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Mark Merlis’ ‘JD’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Merlis-JD-A-Novel-cAt the beginning of Mark Merlis’ engrossing, ambitious new novel, we meet Martha, a 75-year-old illustrator. For decades she has lived alone in her New York City apartment, bearing the double loss of her son, killed in Vietnam, and her husband, Jonathan, who died of a stroke just a few months later.

Now her routines—painting, walks, solitude—are interrupted when a young academic approaches her about writing a biography of her husband, an obscure writer who flared briefly into fame before being forgotten again after his death.

We quickly learn that her marriage was anything but idyllic. She married Jonathan after becoming unexpectedly pregnant; she refers to him early in the novel as “the-man-who-got-me-in-trouble.” Early in their marriage they come to a tacit agreement that each can seek intimacy outside of their marriage: Martha in the summers she spends outside of New York, Jonathan in the bars and alleyways he trawls for sex—often anonymous, sometimes purchased—with young men.

Their relationship is further strained when Jonathan begins writing openly about his erotic life, in what Martha calls a “ghastly little volume of poems” and in his single great novel. It’s the erotic aspect of his work that—to Martha’s dismay—attracts the interest of his would-be biographer, Philip, who tells Martha what it was like to discover Jonathan’s poetry: “I opened this little book and there was a man telling in such a plain voice…the truth. I mean, my truth, a guy who could say outright what was beautiful in the world, which was the same as what I thought was beautiful.”

Martha’s first impulse is to deny Philip access to Jonathan’s papers, not least because she worries about how the book he’s writing will treat her. “I am not a career widow,” she says, “I have made a life of my own. But it will end on the same page as Jonathan’s.” Even so, she knows that a biography of Jonathan is the best chance she has of being remembered—and, more importantly, of preserving the memory of her son, Mickey.

And so Martha finds herself going through Jonathan’s papers, which she hasn’t seen for years, and reading for the first time the journals he kept. Merlis gives us these entries as Martha reads them, a formal conceit that allows us to share in Martha’s discoveries. It also lets us hear Jonathan’s voice and gives us access to the world that’s changing so quickly around him.

The voice in the journals is thrilling: by turns angry, needy, lyrical, and longing. In the first entries, from 1964, Jonathan writes about the pre-Stonewall gay world in New York City, where he moves between salons full of urbane, literary men he envies and bars full of working-class men he desires. As years pass and gay men become more visible and politically organized, Jonathan feels ambivalence, even disgust: “Fairies are just the too richly feathered canaries in the mine,” he writes, “warbling the truth about all of us: that we don’t believe in tomorrow.” At the end of his journal, in the early seventies, he’s bewildered to find himself surrounded at the bars by men who are open about their identity; he tries “to just relax and practice not scowling at the gay people.” 

Jonathan begins keeping a journal because he feels stymied as a novelist, and we follow him as he realizes that the subject of his next book will be the young men he longs for. The passages where Jonathan writes about his desire and his encounters are some of the best in the novel, lit with an electric longing, “an ecstatic hopelessness that was more like longing for God than longing for dick.” “I look at the emergent body of a boy stretching into a young man and see into the heart of the cosmos,” he says, though he will come to question his facility for turning sexual desire into metaphysics.

Merlis-Mark-2014-cThe title of Jonathan’s great book, JD, stands both for “juvenile delinquent” and for James Dean. Martha calls it “a love song to baby-faced hoodlums”; for Jonathan, it’s at once a hymn to “boys as they are now” and a dissection of “The tension between their…animal yearning” and “the monochrome, valueless world we expect them to grow into.”

It’s also, more than he realizes as he’s writing it, a book for his son. Merlis’ novel is deeply moving in its portrayal of Jonathan and Martha as they try to care for their child. They watch helplessly as he seems to slip through their grasp, failing out of school and spending his few waking hours smoking pot, until finally he’s called up for the draft. “Some time in his teens,” Martha remembers of Mickey, “when he should have been white-hot with lust for the world, he forgot how to speak in the future tense.” 

Reading Jonathan’s journal, Martha will be shocked and acidic about what she sees as Jonathan’s hypocrisy. “He railed against the society that drained the boys’ manhood,” she says when she reads of his paying an underage hustler for sex, “and then knelt to catch the last drop.”

