Author Picks for Pride
- Jeremy Atherton Lin
Gay Bar by Jeremy Atherton Lin is intimate and stylish celebration of the institution of the gay bar, from the post-AIDS-crisis 1990s to today's fluid queer spaces. He cleverly weaves together his own personal journey with the stories of the changing nature of queer nightlife, and the joys, sorrows and sense of community and exhilaration that it can bring, to create a political and entertaining reminder of what we had, and where we are now. Especially for Foyles, Jeremy has selected three books he would recommend to readers during Pride month
Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles
This book changed me profoundly. Myles writes plainly, with a residual Boston accent and a particular queer register I’ve never seen named — a kind of deceptive flippancy that reclaims the entitlement of both cis het valley girls and gruff iconoclasts like Bukowski. (“I jumped in anger in this weird characteristic way I have since a child. I look like an angry frog.”) Beneath the hungover anecdotes and scuzzy minutiae is a nearly overwhelming sense of purpose and illumination. Myles can mention the color combination of someone’s clothes or the scent of a vagina and it echoes in me with greater and greater magnitude, something like the New York School poets, James Schuyler in particular. There’s a sense that Myles writes as they’re writing — a bit that has always stood out to me appears like an interruption: “Please. Cats do not walk on the pink table.” The simple plea seems to rupture the book’s fourth wall, as if Myles’ journaling had been momentarily distracted. But this is different from the private journal writing Joan Didion described as “bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” Chelsea Girls, as if by alchemy (really, Myles’ muscle) reaches out to the reader. It’s the kind of writing that could be dismissed as not proper writing but, on the page — first published by the legendary California counterculture press Black Sparrow in 1994, more recently reprinted in a respectfully handsome edition — it proves wild and elegant. The book may qualify as autofiction; a novel, maybe, or collection of shorts — the sections read like entries to me because the book so massively influenced my many years of blogging. Chelsea Girls is stinky, boozy, sexy, a hot mess. It made me want to make mistakes so I could write about them later, a good kind of bad influence.
Totempole by Sanford Friedman
Totempole follows its protagonist Stephen Wolfe from age two through twenty four, from the East Coast of the States to an army base in Korea. Over this long stretch, gay experience is not a concise epiphany, but permeating, unfolding in layers, told through stolen moments often sequestered, humid, unresolved. Stephen may be less introspective than compelled to inspect what’s around him, and the novel gambols between that which he inhales, touches and spies. (The glorious chapter tiles: Horsie, Ocean, Salamander, Loon, Moose, Monkeys, Lice, Rats.) It’s a sensual book, with the smell of manure wafting over the first page and “sniffing the sweaty, loamy smell of dadda’s trousers” not much further in. By age six, contemplating the grains of sand from a beach day in his hair, belly button and bed, Stephen “knew that he was part of them, the sea and sand, mixed with them, a blend of them the way green is a blend of yellow and blue.” A few years later, in a campground pond, he titillates himself by straddling a pipe underwater, holding himself down to the brink of drowning. As a young man, he feigns disdain of hedonism, to which a friend retorts: “‘You’re much more of a sensualist than I am. You’ve got a wild, low-down beast in you that you don’t even know about.’” The transgressions of the book, first published in 1965, may now read as gentle, even twee. But the frankness and yearning remain disproportionately affecting, like a fingertip barely tracing skin. Friedman writes sexual awakening not as trauma or triumph, but an integral part of looking at the world and participating in it.
Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett
I am always recommending this magical novel. It viscerally conveys (like Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance does the sweltering 1970s clone scene in New York City) the fraught, twilit, nervous pulse of the gay underground of 1980s London. Unlike so many gay narratives (Holleran’s being another standout exception), the romance between two men is not a secretive, private liaison. Boy is a thirsty young arrival who walks through London at night. O, for ‘older,’ is a handsome video store clerk. Their long courtship seems to involve everyone who frequents the bar where they met. Many of the patrons have already slept with one, if not both. The proprietress makes them her pet project, guiding the two through a ritualistic marriage proposal and theatrical wedding ceremony (long before the advent of legal civil partnerships). Their union, so beautiful it’s almost unbearable, and seemingly inevitable, is the subject of not just gossip but deep admiration. And the social circle doesn’t only comprise queers from their time and dimension. Around their matrimonial bed, a bunch of proto-gay ghosts gather — orgiastic voyeurs, but also sentimental well-wishers. It’s a poetic exploration of gayness as having historical precedent, another layer to the book’s assertion that a love affair isn’t made tawdry by involving ex-lovers, admirers, hangers-on, acquaintances — by being a part of something wider. It’s a book about community not as an ideal, but frisson. It’s also a fantastic London book, a whole mood, the city at once vibrant and empty, shifting like a wrinkled map, making slick promises to its saturnine denizens, sparkling silently over a succession of long nights that turn like the Thames. The novel was first published in 1990, when violence lurked closely outside (and within) gay bars, and the epidemic spread with ferocity. Of course these men gazed into the bottom of pint glasses and longed to sleep in each other’s sweat. It wasn’t cold comfort but, as the title suggests, an honest, imperfect form of supportiveness.
Jeremy Atherton Lin is a writer, editor and critic. Originally from California, he is now based in London. He regularly lectures at universities in the UK. He recently co-launched Failed States, the new journal of writing and image about place. He was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for an excerpt from Gay Bar.