Book Marks: Local author's 'Love/Imperfect' casts him as short story virtuoso

by Richard Labonte

"Love/Imperfect," by Christopher T. Leland. Wayne State University Press, 184 pages, $18.95 paper.

As in real life, gay mingles with straight in Leland's first collection (after five novels), 17 shimmering, sensual short stories linked by the thematic threads of intimacy and love. Among the queer stories: "A Mother's Love," in which a young man's mother agonizes over the "primal and terrible" truth that her son is gay; "Memento Mori," in which two male American friends, safely in a foreign land, hesitate on the boundary between unacknowledged desire and sexual release; "Fellatio," which belies its coarse title by relating the tender story of a father-of-five mill-worker's romance with a well-bred British lad who picks up the older man when he is 16, and who is a World War casualty at 18; and, bridging the divide between homo and hetero, "As If in Time of War," in which a gay man reflects on the imperfections of love and family while passing an asexual yet intimate weekend with his former wife. Leland's supple, succinct prose marks him as a short story virtuoso.

"Fair Play," by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal. New York Review Books Classics, 120 pages, $14 paper.

Finnish author Jansson, who died in 2001, is best known in the U.S. - if at all - as the author of comic strips and children's picture books featuring Moomins, best described as marshmallow hippos. But she stopped writing those books in 1970; in later years, she published 11 novels and story collections for grown-ups, including this gem, centered on the lives of two older women: filmmaker Jonna and illustrator Mari, who live intertwined but separate lives in a shared building - not quite a home together, though in the series of 17 luminous vignettes that knit this short book into a novel, the two women are seldom apart, even as each respects the other's need for space and separation. On the surface, theirs is a platonic intimacy, but Jansson's effortless prose and quiet humor - at least as filtered through Teal's able translation - hints at a "discreetly radical" relationship, to quote from novelist Ali Smith's gracious, and grateful, introduction. This is a sublime novel about how fierce independence and eccentric love can commingle.

"Adam's Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor's Calling to Defy the Church's Persecution of Lesbians and Gays," by Jimmy Creech. Duke University Press, 368 pages, $29.95 hardcover.

In 1984, a young United Methodist pastor's life was transformed when one of his parishioners, a closeted, middle-aged gay man, told him he was leaving the church because it would not accept his sexuality. Taken aback - Creech writes that, up to that point, he was mostly oblivious to either the presence or the plight of lesbians and gay men - the pastor set out to challenge both the misreading of Bible scripture by religious homophobes and his own church's hidebound oppression of queers. Creech reached out to the gay community, became involved in AIDS work and performed same-sex commitment ceremonies well before "gay marriage" was an activist whisper. Because of those ceremonies, he was put on ecclesiastical trial twice by his church for disobeying its directives, and was finally defrocked in 1999. There are times when this otherwise riveting, inspirational memoir bogs down in the minutiae of parishioner squabbles. But Creech's detailed dissection of deep-rooted anti-gay attitudes, intensely personal and spiritually impassioned, honors a remarkable straight ally.

"Black Fire: Gay African-American Erotica," edited by Shane Allison. Bold Strokes Books, 216 pages, $16.95 paper.

For the past several years, Allison has been a prolific contributor of erotic short stories to dozens of anthologies, producing much of the genre's most distinctive prose. More recently, he's turned to editing anthologies himself - and he has an eye for talent. Several stories in this collection are standouts: "Tomorrow," by Garland Cheffield, opens with a break-dance battle between two B-boys destined for bed; ""B.E.," by D. Fostalove, is set at an exclusive sex party; "Mutinous Chocolate," by Tom Cardamone, depicts the relentless deterioration of a man's life after his lover leaves him; and "The Awakening," by Andre March, in which a brother's Turkish bath visit with his white girlfriend opens him to the kind of sex he really wants. Allison's canny mix of stories by both African-American and white writers, and of black-on-black and black-on-white couplings, makes for a wide-ranging collection despite its focused theme. That's the case, too, with another Allison-edited anthology, "Afternoon Pleasures: Erotica for Gay Couples," from Cleis Press, which includes another stellar story by Fostalove - "Queen Intrigue," a tender tale about seduction and sex.

Featured Excerpt

All these years later, I think of him: naked and fair, sprawled on that rooming house bed, inviting me, teasing me, telling me - who never thought a thing about himself - that I am manly and handsome and worthy. Alice, of course, in her way, has told me the same. But it was Harry - all his richness and his naughty mouth and his endless ideas of what we could do - that I remember, and that brings him before me, under a railroad bridge: fresh as an apple, green as an emerald, sure as a prophet. My Harry. My own.

- from "Fellatio," in "Love/Imperfect," by Christopher T. Leland

Footnotes

Magnus Books, founded by former Alyson Books publisher Don Weise after Alyson's owner, Here Media, folded its print operation, has announced its first list of books. The eclectic mix of titles includes three novels: "The Two Krishnas," by Ghalib Shiraz Dhalia, about the closet's impact on an Indian husband and wife; "Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders," by Samuel R. Delany, a worthy successor to his outrageous earlier work, "The Mad Man"; and "Chulito," by Charles Rice-Gonzalez, about first love for two young Puerto Rican men. Edmund White's "Sacred Monsters" collects profiles of an essays about iconic writers and artists, among them David Hockney and Allen Ginsburg. In "Holy Terror," Rev. Mel White issues a call to arms for queers to stand up to the Christian Right; "Perfect Light" is a more pacifist collection of reflections by LGBT Buddhists. Two memoirs address decades in queer lives: political strategist David Mixner looks back, from his retreat into a contemplative life at age 60, on four decades of activism, gay and otherwise, in "At Home with Myself"; "Double Life" depicts the 50-year love story between entertainment veteran Alan Shayne and artist Norman Sunshine, with a foreword by director Mike Nichols. The most provocative title: "Cobra Killer," by Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway, which digs into the gruesome slaying by a pair of ex-military hustlers of a rival porn producer - a slaying whose investigation ensnared boyish porn director and performer Brent Corrigan.

Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s. He can be reached in care of this publication or at BookMarks@qsyndicate.com.

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