Wednesday, June 15, 2016
1:05 PM |
My Twelve Favorite Gay Short Stories
I have been reading gay literature for about twenty years now in the search for definition as well as for the literary embodiment of the desires I feel, and I've cried and commiserated over James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
, David Leavitt's The Lost Language of Cranes
, André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name
, Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library
, Larry Kramer's Faggots
, Andrew Holleran's Dancer From the Dance
, Felice Picano's Like People in History
, E.M. Forster's Maurice
, Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar
, Mary Renault's The Persian Boy
, Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story
, among many, many others, I've noticed that most of the gay literature I've come to read are novels, and barely any short stories.
Of course, there have been anthologies, some celebrated ones such as the Ladlad
series edited by J. Neil C. Garcia and Danton Remoto, The Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction
edited by Edmund Wilson, The Mammoth Book of Gay Short Stories
edited by Peter Burton, The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories
edited by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell (plus its new edition), and The Penguin Book of International Gay Short Stories
also edited by Leavitt and Mitchell. And yet the short story as a genre of gay fiction remains largely unheralded. Still, I know there are plenty of gay short stories I've read over the years that have touched something deep in me more than many novels I've read -- and I love the singular power and punch of their brevity. Novels tend to meander, but tenderly done short stories give a universe of resonance in such short order. This is a list that tries to rectify all the "best-of" lists out there that seem to know only long fiction. This is in no particular order, and I've listed them down complete with their opening paragraphs and a brief description of the plot. Not all of them are by gay authors, and some of them are in fact written by heterosexual women, which is a pleasant surprise...
 "A Place I've Never Been" by David Leavitt
, from A Place I've Never Been: Stories
I had known Nathan for years—too many years, since we were in college—so when he went to Europe I wasn’t sure how I’d survive it; he was my best friend, after all, my constant companion at Sunday afternoon double bills at the Thalia; my ever-present source of consolation and conversation. Still, such a turn can prove to be a blessing in disguise. It threw me off at first, his not being there—I had no one to watch Jeopardy! with, or talk to on the phone late at night—but then, gradually, I got over it, and I realized that maybe it was a good thing after all, that maybe now, with Nathan gone, I would be forced to go out into the world more, make new friends, maybe even find a boyfriend. And I had started: I lost weight, I went shopping. I was at Bloomingdale’s one day on my lunch hour when a very skinny black woman with a French accent asked me if I’d like to have a makeover. I had always run away from such things, but this time, before I had a chance, this woman put her long hands on my cheeks and looked into my face-not my eyes, my face-and said, "You’re really beautiful. You know that?" And I absolutely couldn’t answer. After she was through with me I didn’t even know what I looked like, but everyone at my office was amazed. "Celia," they said, "you look great. What happened?" I smiled, wondering if I’d be allowed to go back every day for a makeover, if I offered to pay.
In this story, told powerfully from the point of view of a stereotypical "fag hag," a gay man's much-put-upon best friend reconsiders her friendship and sees that perhaps in life's final accounting, the choices she has made are far better than the choices of the more beautiful people around her.
[Buy in Amazon
 "In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliott Dark
, from In the Gloaming: Stories
Her son wanted to talk again, suddenly. During the days, he still brooded, scowling at the swimming pool from the vantage point of his wheelchair, where he sat covered with blankets despite the summer heat. In the evenings, though, Laird became more like his old self -- his old old self, really. He became sweeter, the way he'd been as a child, before he began to cloak himself with layers of irony and clever remarks. He spoke with an openness that astonished her. No one she knew talked that way -- no man, at least. After he was asleep, Janet would run through the conversations in her mind, and realize what is was she wished she had said. She knew she was generally considered sincere, but that had more to do with her being a good listener than with how she expressed herself. She found it hard work to keep up with him, but it was the work she had pined for all her life.
