Revisitation: Men on Men 2: Best New Gay Fiction (1988)
This is the second post in a series I have fallen into calling "Revisitations", in which I chronicle gay male short fiction from the 1980s and 1990s, starting first with the Men on Men series of anthologies. For the concept and purpose behind this series, see the first post.
(source in parentheses if previously published elsewhere)
Men on Men 2: Best New Gay Fiction edited by George Stambolian, Plume/NAL/Penguin, 1988, 371 pages
This volume includes both reprint and original stories, but unlike the first volume, the reprints are no more than two years before the copyright date of the book itself.
"My Mother's Clothes: The School of Beauty and Shame" by Richard McCann (Atlantic Monthly)
"The Age of Anxiety" by David B. Feinberg (Mandate)
"Jungle Dove" by Joseph Pintauro (Christopher Street)
"In This Corner..." by James Purdy (Christopher Street)
"Solidarity" by Albert Innaurato
"Dancing on Tishe B'Av" by Lev Raphael (Shmate)
"Snapshot" by Allen Barnett (Christopher Street)
"Anything You Want" by Christopher Coe
"AYOR" by David Leavitt
"I Go Back to the Mais Oui" by James McCourt (Christopher Street)
"Why People Get Cancer" by Anderson Ferrell (Mississippi Review)
"Nobody's Child" by David Groff
"Once in Syracuse" by David Brendan Hopes (The James White Review)
"Life Sucks, or, Ernest Hemingway Never Slept Here" by Tim Barrus
"Red Leaves" by Melvin Dixon
"Magic" by Gary Glickman
"The Boys in the Bars" by Christopher Davis (Christopher Street)
"Adult Art" by Allan Gurganus
Some of the pieces here are excerpts from novels, though not all of those novels were completed at the time the book was published. McCann's bionote said the story was part of a novel, but it was not until 2005 that it appeared in Mother of Sorrows, a collection of linked stories, which makes it more like Feinberg's story, which was included in Spontaneous Combustion, a book marketed as a novel, but which Feinberg referred to as a story collection. Pintauro's bionote says he was working on a novel about the characters in his story, but it doesn't seem that that novel was ever published, if it was written. Raphael's bionote states that his story was part of a novel titled Where Is That Country, but the novel does not seem to have been published, and the story (perhaps expanded, I don't know) was included in a 1990 collection also titled Dancing on Tisha B'Av (note difference between "Tishe" and "Tisha"). McCourt's story was expanded in Time Remaining. Barrus's bionote says his story was part of the novel he was working on, To Indigo Dust, and a novel of that name by Barrus was published in 1989, but I have not been able to locate any information about it. Dixon's story became the first two "Lonny"chapters of Vanishing Rooms. Eighteen stories total, thirteen in first-person point of view.
Like the first volume, there are only three or four standout stories here, but the overall quality is higher — none of the weaker stories have the same amateur feel as the weakest stories in the first volume. Of the weaker stories, I didn't particularly dislike any; rather, I was usually just disappointed that they weren't more realized. And I did get a bit frustrated with the number of excerpts, as that contributed to the sense of quite a few of the stories being more like sketches than finished work. Nonetheless, the excerpts serve an important historical purpose of giving some sense of the style and subject matter of gay male fiction published in the US at the time. But the problem with them (aside from their feeling generally unresolved and incomplete) is made most obvious by the piece from McCourt's Time Remaining. It's an extraordinary book, but the excerpt is a segment of the (already not especially long) first story in that book, making it nearly unreadable without the context of the whole. Without even the opening section from the book, readers have no idea who the characters are or why anything (including the writing style) matters. The differences between the two versions — the one here and the one that opens Time Remaining — are instructive, because the later version is only a thousand or two thousand words longer, but, for me at least, what's in those words creates the difference between a comprehensible text and a mysterious shard. However, I'm not going to discuss any of the excerpts here, because my focus really is on short fiction that is complete on its own, and none of the excerpts are especially noteworthy as stories unto themselves. (I like Dixon's novel overall, but the Lonny chapters don't do much for me — their dialect just feels off.)
Purdy's story is a big disappointment, as I am a passionate reader of his work. I had read "In This Corner..." before, but had completely forgotten it, and for good reason: it's a silly fairy tale of love at first sight. There are some amusing details, but it mostly lacks the magic of Purdy's better stories.
The best story in the book, by just about any measure, is Gurganus's. This is no surprise, as among the stories in this anthology, it is probably the best-known today, having been included in Gurganus's collection White People and reprinted at least a couple of times. It's a weird story, rich with character, detailed and meandering, but the meandering serves a purpose, leading the story toward a resonant conclusion. What impresses me most about it is that it manages to be strange, even eerie, but is ultimately not a story of terror or tragedy. Rather, it's a tale of tenderness. I first read it twenty-five years ago in The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, then sought out White People because of it. The story has stuck with me ever since. It was a pleasure to encounter it again.
"The Age of Anxiety" by David Feinberg is another standout. Has Feinberg been forgotten? I arrived in New York City a few months before he died in 1994, and I remember when Queer & Loathing seemed to be in the front windows and tables of all the bookstores downtown. I didn't read it right away, because I didn't have much money to buy books, but eventually I found a copy at a library and read it. It and Michelangelo Signorile's Queer in America were some of the first passionately angry queer books I read, and really shaped my sense of how identity and the world fit together. (Also, both books had great covers — Queer in America had a bright pink cover, Queer & Loathing a distinctive red, yellow, and black.) Feinberg's three books seem to still be in print from Penguin, which is great to see, and I hope people still read him. "Age of Anxiety" is a perfect story of its type: light and funny, but wonderfully detailed, tremendously evocative of NYC in the late 1980s, with AIDS always lurking in the background. If anyone were assembling an anthology of New York City stories, this would be a good one to include.
