In this unnervingly beautiful new book, David McConnell investigates six murders of gay men over the last two decades. McConnell’s focus is on the perpetrators of these crimes—men he interviews and corresponds with and locks eyes with at their trials—and one of the most disturbing and profound aspects of his account is the fact that of desire and rage, the two terms of his subtitle, desire is by far the more resonant. However twisted or thwarted, desire is everywhere in this book—in the victims, who sometimes long for their attackers; in the murderers, some of them gay, all of them longing for an ideal they feel is under threat; and in the author himself, who hovers somewhere between perpetrator and victim, an ambiguity he makes fascinating use of in the book.
The most gripping of these stories concerns Darrell Madden, who in Oklahoma City in 2007 murdered the 62-year-old Steven Domer (See Towleroad's coverage HERE). With a fellow white nationalist, Bradley Qualls—a partner in the crime whom Madden, in a little drama of dominance, would also kill—Madden posed as a hustler to lure his victim. As he does often in this book, McConnell takes us into the scene, putting us closer to the action than we might like. “Gazes snagged on them, slid down their bodies, and were nervously yanked loose,” he writes, cannily putting us in both perspectives at once--that of the two men waiting for their prey, but also of the men driving past them, most of them much older, most of them solitary, most of them on their own sort of hunt.
McConnell has written two novels, and it’s out of a novelist’s respect for the twists and textures of individual lives that he refuses familiar explanations for the violence he describes. He rejects from the start the idea of “gay panic,” but he also questions the category of “hate crimes,” proposing instead that we call these acts “honor killings.”
These murders aren’t about individual hatred, McConnell argues, and they’re finally less about attacking a despised group than defending the honor of an ideal of what manhood means: “These killers….saw, or needed to see, themselves as believers, soldiers, avengers, purifiers, as exemplars of manhood.” This may be a question of emphasis—surely a preoccupation with honor entails hating whatever brings dishonor—but McConnell is convincing in his insistence that each of these killers is “a far more convoluted being than our culture...wants to allow.”
This is certainly the case with Darrell Madden, whose life emerges as equal parts tragedy and farce. McConnell spent years meeting and corresponding with Madden, and he gives us his history in pieces, moving repeatedly from the scene of murder to the life that led to it. We learn that Madden had a brief career as a porn actor, and that what led him to white nationalism was his own desperate attraction to skinheads.
Madden speaks to McConnell about these things with an openness suggesting trust and fondness, feelings that are to a significant degree reciprocated. McConnell acknowledges Madden’s charm and attractiveness—“he was, almost reflexively, an expert seducer”—and the scenes between them read like an uncensored version of the relationship between Perry Smith and Truman Capote in In Cold Blood. Hidden desire and fascination pulse in the paragraphs of Capote’s classic book; in American Honor Killings, that desire is laid bare.
And so the most interesting character in these pages is finally McConnell himself, and the book’s key investigations are of his own motives and desires. He writes of “the joy of violence,” of “a wild physical pleasure of release,” of “brute and happy manliness”; he claims, speaking of skinhead culture, that “the solidarity the group engenders is, basically, love.” It’s clear that McConnell understands and to some extent shares the longing for pure manhood and ideal brotherhood that sets the men he studies on their paths. “What am I,” he writes, worrying at “the nagging question of whether I’m more Steve or more Darrell”—more victim or perpetrator of these crimes.
That’s a question many men might ask, and what’s most exciting about American Honor Killings is the way its nuance and detail sharpen the point of its cultural critique. McConnell reads individual acts of violence against gay men as signs of stress or fracture in an ideal masculinity we collectively adore. “The constant irony,” McConnell writes in a telling passage about Madden, “was that daily life among the skinheads in prison was strikingly similar to scenes from the gay porn movies Darrell had appeared in not long before.” The internet is full of porn for gay men in which gay men are brutalized, often by men who match Madden’s skinhead ideal of manhood. This lends credence to the most unsettling conclusion of this excellent book: that the desire in McConnell’s title is our own.
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. Beginning this fall, he will be an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.