Revisitation: Men on Men 4: Best New Gay Fiction (1992)



This is the fourth 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.
 

Contents
(source in parentheses if previously published elsewhere)

Men on Men 4: Best New Gay Fiction edited by George Stambolian, Plume/Penguin, 1992, 405 pages

introduction by Felice Picano
"Love in the Backrooms" by John Rechy
"Fucking Martin" by Dale Peck
"The Fiancé" by Michael Wade Simpson (Crescent Review)
"Sacred Lips of the Bronx" by Douglas Sadownick
"The Little Trooper" by Manuel Igrejas
"Cultural Revolution" by Norman Wong (Kenyon Review)
"The Magistrate's Monkey" by Richard House
"Ten Reasons Why Michael and Geoff Never Got It On" by Raymond Luczak
"The Greek Head" by Peter Weltner (American Short Fiction)
"The Valentine" by Greg Johnson (Southwest Review)
"New Year" by Jack Slater
"Inside" by David Vernon
"If a Man Answers" by David Feinberg (The Ten Commandments)
"Pico-Union" by Luis Alfaro
"The Sex Offender" by Matthew Stadler
"Opening the Door" by Paul Russell
"Bone" by Randy Sanderson
"Everyman" by Robert Glück
afterword by Andrew Holleran

As with previous volumes in the series, some of the pieces here are excerpts from novels, though fewer than before, and not all of those novels were completed at the time the book was published. In Rechy's biographical note, his story is said to be part of Autobiography: A Novel, a work scheduled for publication in 1993, but the book was not published and is listed on Rechy's website as "a work in progress". "Fucking Martin" is a section of Peck's Martin and John. Sadownick's is part of a novel of the same title. Elements of House's became part of his 1997 novel Bruiser. Luczak's is a section of his novel Men with their Hands. "The Valentine" is part of Johnson's Pagan Babies. Stadler's is part of the novel of the same name. (It's possible some became parts of novels later that I'm not familiar with.)

Notes

This is unquestionably the strongest volume in the series so far. In writing about Men on Men 3, I noted that it felt exhausted, the stories repeatedly striking me as inert. I quoted a contemporary review in Outweek that complained about the absence of writers like Robert Glück and Dennis Cooper who could spice things up. This fourth volume feels like a direct response to that review.

The cover style has changed. Instead of the bland pastel covers of previous volumes, where white men looked very sensitive and entirely unthreatening, now we have a cover with bold primary colors, sharp photography, and three men — one of them a Black guy — who may perhaps be cruising. The cover photo looks staged and awkward, but it helps the book escape the trap of the previous installments in the series, which all seemed in their packaging to be going out of their way to be unthreatening.

By the time this book was published, editor George Stambolian was dead from complications of AIDS. He was able to finalize the contents before his death, but was not able to write an introduction. His friends Felice Picano and Andrew Holleran respectively provide an introduction and afterward, giving context to the book, its contents, and Stambolian's life.

This volume has the least number of reprints of any book in the series so far, and for the first time there is nothing reprinted from any of the gay periodicals — the sources are an anthology and some literary journals. By this time, the Men on Men anthologies were themselves now established as a major source of original short fiction.

It would be interesting to know some more details of how this volume in the series was put together, because it feels like either Stambolian had a change of heart about where the series was going or (and?) he got a new editor at Plume, one who encouraged him to lean in to what made the book appealing to gay men rather than to try to appeal to a straight audience. This is a confrontational collection, one that I expect plenty of middle-of-the-road gay readers struggled with. (Alas, I have not been able to find any reviews. Outweek ceased publication a year before Men on Men 4 was published, and I haven't found any other publications that reviewed it.)

Right from the first two stories, Stambolian lets readers know that this volume is not here to appease heterosexual nervousness — many readers would be familiar with John Rechy's name and writings, and those readers would not be surprised to discover that "Love in the Backrooms" is a vivid and sexually explicit portrait of the piers and leather bars of 1970s New York.

