You might think that this list, like the one I published last week on books that would make good video games, would be easy to write. After all, I’m deeply gay myself (SURPRISE!) and hungrily consume queer literature at every opportunity. But this, actually, was quite difficult for me.
I’ve decided to limit this Top 5 to works that feature an explicitly queer protagonist. This decision cuts out many books and plays that read as queer to me when I was a teenager (including Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, two of my favorite plays). One of the great joys of being queer is the ability to find a pearl of the gay experience in otherwise heteronormative works. Seeing ourselves in a fabulous heiress, bickering same-sex roommates or the agonized narrative of the shunned outsider is a superpower that many queer people possess. But I don’t know if that necessarily makes the work queer. That just makes us queer, I think! 😀
I’ve also agonized quite a bit over the fact that all of the works I’ve chosen are by and mostly about queer white men. Look, I know I’m supposed to love James Baldwin’s work, but I just can’t get into Giovanni’s Room. I’ve read it twice but I wouldn’t call it a favorite. I’m also very aware that there are no queer lady narratives here. Rubyfruit Jungle is on my TBR list, as is Stone Butch Blues. To my shame, I keep buying trashy fantasy instead of these two queer classics.
Well, enough excuses! As a gay white man, I guess it’s not shocking that I primarily search for narratives that speak to my personal experience. And let me be clear: as a gay boy growing up in Arkansas, reads that affirmed my existence were extremely difficult to find. Each was a lifeline to me and I’m proud to list them. Perhaps consider all of the above works Honorable Mentions. This, by the way, is a TFW – see bottom of the post for more information!
5. How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater
Marc Acito is my Facebook friend and, when I was a freshman in college, he responded very sweetly to a fangirling message that I sent him. It meant a lot to me – it was the first time that I had corresponded with a gay author.
First of all, this book is funny. Deeply, truly hilarious. It’s like David Sedaris plus Catcher in the Rye set in New Jersey in the mid-80’s. The protagonist, Edward Zanni, is a fabulous and talented seventeen-year-old with penchants for mischief and belting into song. He’s talented and good-looking, but his father, early in the book, remarries and decides that he won’t pay for Edward to go to Julliard and study theatre. What follows is a string of attempts throughout his senior year to finagle his way into the college of his dreams.
Edward’s best friend, Paula, is fabulous and catty, and his crush, horse-hung former athlete Doug (who has decided we wants to be a Play Person, aka a theatre kid) is drawn realistically enough to inflame all the passions I had for a similar boy in my high school. Edward’s sexuality is mercurial and evolves throughout the narrative (you could make an argument that he’s bisexual, but he’s definitely queer). The rest of his friends (gorgeous Kelly, cosmopolitan Ziba, nerdy Natie) initially seem like simple stereotypes, but by the end of the book they are textured and complicated people.
This novel means a lot to me because I saw so very much of myself and my friends in it. It is a slice of queer life seen through the eyes of a very funny, deeply complicated narrator.
4. Magic’s Pawn
Anyone who reads fantasy knows that queer characters are, sadly, pretty rare in this genre. There are none in Lord of the Rings. None in Harry Potter (except Dumbledore, off the page). None in…well, the vast majority of fantasy books written in the last fifty years. Mercedes Lackey published this book (the first of a trilogy called Valdemar: The Last Herald-Mage) in 1989 and I can’t give her enough credit for sensitively portraying a kind of character that many fantasy authors, even today, shy away from.
Not only are there gay characters in this series, but the protagonist is one of them. And the story of his tragic, aching romance (tragic because of magic, not because of his queerness) is one that stuck with me for years. I mean really, who doesn’t want to read a book about gay boys, teen angst and stunning blue-eyed telepathic horses? It’s a queer teen’s dream come true.
On the downside, the melodrama in this book is pronounced (and sometimes trying) and the writing is not some of the absolute best that Lackey has produced. But as a young gay man, it meant more to me than I can say to read a trilogy that doesn’t ignore that fact that boys like me (effeminate, bad at sports, awkward, bitchy) exist. If I ever have a queer nephew or niece, I will definitely be gifting this series to them.