In this poignant story of loss and forgiveness, a mother recounts the return home of her prodigal gay son, now dying of AIDS. The story appeared in The New Yorker
in 1993, and immediately inspired two memorable film adaptations, with John Updike selecting it for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century
[Buy in Amazon
 "The Beginnings of Grief" by Adam Haslett
, from You Are Not a Stranger Here
A year after my mother’s suicide I broke a promise to myself not to burden my father with worries of my own. I told him how unhappy I was at school, how lonely I felt. From the wing chair where he crouched in the evenings he asked, “What can I do?” The following afternoon, coming home from work the back way, he missed a stop sign. A van full of sheet glass going forty miles an hour hit the driver’s side of the Taurus. According to the policeman who knocked on the front door in tears, my father died with the first shattering impact. An aunt from Little Rock stayed for a week, cooking stews and Danish pastry. She said I could come and live with her in Arkansas. I told her I didn’t want to. As I had only a year and a half left of high school, we decided I could finish up where I was, and she arranged for me to live with a neighbor.
This is a terror-filled accounting of a grief-stricken boy as he tries to calibrate his personal tragedies by allowing himself to be bullied by a handsome schoolmate, who seems aware that their brutal and bloody skirmishes with each other border on something almost equal to love. It is harrowing, but it is also disturbingly erotic.
[Buy in Amazon
 "Boys Who Like Boys" by Vicente Garcia Groyon III
, from On Cursed Ground and Other Stories
The man sitting beside you smells like McDonald’s french fries, you think, and you shift impatiently in your seat. He just had to sit beside you in a theater that is virtually empty. You are young and innocent and think nothing of it.
In this seminal short story by a Filipino writer (included in the first iteration of Ladlad
, a second-person narrator recounts the various episodes in his life that allows him to understand what it is that exactly makes his eyes gleam with desire.
[Buy in Amazon
 "Am I Blue?" by Bruce Coville
, from Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence
, edited by Marion Dane Bauer
It started the day Butch Carrigan decided I was interested in jumping his bones.
“You little fruit,” he snarled. “I’ll teach you to look at me!”
A moment or two later he had given me my lesson.
I was still lying facedown in the puddle into which Butch had slammed me as the culminating exercise of my learning experience when I heard a clear voice exclaim, “Oh, my dear! That was nasty. Are you all right, Vince?”
Turning my head to my left, I saw a pair of brown docksiders, topped by khaki pants. Given the muddy condition of the sidewalks, pants and shoes were both ridiculously clean.
I rolled onto my side and looked up. The loafers belonged to a tall, slender man. He had dark hair, a neat mustache, and a sweater slung over his shoulders. He was kind of handsome—almost pretty. He wore a gold ring in his left ear. He looked to be about thirty.
“Who are you?” I asked suspiciously.
“Your fairy godfather. My name is Melvin. Come on, stand up and let’s see if we can’t do something with you.”
In this humorous young adult fable, a bullied boy gets visited by his fairy godfather and is granted a wish: that for one day in the life of the world, everyone who is gay or partly gay will turn all shades of blue. Pandemonium breaks out as soon as the world learns the significance of turning blue.
[Buy in Amazon
 "The Way We Live Now" by Susan Sontag
, from The Way We Live Now
At first he was just losing weight, he felt only a little ill, Max said to Ellen, and he didn’t call for an appointment with his doctor, according to Greg, because he was managing to keep on working at more or less the same rhythm, but he did not stop smoking, Tanya pointed out, which suggests he was frightened, but also that he wanted, even more than he knew, to be healthy, or healthier, or maybe just to gain back a few pounds, said Orson, for he told her, Tanya went on, that he expected to be climbing walls (isn’t that what people say?) and found, to his surprise, that he didn’t miss cigarettes at all and reveled in the sensation of his lungs’ being ache-free for the first time in years. But did he have a good doctor, Stephen wanted to know, since it would have been crazy not to go for a checkup after the pressure was off and hew as back from the conference in Helsinki, even if by then he was feeling better. And he said, to Frank, that he would go, even though he was indeed frightened, as he admitted to Jan, but who wouldn’t be frightened now, though, odds as that might seem, he hadn’t been worrying until recently, he vowed to Quentin, it was only in the last six months that he had the metallic taste of panic in his mouth, because becoming seriously ill was something that happened to other people, a normal delusion, he observed to Paolo, if one was thirty-eight and had never had a serious illness; he wasn’t, as Jan confirmed, a hypochondriac. Of course, it was hard not to worry, everyone was worried, but it wouldn’t do to panic, because, as