This summer we’ll be reading three books based on a singular concept: The Summer of Love, LGBT Edition. The books will be love stories, loosely defined, by and about the LGBT community. We’ve chosen our first two books: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (meeting July 27th) and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (meeting August 31st). Now we must choose our third book. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some of the suggestions people have made. These will be cut and paste reviews, and not my personal thought (I have not read any of these yet). Feel free to post suggestions below. We’ll be meeting June 29th at BookPeople to discuss Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and make our decision.
Reviewed by P.H. Davies here: http://phdavies.co.uk/2011/08/19/larry-kramer-faggots-review/
By Larry Kramer
“I must go forward… to encounter all and to forge in my smithy the uncreated conscience of my sex”.
“Yes! We have commercialised the human body! Yes! To advertising!”
“Why do faggots have to fuck so fucking much? It’s as if we don’t have anything else to do. All we do is live in our ghetto and dance and drug and fuck – there’s a whole world out there, as much ours as theirs. I’m tired of being a New York City-Fire Island faggot, I’m tired of using my body as a faceless thing to lure another faceless thing, I want to love a person!”
“I am a gay person before I’m anything else. I’m a gay person before I’m a white person, before I’m a Jew, before I’m a writer, before I’m American, anything. That is my most identifying characteristic and I don’t find many people who would say that”. Larry Kramer talking to Salon Magazine
Larry Kramer’s Faggots (1978) is possibly one of the most controversial novels ever written about gay men. When it was released in the late seventies, it caused outrage among the gay community who felt the portrayal of their lives was extremely negative and wildly exaggerated. As a result, Kramer became persona non grata in the Manhattan gay milieu. He was ostracised and for two or three years many considered him a nemesis to the gay sexual revolution. Kramer for his part merely felt he had observed and reported truthfully about what he saw as the sexual excesses of his ‘brothers’ and was completely unapologetic about doing it: “You know what my real crime was? I put the truth in writing. That’s what I do: I have told the fucking truth to everyone I have ever met.” The novel went on to become the best selling gay novel of all time even though gay bookshops in New York City removed the book from their shelves. But what about Faggots in 2011 – can it tell us anything about being gay and does it still have the power to shock?
The main protagonist is Fred Lemish, clearly based on Kramer, who is about to turn forty and is asking himself some very serious questions about the nature of life as a gay man. Fred, contrary to all the other characters in this novel – and there is a glut of gay men here – is in love with his on-off boyfriend, Dinky Adams. But things are never straight forward and we follow Fred through the bathhouses, sex clubs, and discos of Manhattan and eventually end up in that gay Mecca, Fire Island. He slowly realises that Dinky is not what he appears to be – a gentle, handsome garden landscaper who has a serious love of leather, fisting, and multiple sex partners. Through their story is a number of narrative strands featuring characters from all walks of gay life: Boo Boo Bronstein, disturbed and self-loathing, plots his own kidnapping to extort a million dollars out of his father. Timothy Purvis, hailing from Montana, the beautiful teenager just arrived in New York who becomes a porn star. The Winston Man, the model for Winston cigarettes that every gay man wants to be.
The sheer number of characters is possibly one of the novel’s many failings – there are so many that it’s difficult to pick the novel up at different intervals and remember who everyone is (much less care). To have more impact, Kramer might have been better advised to focus on a smaller group of men in which to tell his ‘ultimate tale of gay life’. The result is a somewhat sloppy novel and at almost four hundred pages, far too long. Two-thirds of the way through reading it the book became a chore and it was difficult to finish because there was simply far too much repetition and frankly too much sex. Ever other page has some tedious sexual event or musings about sex and it is tiring beyond belief – although it must have seemed so exciting and liberating for these gay men at the time, one wonders how they could derive sensation from anything acted out ad infinitum. Though one suspects this is Kramer’s point – sex is so prevalent in these men’s lives that it becomes completely meaningless.