And then there's the title of the second story, Dale Peck's "Fucking Martin". (This, in fact, was the title used for the first UK edition of the book we in the US know as Martin and John.) Nothing in the story is quite so shocking as the title, simply because it's still rare to see such language in the titles of work from major publishers. Shocking or not, it's a piece of writing I love — Martin and John was an important book in my own reading life (and living life), a book I still go back to with joy and something approaching awe.

Since both of these pieces are excerpts (though Rechy's full manuscript has not yet been published and perhaps not finished), it's worth noting that most of the excerpts in this volume feel less incomplete than most of the excerpts in previous volumes. Sadownick's is the only one that really feels vague and confusing. The inclusion of Johnson's puzzled me simply because he was at that time a prolific short story writer, so I'm not sure why Stambolian went with an excerpt instead; it's not bad, but it's not as strong as Johnson's stories. The other excerpts are among the most interesting and compelling work in a book with quite a lot of interesting and compelling work.

Simpson's "The Fiancé" is a good example of how this volume of the Men on Men series improves on the previous ones. This is a small story (eight pages long) — minor in a good way: a moment of life, an encounter of people. It does not have the length to develop its characters particularly deeply nor to create real emotional force. That's okay. There's an alluring strangeness to it that lingers after reading, and that's enough. In the previous volumes of the series, the shorter stories tended to feel thin, half-baked, amateurish. "The Fiancé" is a story written by a writer with real command of his craft, a story that is entirely worth the time and attention to read it.

By most measures, this is the most diverse book in the series so far, and not just racially (which it is) — Luczak's story includes a deaf protagonist, the characters come from a range of classes and ages, not every story is set in New York City or Los Angeles. The diversity extends beyond the writers' and characters' backgrounds and into the aesthetics. This is an even more aesthetically varied book than the first one: very traditional stories are side-by-side with experimental forms (e.g. Glück); standard American prose style is complemented by stories with more complex sentence structures (e.g. Sanderson); the prevalence of social realism is lessened by quasi-fantastical content (House, Stadler; though I should note the continuing absence of genre fiction).

Unlike the previous volumes, it's hard for me to choose a short list of the strongest stories. For the first time in the series, this book works really well as a unified whole. There are definitely standouts, as well as stories I would not myself have chosen to publish, but that's always true of anthologies — it's unavoidable. A great anthology may help you expand or challenge your taste, and so the best anthologies are not necessarily ones that make you comfortable throughout, but are, rather, anthologies that inspire you to see the whole as greater than the parts, anthologies that add up to something. It was a real pleasure to read these stories in order, together. Stories that are themselves individually weaker gain strength from their placement within the book. Reading the book never felt like a slog; indeed, though this is the longest volume in the series so far, I read it faster than I did the others because I enjoyed it so much.

And so to the stories themselves:

Norman Wong's "Cultural Revolution" became the title story of his first (and only, as far as I have been able to tell) book, one that is still in print. It's the story of a Chinese-American man who travels with his Chinese immigrant father back to mainland China for a visit before heading to college in Chicago. There are fascinating, evocative scenes in the story, but plenty that also feels forced and undeveloped. Nonetheless, it's nice to see an Asian queer experience in the series for the first time and also to have a setting outside of the US.

"The Magistrate's Monkey" by Richard House is a flat-out bizarre story of sex and captivity. It is shaped as two alternating narratives: one the realistic tale of a man and a 14-year-old boy in a hotel room, the other a sort of vaguely Medieval story of a young man held captive by a merchant and a magistrate. There's lots of sex throughout, as well as a sense of decadence. It's impressively written and imagined, but also utterly perplexing because we have no context to understand why any of it is happening, who the characters are, or even the extent of the desire/consent between the characters in what happens to them. It's quite a reading experience because it's alternately fascinating, horrifying, and frustrating (though I wish the frustration was more useful and productive).

