurrilous at best and scatological at worst, about some of biggest icons of the silver screen. Sadly, none of his subjects (or victims, if you will) is still alive to refute or confirm his outlandish tales. That alone makes his accounts suspect.

Scotty Bowers

Scotty Bowers

One lifelong friend, author Gore Vidal, states on the book jacket that “Scotty doesn’t lie,” but any discerning reader will find this memoir to be literally incredible. A farm-raised Midwesterner and ex-Marine who landed in Hollywood after WWII, Bower claims to have rubbed more than elbows with some of the greatest artistic, scientific, literary and political minds of the 20th century. His recollections in the book come off as distasteful if not borderline delusional. Even if they are true, they are moments that were certainly meant to remain private, but Bowers unapologetically recounts them in disgusting detail.

Montgomery Clift

Montgomery Clift

One of his claims is that playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote a book about Bowers’ life, but he asked the author to burn it because it made him “sound like the mother of all queens.” It would seem Bowers, now nearing 90, has chosen to set the record “straight” by telling his own story. Indeed, he reiterates throughout the book that he has been married, had a daughter and prefers sex with women; yet, most of his sexcapades in the book are with men. He puts on parade the usual suspects that any book dealing with gay Hollywood usually mentions — Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, Tony Perkins, Tab Hunter, Noel Coward, Cole Porter and Cary Grant — but he throws in some surprises like Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and even the heterosexual misadventures of stars like Desi Arnez, Bob Hope, Vivien Leigh and Elsa Lanchester as well as plenty of producers, directors and B-listers whose names few people will remember. He drops so many names it’s a wonder he didn’t have a menage a trois with JFK and Marilyn Monroe. When he starts emptying his memory banks for something scandalous to write about Mae West and Gloria Swanson, the result is more pathetic than interesting.

Rock Hudson

Rock Hudson

And it isn’t just Hollywood royalty who receives his tarnishing treatment. He claims to have bedded the Duke of Windsor going so far as to say that his marriage to Wallis Simpson was a sham; that what is regarded as the love affair of the century was all a ruse because both of them were gay and the royal family colluded to create the myth to prevent a homosexual from ascending to the throne of England.

Even more far-fetched is a chapter that involves him meeting with former King Farouk of Egypt and persuading the monarch to share some of his massive collection pornography with Dr. Alfred Kinsey when the famed scholar was continuing his studies on human sexuality during the 1950s. Bowers recalls working closely with Kinsey to supply female interview subjects for the research with a convenient disclaimer that the two had an agreement that Bowers would never receive credit for his assistance in the landmark study.

While asserting his preference for intercourse with women, he is fast and loose with labels, declaring some of the rich and famous to be gay, then describing them as bisexual a few paragraphs later; and his stories are told with more than a hint of schoolboy braggadocio.

Learning the sex trade on the streets of Chicago, where he began hustling priests and married men, his Hollywood story begins, he says, when he was picked up by Walter Pidgeon for a sexual liaison while working at a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard. Before long the filling station became a reputed spot where stars and others could fulfill their every fetish, proclivity and depravity, thus giving Bowers the title for his book.

Dressing it up as some noble gesture, when he couldn’t do the job himself, Bowers says he never accepted “tips” for arranging sexual favors for the stars with others from his cadre of two-bit hustlers, whores and “straight” boys who were financially hard up. Perhaps this book is his way of cashing in to make up for the money he voluntarily missed out on back in the day.

Readers will be drawn to the title of this book out of prurient interest, but after turning the last page, they will feel like a participant in something so sleazy, they might feel the need for a shower. This book is a lot to swallow and should be read with a healthy dose of skepticism.

First published by Desert Outlook.