She will also learn a great deal about the years when her son withdrew from her, and about the possible causes for that withdrawal. She will be devastated by a shocking, heartbreaking act of trespass Jonathan commits, and she will also come to question her own role in her son’s turning away from the future.

Both strands of Merlis’ novel—Jonathan writing from the past, Martha speaking to us in the present—are vibrant, tense and alive. Merlis has written a profound book about sex and identity and family, about the perils of artistic ambition, about radical longing and the changing social fabric of America. JD is a beautiful novel.

Previous reviews...
Helen Humphreys’ ‘The Evening Chorus’
Kim Fu’s ‘For Today I Am A Boy’
Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper
Shelly Oria’s ‘New York 1, Tel Aviv 0’

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in early 2016. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


The New Novel 'The Provocateur's Payback' is a Sensual Thriller Set in the Spanish High Life: INTERVIEW

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In the new novel The Provocateur's Payback, author Paco Muñoz-Botas explores the sumptuous, sensual side of the Spanish high life. Though the eyes of his three main characters we’re invited into a world of decadence, deception, and desire.

ProvocateurspaybackDespite his wealth and social status, sexually fluid Curro Morante finds himself in the throes of a months-long depression after a beloved member of his family dies. Eugenia Osorio, Curro’s long-time friend and perennial flame, is at a loss as to how to try and help him through his pain while also searching for love.

Their friendship is both strengthened and put to the test when Dmitri Denissov, a mysterious Russian fighter suddenly enters their lives while fleeing from the mafia. A love triangle forms between the three almost instantly as Curro, Eugenia, and Dmitri try to make sense of their feelings for one another and keep one step ahead of the people hunting them.

Provocateur's Payback is a thriller crafted to lure readers into the fantasy of high-luxury and opulence, but at its core it’s also a narrative drawn from Muñoz-Botas’s own experiences as a gay, Spanish man. We sat down with Muñoz-Botas to discuss the book, the shifts he sees in the publishing world for queer writers, and where he sees his characters going next.

More and more LGBTQ writers are coming into their own and publishing novels that aren’t necessarily queer fiction, but draw from their authors’ experiences as queer people. How do you see the publishing landscape changing in Spain for queer writers?

I’m not all that familiar with how things are in the U.S., but in Spain nobody really cares if a writer is gay or not. Some of our most celebrated writers are gay, and they’re working across multiple genres. I, personally, think of myself as being a writer and a gay man, but not a gay writer. Those identities influence each other, but they’re separate. In my mind the most important thing for this new wave of writers is to have something to say--to look inside yourself and share your own experiences.

BotasCan you speak more about that? How much of your life is written into Provocateur's Payback?

Well, I’m 58 years old; I’ve had quite a few experiences. Yes, some of them are in the book, but most of the story is built from the fantasies I’ve had in my life. I’ve never dealt with the Russian mob, but that became a part of my desire to write a thriller. This was less about random inspiration, and more about needing to heal. Ironically, this all came from my need to explore my feelings after the death of my dog, Trasto. His story is the part most connected to my own life. The rest is all fantasy.

Your three lead characters’ motivations all stem from vastly different places. How do you piece their personalities and drives together as you’re writing?

In my experience as a writer, characters take their own space. I never thought to give Curro that sense of importance; he took it on his own. It’s the same way with the plot. I have general ideas, but it’s about the characters developing on their own. Eugenia around Dima all the time and Dima sick of Eugenia--these things grow on their own and become the dynamics you see in the book.

It’s interesting, then, that sexuality and sexual identity play such a large role in the way that the leads make sense of the people that they meet over the course of the book. Why is that?

The eroticism in Provocateur's Payback is very literary. Stylish, if you will; not very explicit. Honestly the sex in the book isn’t really all that much about sex itself. It’s about how the characters’ motivations drive them towards one another. They think of it simply as attraction, but there’s more there beneath the surface.

The depiction of queer culture in the book suggests that Spanish society has mixed feelings about LGBT people. Characters throughout the book seem both at ease and at odds with the fact that Curro’s queer. How has Spain been evolving on the way that it relates to LGBT people?