Kramer’s style is also rather anachronistic – so artificial as to be nauseating, full of ridiculous character names like Randy Dildough, Dordogna del Donga, and Miss Youtha Truth, constantly reminding readers they are reading a book rather than allowing them to become immersed in the story. This artificiality of style constantly trips the reader up and the long lists of drugs, sex acts, and names of characters people have had sex with is incredibly irritating to the point when you just want to say, ‘get on with the story for goodness sake’. Kramer is also too desperate to shock with depictions of orgies and sexual depravities that are often so mechanical and fantastic that the reader is left to roll their eyes and feel mildly disgusted. Having said that, there is a long, gruesome, revolting description of ‘fist fucking’ towards the novel’s close that I personally found unpleasantly stomach churning and I had to stop reading and put the book down for a couple of days. To Kramer, nothing is off limits and this probably attests to the reason why so many gay men felt utterly betrayed by him.
Despite these criticisms, Faggots works best as a sociological document from an age that seems remote and alien to modern gay audiences. The book was written in between the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in which gay men suddenly became visible and 1980 when the AIDS crisis began. Like Edmund White’s City Boy (2010) and the film Cruising (1980), the novel describes a time of sexual revolution and excess in which men believed promiscuous sex was both a display of their new found free will and a political act. Men often had hundreds – in some cases thousands – of sexual partners, they would cruise bathhouses for sex with anyone that took their interest, and there was no use of any protection. They had coloured handkerchiefs to let strangers know their sexual proclivities and slowly but surely sex was reduced to faceless, meaningless sensation and nothing more. But even before AIDS emerged and changed habits forever, some men, like Kramer, felt sex was already being comodified by bathhouse owners and the depersonalisation of sex was ruining men’s mental health (before it ravaged their physical well being too).
Kramer gives a full insight into the lascivious and in many cases depraved sexual habits of men which would ultimately lead to the fast infection rate of a virus that would go onto to kill almost an entire generation of gay men in the eighties and nineties. Even when the threat of AIDS meant people were dying horribly prolonged deaths, large groups of gay men still rallied for the right to have promiscuous sex and protested the closure of bathhouses to fulfil this right even though there was a large body of evidence suggesting that rates of infection were highest in these bathhouses. Randy Shilts’ brilliant book And the Band Played On (1987) about the AIDS epidemic helps to contextualise Kramer’s book (Shilts talks about Faggots and its impact) and gives a sense of the sexual climate in which AIDS slowly proliferated. It would be offensive to suggest that the gay men of this era deserved what happened to them – many lost their lives as a result – but it is difficult for gay men of 2011 to understand the profligate mores of individuals who fucked with impunity and with little regard for their own or other’s wellbeing.
Kramer became a staunch activist during the AIDS epidemic and it is through this activism that he was largely forgiven for the treachery of his novel. His play, The Normal Heart, recently revived, depicts the political, social, and medical battles of a group of men coming to terms with the awful reality of this insidious disease. The play has been revived because Kramer doesn’t hold out much hope for the modern generation of gay men as he bemoaned in a recent Salon interview. He thinks we have become invisible and have forgotten the battles of his generation who opened the doors for us (much like Second World War veterans bemoan the state of youth today). Kramer has put being gay at the centre of his identity and thinks it is important to be ‘queer’ and stand out and be visible. But many contemporary gay men do not want to be ‘equal but different’. They simply want equality. With equality comes acceptance and homogenisation and although this is what the generation before us initially wanted for themselves, they are now not so sure.
Gay bars are less well-attended, in the UK many gay pubs have closed their doors, Pride has less numbers joining the parades, gay book stores have completely disappeared. But the fact is, gay life is accessible and more so than ever as it has moved into the digital age. Gay men can find other gay men easily through websites and phone apps. We haven’t disappeared; we simply operate in different ways. Many gay men are embarking on civil partnerships and marriages and wish to be accepted as couples with professional lives, houses of their own, and respectability, coupled with an eager desire to shake off the decades-old image of the gay man as single, promiscuous, prone to impulsivity and risk taking, and only interested in clubbing. We have evolved – not disappeared. We have become a group less interested in emphasising our differences and much more adept at being fully integrated and accepted in society. But Kramer is wrong that we have forgotten the generations before us. We have books like Faggots, Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, and David Carter’s Stonewall to remind ourselves of our history and the battles won on our behalf.