Max pointed out to Quentin, there wasn’t anything one could do except wait and hope, wait and start being careful, be careful, and hope. And even if one did prove to be ill, one shouldn’t give up, they had new treatments that promised an arrest of the disease’s inexorable course, research was progressing. It seemed that everyone was in touch with everyone else several times a week, checking in, I’ve never spent so many hours at a time on the phone, Stephen said to Kate, and when I’m exhausted after the two or three phone calls made to me, giving me the latest, instead of switching off the phone to give myself a respite I tap out the number of another friend or acquaintance, to pass the news. I’m not sure I can afford to think so much about it, Ellen said, and I suspect my own motives, there’s something morbid I’m getting used to, getting excited by, this must be like what people felt in London during the Blitz. As far as I know, I’m not at risk, but you never know, said Aileen. This thing is totally unprecedented, said Frank. But don’t you think he ought to see a doctor, Stephen insisted. Listen, said Orson, you can’t force people to take care of themselves, and what makes you think the worst, he could be just run down, people still do get ordinary illnesses, awful ones, why are you assuming it has to be that. But all I want to be sure, said Stephen, is that he understands the options, because most people don’t, that’s why they won’t see a doctor or have a test, they think there’s nothing one can do. But is there anything one can do, he said to Tanya (according to Greg), I mean what do I gain if I go to the doctor; if I’m really ill, he’s reported to have said, I’ll find out soon enough.
In this gripping, singularly-constructed story about a community rallying around an unnamed man dying from an unnamed disease, Sontag manages to capture the zeitgeist of an era suffering from AIDS, and weaves a spell-binding narrative about how the LGBT community matters.
[Buy in Amazon
 "What You Want to Do Fine [Lucky Ducks]" by Lorrie Moore
, from Birds of America: Stories
Mack has moved so much in his life that every phone number he comes across seems to him to be one he’d had before. “I swear this used to be my number,” he says, putting the car into park and pointing at the guidebook, 923-7368. The built-in cadence of a phone number always hits him the same personal way: like something familiar but lost, something momentous yet insignificant—like an act of love with a girl he used to date.
The bisexuals of Lorrie Moore's story give us the idea that love is love, and love is fluid. A straight guy finds himself falling in love with a gay guy, and together they embark on a road trip of discovery across America, finding out soon how their strange relationship matters to both of them.
[Buy in Amazon
 "Brokeback Mountain" by E. Annie Proulx
, from Close Range: Wyoming Stories
Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminum door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft. He gets up, scratching the grey wedge of belly and pubic hair, shuffles to the gas burner, pours leftover coffee in a chipped enamel pan; the flame swathes it in blue. He turns on the tap and urinates in the sink, pulls on his shirt and jeans, his worn boots, stamping the heels against the floor to get them full on. The wind booms down the curved length of the trailer and under its roaring passage he can hear the scratching of fine gravel and sand. It could be bad on the highway with the horse trailer. He has to be packed and away from the place that morning. Again the ranch is on the market and they’ve shipped out the last of the horses, paid everybody off the day before, the owner saying, “Give em to the real estate shark, I’m out a here,” dropping the keys in Ennis’s hand. He might have to stay with his married daughter until he picks up another job, yet he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist was in his dream.
This story has become iconic for the film adaptation that came of it, and today remains a heartbreaking tale of two cowboys forced to hide their love for each other given the macho culture they live in. It ends in tragedy of course, and gives us a glimpse for the sad closeted lives generations of gay men had to endure.
[Buy in Amazon
 "Some of These Days" by James Purdy
, from The Candle of Your Eyes
What my landlord's friends said about me was in a way the gospel truth, that is he was good to me and I was mean and ungrateful to him. All the two years I was in jail, nonetheless, I thought only of him, and I was filled with regret for the things I had done against him. I wanted him back. I didn't exactly wish to go back to live with him now, mind you. I had been too mean to him for that, but I wanted him for a friend again. After I got out of jail I would need friendship, for I didn't need to hold up even one hand to count my friends on, the only one I could even name was him. I didn't want anything to do with him physically again, I had kind of grown out of that somehow even more while in jail, and wished to try to make it with women again, but I did require my landlord's love and affection, for love was, as everybody was always saying, his special gift and talent.
