When I said that in preparation to respond to our “chapter” on San Francisco, I intended to read some of Jack Fritscher’s books, Tim Barrus remarked, “You’re about the same age.” (Certainly not the same gender, somewhat similar in education, nothing alike in life experience -- well, maybe.) Clearly part of what Tim meant was that this book does something that writing classes will discourage one from doing, which is to make references to pop culture. I said once that my boss at animal control was a cross between Burt Reynolds and Kojack -- meaning he was big, boisterous and bald. The teacher suggested I take it out on grounds that in a few decades no one would know who these men were, so the reference would be gone.
One of the “gimmicks” of this book is a game called, “What movie am I now?” They are all movies that I recognize and have seen, usually at the time they came out. They date from a period of history when movies were a big deal: there were only a few at a time, portentously presented on the big screen with a mainstream audience, larger than life stars, and an iron-hand studio -- then discussed and re-lived by everyone until the next big film. What surprises me on reflection is the realization that probably today’s youngsters know these same movies: they’ve been watching them on DVD or late night old-movie channels. The impact is a little more distant, but they get those references a lot better than I can pick up the references of Ezra Pound or James Joyce. The effect is a wry (Ry) self-aware commentary.
This novel is presenting a history of a time and place that changed the whole country. About when the Sixties imploded with race riots and assassinations, Gay Liberation took over part of San Francisco. This magnet pulled in people of both genders (if you assume there are only two) from the whole continent, threw them together into feverish personal and political (the same thing, different aspects) interaction, and then -- like a sneak bomber waiting for enemies to be in one place at one time -- detonated AIDS. The novel traces some of the splinter groups from the original innocent impulse to gather as they struggle to get control. Angry feminists, thuggish straights, and recognizable politicians (still in office today) are part of this story.
It’s relevant to Barrus because he was there, a participant, and because he was instrumental in getting the book published. When someone says to the media that “Nasdijj” was a prize-winning S/M gay writer and editor, this is what they’re talking about. He was in his twenties, the single parent of a little girl who found the environment surprisingly unsurprising and even protective. Because -- though so many were declaring themselves gay and liberated -- it’s not so easy to shake off small-town and family values from back home. We’re talking porn, not pedophile.
Fritscher, in fact, is bringing his priest’s religious concern to the table: how does one become committed, faithful, and transformed by love in the context of gayness? Without letting sex turn incarnation into simply meat? Hollywood will not give you any answers. Catholicism will tell you to deny the flesh. How can anyone do that when we are made of flesh while inside the flesh of our mothers? It’s a denial of our animalness, unscientific as we think of it now.
So the main plot line here is about body builders, the super-developed muscles of Arnold and his friends, and the drug culture of that which crossed with the drug culture of enhanced sex to make everyone even more vulnerable when AIDS arrived. It’s hard to tell which characters are Fritscher’s alter ego because obviously they all are. But I myself identified with Sol who always gets back to reality, acting as a Greek chorus to the high-flown pretensions of “Orion/Ryan”. (If you don’t know THAT mythology, look it up. Very useful stuff.)
This novel ends, then goes on, then ends. The writing and photography of the time, some of it classic and beautiful enough to become highly valued even by the mainstream (Mapplethorpe crops up again and again), is created, destroyed, and created again. This is the way life is.
After the plot ending that is a shooting, the book continues with the real reflections that have propelled it all along. “Dirty Harry” provides one: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” (This book is packed with familiar one-liners that might not have been so familiar twenty years ago. They’re still relevant.) The problem is finding out where those limitations are without either going over the edge or stopping way inside the borders.
Another of the issues is transparency, which Barrus has been thinking about and is experimenting with on a blog. (The whole country is thinking about transparency.) Gays have historically depended upon total secrecy for three reasons that I can see. One is the real threat of being thrown out of their jobs, something like being stigmatized as “Red” in the earlier Fifties. (No doubt Sean Penn wanted to address the Harvey Milk story because Penn’s father was blacklisted as a “commie.”) Another is that forbidden and secret activities are soon invaded by criminals who need the cover.
The third is the constant danger in a larger society that legitimizes violence against nonconformity, either on a free-lance basis or through law enforcement. In this novel law enforcement is not blamed, maybe because at this time period many of the officers there WERE gay. Part of Fritscher’s idea of homomasculinity -- which borders on hypermasculinity -- is that gays needn’t be sissies, victims. Barely submerged in this book is the contempt for women as “dirt, filth, depraved, low, powerless” that the Catholic church has always supported. Little boys pick up on it early from their own fathers. So homomasculine men are powerful but also “clean, brave, and exalted” in the way that WWII soldiers on the screen were portrayed in the earliest images of men that both Jack and I learned when coming to consciousness.
Fritscher himself is quite open about trying to write “Gone with the Wind” for gays. I think he’s succeeded. Barrus suggests “Recherche du Temps Perdue” but I can’t judge because I never managed to read even “Swan’s Way.” Another comparison is Gore Vidal’s sweeps of history. You could throw in “Peyton Place” and “Thornbirds.” Or even "The Story of O." By now everything has changed again -- that’s the essence of history. The real end comes down to Candide: withdrawing to cultivate one’s garden with a fortunate companion. The garden includes writing, the companion is capable of dialogue, one is allowed to age quietly.
When I said in the beginning that maybe Fritscher and I shared a bit of life experience, I would remind you that reservation life (1960 - 1982) was just as contained, violent, secret, riven, and deadly as the gay district of San Francisco. In my own search for transcendence I didn’t fall in-love with a body builder, but with a middle-aged sculptor. Some of the dynamics were the same: that terrifying attempt to find the transcendent in flesh.