Stambolian did not place House's story alongside Matthew Stadler's "The Sex Offender", which makes good sense, because they are similar enough in their weirdnesses and challenges that they would not pair well in reading, but they do make for an interesting comparison. Neither story would be likely to be published today in a book from a major publisher, because whatever their merits, their presentation of men having sex with children under the legal age of consent is not clearly condemnatory enough. (It is notable that when House incorporated parts of "The Magistrate's Monkey" into Bruiser, he made the character a few years older than in the story.) Interestingly, House's story felt to me less unsettling and disturbing than Stadler's, even though the relationship in "The Magistrate's Monkey" is in the story's present, whereas Stadler's is in the past and his title character is being punished for his crime. House presents horrific acts, but within the context of the story they are clearly horrific. Though I couldn't quite figure out why the story had its two narratives, one effect of the magistrate/merchant narrative was to create a dialogic relationship between the obvious horror and injustice in that narrative with the more ambiguously motivated and expressed desires of the other narrative. There is no such escape hatch in Stadler's story.

"Ten Reasons Why Michael and Geoff Never Got It On" is, like "Fucking Martin", an excerpt that is so self-contained that you would never know it's an excerpt unless you were told. It's also really well done and quite moving at the end. It's told in a mostly expository style (more "telling" than "showing"), which works great for the material. Since it's about a couple of guys who work at an ad agency and date for a bit before their differences undo them, it could have been a dull domestic story, but it rises above that because the list form works so well, the details are meaningful, and the characters are individualized and, more importantly, each full of flaws in very recognizable, human ways. The story presents the challenges of a deaf and hearing couple in ways that feel lived and quirky, not polemic. What most got me in the gut in this story is that I could sympathize with both characters' frustrations with the other while also wanting them to see past their frustrations — I liked these guys, and found myself rooting for them to figure out a way to make their relationship work, all the while knowing, of course (from the title and everything else) that it was a lost cause. The form powerfully supports the story's emotional effects.

"The Greek Head" by Peter Weltner is, at almost 40 pages, the longest story in the book (though by only a few pages — the stories by House, Stadler, and Glück are each at least 30 pages long), and though for me it could have done with some judicious cutting, overall it is an effective portrait of two couples of different generations and the effect of mortality (and the fear of mortality) on them both. The dialogue is particularly well written.

"If a Man Answers" by David Feinberg is formally interesting, presenting a phone sex call first from one side and then the other, the dialogue (the phone call) the same in both sections. Feinberg's story in the second Men on Men anthology, "The Age of Anxiety", is more compelling and insightful, but "If a Man Answers" has its virtues, despite an overly clever (and somewhat obvious) twist at the end.

Stambolian knew how to end an anthology well. This volume finishes with five powerful, challenging pieces.

"The Sex Offender" by Matthew Stadler is thirty pages long and it took me three days to read because I was so unsettled at reading the consciousness of an unrepetent child abuser. It's an extraordinary piece of writing and one I am glad is in the book — Stadler is one of the most original prose stylists of the 1980s/90s gay male writers — but it makes considerable demands on the reader's sympathies, which may be the point. The story is a kind of moral challenge. It's pretty obvious that the protagonist is a deluded monster, but because he is telling his own story, and doing so with a strong sense of himself as a victim, we are in the habit of wanting to sympathize. First-person narratives bring us close to the narrator, they create a sense of intimacy. (This is not an unreliable narrator so much as it is a narrative that makes our readerly training unreliable.) Would it be more or less disturbing if the story's setting were more realistic? I'm not sure. The setting is a city that feels like something from dour European surrealism. It's not exactly Kafkaesque — the story is a bit too straightforward for that, the bureaucracy not so arbitrary — but it's definitely not an actually existing city or government, and the system of punishments the title character gets subjected to are ... odd. 