Spain is a very tolerant country--one of the most tolerant countries in the world. Same-sex marriage has been legal for a decade, gay couples can adopt, and their marriages have all the same rights as straight ones. Still though, there’s a degree of hypocrisy in Spanish society that isn’t all that unique. The different points of view that different characters have reflect the many positions that people in Spain take regarding gay people, because that’s reality.  

The Provocateur's Payback is available on Amazon.com.

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Kenny Porpora Reads from His New Memoir 'The Autumn Balloon': LISTEN

Today we're thrilled to feature the third author in our TowleREAD reading series (now sponsored by Audible), in which LGBT authors (and other authors, if they have relevant books) read excerpts from their works.

AuthorToday's reading is by Kenny Porpora, whose new memoir The Autumn Balloon chronicles his coming-of-age in a family troubled with addiction issues — a heroin-addicted uncle and an alcoholic mother who took Kenny from their home in Long Island in search of a better life in Arizona — and how he turned to writing to save himself.

Kenny spoke to Towleroad about the clip you're going to hear:

There’s a scene early on in my first memoir, The Autumn Balloon, where I’m 7 years old, and my mother is unconscious in her chair, drunk and unresponsive, and I think she’s died. When she finally awakens, there’s a rerun of Cheers on the TV, and the sight of Frasier Crane and Norm drive her into a drunken Tourettic fit. Later, she’s on the toilet, lifeless and too drunk to wipe herself, and she asks me to help her. I remember when I wrote the scene, my agent had asked me if I had any idea how dark it was, which was surprising because, for so many months, I thought I had been writing a comedy.

AudibleSome readers and reviewers have found the book's details of addiction and poverty to be harrowing,and I can understand that, but I prefer to focus on the story’s funnier side — the outrageous and often absurdist and (hopefully) funny characters that populate this story. I can’t deny the book has darkness and sadness and loss; it does. But that’s what my family was — they were sad and funny, messy and ridiculous, they were fuck ups and addicts, but they were also hopeful in the face of bleak madness, they were mothers and brothers, fathers and uncles, and ultimately, they were too broken to survive the many addictions that plagued them.

TheautumnballoonbookcoverMost of them didn’t make it out of this story alive, but when we remember them, even today, we remember the way they made us laugh. Those are the memories that are the most enduring, and my hope is that, when you finish the book, you’ll remember those moments of light, too.

I decided to share this passage because it sets up the story in a lot of ways, showing the two sides of my mother: the first, a warmhearted woman getting her little boy ready for school, making him breakfast, and loving him in an unconditional way. And the other, a foul-mouthed, belligerent alcoholic in the throes of great pain, loss, and depression. When the chapter begins, she has just lost her youngest sister. Throughout, we meet my father, who was 70-years-old when I was in second grade and singing love songs to dementia patients, my drug-addict uncle in his karate gi and his quixotic scheme to get us rich, and my dog, Wozels, a small, quiet friend who proved to be a guardian for me throughout what became our outlaw journey throughout America.

I hoped the chapter would paint a portrait of a family on the precipice of ruin, held together by love, but losing a unwinnable battle against addictions of all sorts.

This excerpt is from Chapter 1 of The Autumn Balloon.

As part of its sponsorship of TowleREAD, Audible is offering a free download of The Autumn Balloon at Audible.com with a 30-Day Trial membership for Towleroad readers.

Listen, below:

Make sure not to miss these recent readings from our TowleREAD series:

> Brad Gooch reads from his memoir Smash Cut.
> Kevin Sessums reads from his memoir I Left It On The Mountain.


Brad Gooch Reads From His New Memoir 'Smash Cut': LISTEN

Brad Gooch's new memoir Smash Cut chronicles 12 years in New York City as one of its brightest cultural eras becomes one of its darkest with the arrival of AIDS, taking an entire generation of gay men with it.

Gooch"There is no way for me to separate out the story of the fabulousness and horror of the years from 1978 to 1989, and a little before and a little after, from Howard—my lover, or my boyfriend, or Friend, or whatever we were to each other," Gooch writes in the memoir, referring to Howard Brookner, the film director he met at the West Village gay bar the Ninth Circle and began.