3. A Boy’s Own Story
Look, Edmund White is a national treasure. I mean it. His books are classics in gay literature and if homophobia wasn’t so alive and well, even in literary circles, these books would be classics, period. A Boy’s Own Story is the first of a three-part autobiographical trilogy that White wrote over fifteen years. All three are brilliant, searching narratives that blend engrossing detail and delicate poetry.
But this one, the first, is my favorite. White’s depiction of his father, a man he both loves and fears, is heartbreaking and honest. And the story of the protagonist’s flight from his cruel peers into the worlds of literature and art is one that rings true to most queer people (well, most outcasts, in general). What I love best, though, is White’s examination of shame and guilt in its many nefarious contexts. Most (all?) queer people deal with deep societal shame on a daily basis. It’s a hard thing to explain to someone who isn’t queer. But if they don’t get it after reading this book, they never will.
2. The Swimming Pool Library
My god, I love this book. I think a fell a little in love with Alan Hollinghurst while reading it. The Swimming Pool Library, published in 1988, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two gay men. One is 25 and the other is over 80. They meet in a public lavatory in 1983 while both are looking for sex. When William saves Lord Nantwich’s life after the octogenarian collapses from cardiac arrest, an unlikely friendship develops.
This book is important to me because it tells stories about gay life before the HIV epidemic. Please don’t get me wrong. Those stories are important. They are powerful. In fact, my next pick is partially about them. But reading about queer men and women before AIDS ravaged our community is akin to returning to childhood innocence. This book is a banquet of beauty, sex and sophistication. I return to it anytime I’m feeling down and I recommend it to anyone who needs a mega-dose of chic underground gay fabulousness.
- Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
This pick might be a little bit of a cheat. But the topic is “Top 5 Reads…” and you can read a play. 🙂 I first read Tony Kushner’s masterpiece over the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I was blown away by the sophisticated blend of diverse characters, including a gay Mormon and his (ex-)wife, a brilliant black drag queen and an estranged gay couple, one of which has HIV. Plus, you know, a series of angels. And, um, the notorious gay homophobe Roy Cohn. Obviously.
I could talk more about the sophisticated pacing of the dialogue or Kushner’s ability to bounce readers between tears of laughter and tears of grief or the brilliant inclusion of magic and religion, but I think it’s probably just best to let one of Kushner’s characters do the work for me. Belize is the black drag queen I mentioned earlier. He also happens to be a nurse, a wonderful friend, a radical and my favorite character. Louis is, well, a neurotic asshole who abandoned his boyfriend once he realized that his partner had AIDS.
‘Real love isn’t ambivalent.’ I’d swear that’s a line from my favorite bestselling paperback novel, In Love with the Night Mysterious, except I don’t think you ever read it.
I never read it, no.
You ought to. Instead of spending the rest of your life trying to get through Democracy in America. It’s about this white woman whose Daddy owns a plantation in the Deep South in the years before the Civil War–the American one–and her name is Margaret, and she’s in love with her Daddy’s number-one slave, and his name is Thaddeus, and she’s married but her white slave-owner husband had AIDS: Antebellum Insufficiently Developed Sexorgans. And there’s a lot of hot stuff going down when Margaret and Thaddeus can catch a spare torrid ten under the cotton-picking moon, and then of course the Yankees come, and they set the slaves free, and the slaves string up old Daddy, and so on. Historical fiction. Somewhere in there I recall Margaret and Thaddeus find the time to discuss the nature of love; her face is reflecting the flames of the burning plantation–you know, the way white people do–and his black face is dark in the night and she says to him, ‘Thaddeus, real love isn’t ever ambivalent.’
This bit is just the very tip of the iceberg, but I think it captures some of the beauty and wit that infuses every second of Kushner’s play. If, perhaps, you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by your TBR list, you might check out the HBO miniseries, instead. It’s brilliantly performed (by the likes of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, no less) and captures the magic of the original incarnation.
By the way:
T5W (Top 5 Wednesday) is a weekly book meme created by gingerreadslainey and hosted by Sam @ThoughtsOnTomes. You find out more about T5W and the weekly topics on the Goodreads group here.