In this notorious story by Purdy, Tom Eubanks writes
, "a damaged, delusional ex-con searches porno theaters on 3rd Avenue for his 'queer' landlord. He begs on the street so that he can afford the 'three bucks' it costs to enter, eventually foregoing food and allowing the patrons to 'take any liberty they was in a mind to with me in the hopes that through this contact they would divulge the whereabouts of my landlord.'" Delicious.
[Buy in Amazon
 "Innocence and Longing" by Andrew Holleran
, from In September, The Light Changes: Stories
The history of the town was the history of its grocery stores -- when his family moved there in 1961, there was only one, on the main street, a shabby place used mostly by people from Jacksonville who had summer houses on the lake; the floors were strewn with sand, and there were only two refrigerated lockers containing ice-cream bars beneath a scrim of sweaty glass; on the shelves canned goods gave the store the air of an imaginary grocery small children create with whatever their mother gives them so they can play store. People drove to other towns to buy serious food. Then the town grew, and a brand-new grocery was built, a block east of the main street, which seemed extremely up-to-date in comparison, with its own bakery and delicatessen counter, and generous hours of business. He would walk there around nine-thirty at night so he arrived just before closing and buy a candy bar as a toss. The place was usually empty of customers at that hour; a single checkout girl looked at him in surprise when he walked through the door; the bag boys were restocking the shelves, sweeping the aisles. They were all young, still in high school, he presumed, they all wore white shirts and black bow ties, and had about them an industrious, Horatio Alger air he admired, in contrast to the louts who hung out in a nearby parking lot beside their trucks and cars -- a floating social club that seemed to move every few months to a different part of town, one he always disliked having to walk past, some memory of bullies rising up in him, even though he was almost thirty years their senior.
The author of Dancer From the Dance
veers away from the sheer horror his iconic book made of gay life, and made a more poignant, if still painful, accounting of gay lives in this short story. Peter Parker writes
in The New York Times
: "In the baldly titled 'Innocence and Longing' ... the protagonist declaims an inventory of the ordinary, unobtainable men in his small town that perfectly mimics his escalating loneliness and yearning."
[Buy in Amazon
 "The Priest" by Leoncio Deriada
, from The Week of the Whales and Other Stories
He jumped off the bus, with a catlike but virile movement, his brown suitcase in his right hand, his left holding the strap of his blue shoulder bag. He wore a pair of dark glasses and a blue cap.
His reflexes were undoubtedly an athlete’s. And his body, too. Tall and lean, not bony like most basketball players just out of college, he exuded a boyishness that could only be attractive.
He put the suitcase down on the ground, just as the bus roared away towards the town’s bus terminal. His sneakers firm on the coral-strewn side of the road, he stretched out his arms to shake off the hurt inflicted on his muscles by more than a hundred kilometers of the bumpy bus ride. His white shirt pressed hard on his skin and accentuated the leanness and tense grace of his body. A sculptor would find him extremely beautiful.
From the other side of the road, Father Thomas McNeil, who thought be would be a sculptor before he entered the seminary, watched him. This must be the man, he thought, noting the young man’s natural casualness that could only be the product of a fine home and a fine school. The newcomer had class.
In this short story by one of the eminent fictionists from the Philippines, a young priest contends with the advances of an older priest, and discovers something about himself in the process. Lyrical and devastating.
[Buy in Amazon
 "Stella for Star" by Yvette Tan
, from Waking the Dead and Other Horror Stories
It came in a shoebox, a shriveled little thing that could easily fit in the cradle of two cupped hands. Paco had thought it was a kitten. Dorian had taken the baby in his arms, his voice going all soft and indulgent as he whispered soothing nonsense in its ear. That was how Paco and Dorian found themselves a child.
I had to put in a horror story in this list, and this one fits the bill. A gay couple, both longing for a family of their own, finds and adopts an abandoned baby. It turns out to be a monster called a tiyanak. Now, how do two gay men proceed to care for their monstrous child, and contend with its evil designs?
[Buy in Anvil
Labels: books, fiction, literature, queer
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