The memoir includes his early years as a model and struggling writer during which he came into contact with NYC icons like Robert Mapplethorpe, William Burroughs, and Madonna, as well as Tina Brown, Keith Haring, Virgil Thompson, and Anna Wintour.

Gooch  spoke of looking back at that decade in an interview recently with HuffPost Live: "It was colorful and it was our youth, but then there was a point in the middle where Howard becomes HIV positive, we're moving into the '80s, where I realize, 'Oh, I've gotten myself into the situation of going back into these memories which I haven't really dealt with in decades.'"

Gooch has recorded two excerpts from the book for our TowleREAD series.

In the first excerpt, Gooch offers a "smash cut" of reminiscences about meeting Howard at the gay bar in the late '70s, an observation of Howard's nephew as he makes a documentary about their life together, and the reflection of the Chelsea Hotel in his current apartment as it jogs his memories about how his life was 30 years ago.

The second excerpt concerns a moment at the doctor's office as Howard's diagnosis worsens, and an encounter with  Mapplethorpe in the waiting room.

Listen to Gooch read two excerpts from the memoir, below:

 

RECENTLY IN OUR TOWLEROAD SERIES:
Kevin Sessums reads from his new memoir I Left It On the Mountain [tlrd]


Fox News Contributor Worries Trans Awareness in Schools Will Turn Kids Into Cocker Spaniels - VIDEO

Tammybruce

Fox News is in a tizzy because of “indoctrination” in Maine where “kids as young as five are getting lessons about transgender issues.”

JazzA panel voiced concern because Horace Mitchell Primary School students were read the book I Am Jazz, the story of a transgender child Jazz Jennings who has become a spokesperson for transkids.

Psychologist Dr Susan Lipkin pointed out that the kids in question may be too young to understand these issues because “there are many men who are ballerinas who are not gay and are not transgender and there are many girls who are great athletes and neither are they.”

Contributor Tammy Bruce added the issue is troubling because kids fantasize about being Superman and sometimes imagine they are a cocker spaniel or a cat.

Watch the panel discussion and the documentary I Am Jazz, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Fox News Contributor Worries Trans Awareness in Schools Will Turn Kids Into Cocker Spaniels - VIDEO" »


Michelangelo Signorile Talks About His New Book 'It's Not Over' with Andy Towle: VIDEO

Signorile_towle

On Friday night I sat down with author, activist, and radio host Michelangelo Signorile for a Periscope session to talk about his new book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality.

NotoverThe book is uncannily-timed given the recent proliferation of "religious liberty" bills around the country; it's a warning to those fighting for LGBT equality not to think the battle is over too early — not to succumb to "victory blindness" as Signorile aptly calls it.

The book is also a primer for activism in the next phase of the LGBT rights movement, in which advocates for equality, having secured a number of substantive wins, must face a wave of conservative backlash that is already beginning.

"You have to celebrate [these victories], there's no question about it, Signorile tells me in our interview. "But, understand that there isn't this magical moment when everything is finished and you go on with your life. When you're a minority, a marginalized group, you've been dealt a certain deck and there's always going to be people out to try and undermine you. You have to just keep paying attention..."

"I think [conservatives] will definitely retool, recalibrate," he adds, "They move on to other states, they look for other avenues, they look for other people they can pose as victims, right? Any new way that they can sort of strip something away from us — conscience clauses allowing people to opt out of performing gay marriages, all that stuff is still going on and still on the table in a lot of states."

Using "victory blindness" as a launch pad, Signorile's incisive argument lays out the framework for taking on this backlash through self-defense and empowerment, revolutionizing education, and objecting to media that continually gives discredited conservative viewpoints authority where there is no legitimate debate to be had. It also provides advice for people who are out of the closet on how to remain empowered by not hiding who we are and resisting demands that we downplay our identities.

I strongly recommend this book.

Check out my talk with Signorile (and I apologize for its informality and my rather green on-camera skills - it was originally recorded on iPhone as a live streaming discussion on Periscope and has been edited to better fit this format).

Watch and read the transcript, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Michelangelo Signorile Talks About His New Book 'It's Not Over' with Andy Towle: VIDEO" »


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