Albert Innaurato's "Solidarity" is not nearly as accomplished as Feinberg's story, but it's also a good one for getting a sense of certain types of people in New York during the early 1980s. The story is undone by schematicism during the central event (a gay pride parade), but the other moments are often affecting, with a real sense of warmth coming through between the characters. The ending, which takes place in the later '80s, is understated and powerful.
"Snapshot" by Allen Barnett is a small masterpiece, a perfectly-balanced story that moves from childhood to adulthood in the life of a man who never knew his father except as a few pictures and letters his mother saved. The story hums with implications and an evocative narrative rhythm that leads to an affecting conclusion that does not in any way tie up all the loose ends, but nonetheless leaves us feeling satisfied, that this is a complete story, one as mysterious as life. Barnett published only a few stories, all collected in his one book, The Body and Its Dangers, published in 1990. He died in 1991. The Body and Its Dangers is powerful even in its disclaimers, e.g.: "Occasionally, characters in these stories are named after friends who have died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. I do not mean to imply any similarity between the real person and the fictional; this was an attempt to keep them alive in my imagination, to keep the pleasure of their company as long as I could sustain it." The Body and Its Dangers is out of print and sells for a lot of money on the used book market. Unfortunately, our culture fails to keep some of our most important books available and part of the conversation. Barnett is a writer in need not only of revisitation, but of republication.
There's a string of pretty minor stories through the second half of the book, but Stambolian knew what he had with his final three, their placement providing an excellent grounding for the whole ("Adult Art" is the last story in the book). "Magic" by Gary Glickman is a lovely, plotless story of a man thinking of his father, who disappeared and remarried when the narrator was young. It is made with luxurious sentences and a fine ability to render the ebbs and flows of memory.
"The Boys in the Bars" by Christopher Davis is a slice-of-life story broken into three numbered parts, all dominated by dialogue. Occasionally, the dialogue is a little clunky, but most is incisive, and it flows well, which is more important for the success of a story than any individual line. What separates Davis's piece from so much else in and out of the book — so many similar but more minor or artless tales — is the subtlety of detail that makes it very much a story about the presence of AIDS in a community but, as in life, the disease shapes everything while rarely being discussed openly. The story also gets at the loneliness of so many gay men (then and now). It really captures something of the life of middle/upper-class gay, urban men at the time. At a craft level, it's a story that shows the importance of objects for adding meaning (it made me think of Charles Baxter's revelatory essay "Talking Forks" in Burning Down the House), and it further shows the value of using details not simply as details, but also (maybe even primarily) as tools for juxtaposition and rhythm. If the story were more generally available for readers, I'd be tempted to write a whole essay about it, because it's so deeply accomplished in so many ways.
I hadn't heard of Davis before, and wondered what else he wrote. I was not surprised to discover that when he published a story collection, it was named for his story here in Men on Men 2. He also published three novels: Joseph and the Old Man, Valley of the Shadow, and the novelization of the movie Philadelphia. And then, apparently, nothing more. In an entry on Davis for Contemporary Gay American Novelists (1993), John H. Pearson writes: "Jealous of his privacy, Davis has never revealed even the most basic of biographical information." Though I found nothing more revealing about him, I did find a reference to his participation in a 2013 event on HIV and aging. I was thrilled to know he survived the plague years. With luck, he's still alive and perhaps someone will convince him to overcome his reticence and do an interview or write down some reflections on his life and writing.
Christopher Street is the main source for reprinted stories in this volume — five, in contrast to the one in the first volume. Perhaps the biggest difference between the sources for this volume and the previous is that for this one, Stambolian didn't draw so much from particular writing groups. The first volume was dominated by writers from the New Narrative writing workshops and from the Violet Quill group. It was a smart way to set up some variety, but with the success of the first volume, Stambolian doesn't seem to have needed to rely on those groups for new work of quality, and the groups' influence is barely seen here (for better or worse). He also made the decision not to include writers who had been in the first volume, thus showing the depth of writing available. Despite the dominance of Christopher Street (which is understandable, since they probably published more gay fiction than anybody else at that time), the sources for reprints are relatively diverse, with one of the biggest magazines in the country (The Atlantic) and a respected literary journal (Mississippi Review) among them. There's a clear attempt to broaden the geographical and racial backgrounds of the writers, too.
Like the first volume, there are 18 stories total, but an increase in the already high number of stories written in first-person (from 12 to 13). The dominance of first-person is no surprise, really, given how much this kind of material tends toward memoir, confession, testimony, and witness. I will note it with each volume just to see if any sort of shift occurs over the years, though, to be honest, I don't expect one.
This is the first volume to include what would become a standard feature of the series: a list of "journals and magazines that regularly publish gay fiction" (emphasis in original). This highlights one of Stambolian's main purposes for the series: to build community. In those pre-WWW days, it was (I can say from experience) difficult to find such periodicals, and Stambolian's list of titles and contact information was of real value to readers, particularly readers outside of the major cities. It also makes a statement: we are here. The list is not gigantic (14 titles), but I remember looking at one such list back in the early 1990s and seeing hope and possibility.