"The Sex Offender" is a particularly fascinating story for the ways it sits in dialogue with a feature of gay male literature and history that is frequently elided, or at best discussed obliquely: the valoration of pederasty. Kadji Amin's Disturbing Attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History is a valuable text here, because Amin shows how some French gay liberationists in the 1970s particularly proposed that sex with teen and pre-teen boys could be a liberatory force against the stifling heterosexism of the family (Amin is wise to the self-justifying contradictions in this argument). The narrator of "The Sex Offender" is too self-absorbed to be political, so his justification of his crime is more along the lines of Woody Allen's "the heart wants what it wants", but I mention it because one of the things Amin's discussion of French gay lib makes me think about is that George Stambolian was a professor of French at Wesleyan and co-editor of the book Homosexualities and French Literature. Though there is certainly plenty of pederasty in American and English queer lit, especially before 1980 or so, I would not be surprised if Stambolian were especially open to this story (and Richard House's) because of his deep knowledge of French writings on the topic. Even in the early 1990s, when transgressive writing was read rather differently than it is today, it was risky to publish stories like this.

Matthew Stadler was, in the 1990s, one of the most interesting (and unsettling) queer novelists, winning a Whiting award, an Ingram-Merrill Foundation grant, and a Guggenheim for his work, then ultimately winning the a Lambda Literary Award in 2000 for Allan Stein. His four novels of the 1990s all explored children and sexuality (to some extent or another), a topic that unsurprisingly limited his audience. (Really, what's most surprising is that these books were ever published by major publishers at all. Not only do they involve subjects most people don't want to read about and think only a dangerous pervert would even consider, they are written in a highly literary style.) Stadler ended up having to discuss his fascination with kids and sexuality in interviews (see Hugh Garvey's interview with him for The Village Voice in 1999, or Richard Canning's in the book Hear Us Out: Conversations with Gay Novelists). After Allan Stein, he worked more as a journalist and publisher, and his subsequent novels have been from small presses, the most significant of the novels being Minders (also available as a free audiobook via Bandcamp).

I've gone on at length about Stadler and his writing because his career so vividly shows the difference between the time of the Men on Men anthologies and now. Because I was in my late teens and early 20s in the 1990s, the decade still feels very present to me, but it was a significantly different cultural world from our current reality, in both good and bad ways.

"Opening the Door" by Paul Russell is a traditional story in both structure and subject matter, but it is truly affecting in its portrait of a man caring for a difficult, somewhat younger man dying of AIDS. Russell really captures the sense of young energy and possibility being lost to the disease. The narration is restrained, the narrator troubled and conflicted. Russell is primarily known for his novels, having twice won the Ferro-Grumley Award, but if this is what his short fiction can do, I hope we get a collection from him one day.

"Bone" by Randy Sanderson is exactly what I hoped to find when I began this project of reading the Men on Men series — a work of high quality by a writer who has been lost to the passage of time. The story is a tour de force, written with sinuous sentences and long paragraphs in a sometimes hallucinatory style, somewhat plotless in its story of people encountering each other on a beach, but not without incident or suspense. It's a tale of eroticism, friendship, and violence. The biographical note about Sanderson in the book says it is his first published story. I could not find any information about anything else he wrote or published, or much information about him at all. The most I discovered came from the note in the book mentioning that he was a dancer with Merce Cunningham's company. The Merce Cunningham Trust lists him as an understudy from 1988-1990 and a main dancer from 1990-1992. I found one further mention of him in a dance review in the New York Times for 1995. Beyond that, I have found nothing. I hope you are still out there, Randy Sanderson, living a happy life, and that you are still writing. I'm sure you were a brilliant dancer — Cunningham's dancers were among the best — but I also hope you know what a phenomenal writer you are.

Finally, Robert Glück returns to the Men on Men series with "Everyman", a perfect ending to this book, and a kind of testament to George Stambolian and everyone else who was dying at the time. It's one of Glück's greatest pieces of writing, which is really saying something. Though made from the details of everyday life and death, it feels epic in scope as it chronicles the lives of people dying of cancer and AIDS as well as the people left behind, the people trying to figure out how to go on, and what to make of the world. It moves from the presumably true perspective of Bob Glück into the perspective of another of the characters and then back again; it is written in straightforward prose and more fragmented and visually experimental prose. It is both parts and whole. It is something like a work of genius.

And so we come to the end of volume four, the end of George Stambolian's editorship and, alas, life. This was a powerful and important book. It has been out of print for a while, but you can still find used copies for less than $10, and that's a great value. Seek this one out.