Book Marks: Joan Opyr's 'Shaken and Stirred' mixes light and dark

by Richard Labonte

"Shaken and Stirred," by Joan Opyr. Bywater Books, 398 pages, $14.95 paper.

Opyr is a master (mistress?) of mixing light and dark - of telling a story about family dysfunction, alcoholic rage and life without a lover (but there's a stalker) with laugh-out loud panache. Poppy Koslowski is recovering from a physically painful hysterectomy when her mother calls with the news that her grandfather is dying. Before tomboy Poppy fled home for college, the old man's moods, which veered wildly from tyrannical to, well, grandfatherly, crazed her. So it's with mixed emotions that she returns home - accompanied by her best friend ever - to help her doddering grandmother and her dithering mother decide when it's time to pull the plug. In the face of death, though, Poppy is able to draw on the strengths her grandfather instilled in her. Sounds run-of-the-mill sappy. But Opyr's unforced comic style adds texture to the story's moral: you can go home again. Especially if it's with the best friend who turns out to be the lover you always wanted - an ending so obvious from the beginning that mentioning it is not a plot spoiler.

"The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq," by Bronson Lemer. University of Wisconsin Press, 236 pages, $24.95 paper.

Lemer, a closeted gay man who enrolled in the North Dakota National Guard to butch himself up in the eyes of family and friends, was six months short of ending his military commitment when he was deployed to Iraq in 2003. This memoir of that experience - with digressions about a failed romance with another young man, and about an earlier deployment to Kosovo - is a literary testament to the spirit-crushing malevolence of the army's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Living in close quarters with bare-chested men, joking with them about pussy, boxing them in a makeshift ring, all the while guarding the secret of his sexual self: Lemer's account of a year in the desert, getting along as one of the boys while longing for a boy, is a masterful balance of straightforward wartime reporting (though he was never seriously under fire), anguished self-reflection and a wealth of absurd asides - accounts of a tent-mate setting farts alight, or of scoring bootleg whiskey from Iraqis in a passing truck while barreling along a highway.

"Who Dat Whodunnit," by Greg Herren. Bold Strokes Books, 242 pages, $16.95 paper.

Mystery writer Herren - who more recently has branched into young adult novels - revisits brawny, brainy and brash New Orleans sleuth Scotty Bradley in this fifth novel in the series. The New Orleans Saints (like the city itself, one of the author's passions) are heading for the Super Bowl, and the exuberant battle cry "Who Dat" (hence the clever title) is everywhere. The football connection continues when Scotty's homophobic cousin, a benchwarmer for the Saints, becomes prime suspect in the murder of his former-beauty queen girlfriend, who has ties to a creepy fundamentalist church. Scotty's pursuit of the killer, though, is almost beside the point. The fun of Herren's fast-paced mystery lies mainly in the eccentricities of the characters, recurring and otherwise, among them Scotty's dope-dealing parents, who figure prominently in the plot - the murder weapon belongs to Scotty's mother. Herren's brisk blend of atmospheric setting, queer activism, erotic interludes - his menage-a-trois includes former FBI agent Frank, a wrestler on the side, and man-of-mystery Colin - and any number of red herrings makes for a breezy read.

"Dirty Poole: A Sensual Memoir," by Wakefield Poole. Lethe Press, 276 pages,$20 paper.

Ethel Merman, Carol Burnett, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Lena Horne, Bob Fosse, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Bennett - Poole's Broadway career through the '60s and '70s was studded with celebrity names. For years after, the author's life was all about studs - the stars, most notably Casey Donovan, of such legendary porn films (and they were still films then, shown in theatres) as the art-classic "Boys in the Sand," "Bijou," "Hot Shots" and, inevitably, "Boys in the Sand II," released between 1971 and 1984. Broadway acclaim and porn fame were followed by a descent into hard drugs, lawsuits launched by shady operators and the deaths of too many friends - sections about the decline of the filmmaker's partner are especially poignant - and Poole details the highs and the lows of his life with clear-eyed, unsentimental candor. After his porn-past notoriety derailed a Broadway comeback, Poole reinvented himself as a corporate chef for the Calvin Klein company, and now lives in quiet retirement, a survivor. First published in 2000, this slightly revised edition comes in conjunction with a documentary about Poole, now in post-production.

Featured Excerpt

My surgeon lied to me. A hysterectomy is not like an appendectomy. No one misses a vestigial organ, particularly one that's trying to explode insider guts and kill her. There is also no comparison between a hysterectomy and having you gallbladder removed, your tonsils out, or your bunions shaved, and as for the friend who told me it was no worse than having a root canal, well, that's just proof that friends lie, too.

- from "Shaken and Stirred," by Joan Opy

Footnotes

BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Tony-nominated performer, performance artist ("Kiki and Herb Alive on Broadway") and songwriter Justin Vivien Bond takes talent in a different direction with "Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels," a short memoir about trans childhood, sexual trysts with the bully next door, and sexual power and vulnerability, searing experiences recounted with unsurprisingly hilarious honesty; the book is coming in September from The Feminist Press... KENSINGTON BOOKS ADDS another coming-of-age, coming-out young adult novel to its catalog with Timothy Woodward's debut, "The Purple Cow," about a 16-year-old boy finding first love - and support from entirely unexpected sources - in rural New Hampshire; publication is set for next year... GRAND CENTRAL will publish "Banished," an insider's look at the hateful Westboro Baptist Church ("God Hates FAGS!!") by former adherent Lauren Bain, who was expelled from the congregation for not being anti-gay enough... JOHN IRVING'S NEXT novel, "In One Person," written from the perspective of a bisexual man, is coming from Simon & Schuster in Summer 2012... A&M BOOKS IS orienting writer and publisher pioneer Sarah Aldridge's lesbian romances toward a new generation of readers with plans to release her novels in e-book format. Aldridge, a founder of venerable Naiad Press almost 40 years ago, died in 2006 at age 94, but A&M Books, founded in 1995 to release new editions of her 14 novels, is still in business.

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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