Monday, April 30, 2012

Michael Knight writes about Americans in Japan immediately after WWII.

Of all the war stories I have read over the years, I do not think I have ever read one concerning the American occupation of Japan immediately after WWII.

The Typist

Michael Knight’s The Typist (208 pages, Grove Press, $14) tells the story of Francis Vancleave, a timid guy from the South who learned typing from his mother and then found himself, at the close of the Second World War, being sent to Tokyo to work with MacArthur’s occupation forces.

Van, as he is called, lives in barracks with men who fought in the Pacific, and he feels a bit self-conscious about his non-combatant role. He makes friends with Clifford, his roommate, and although Clifford urges Van to take up with a local girl, as he has done himself, Van stays true to his young wife at home, even if he puts her out of his mind for long stretches as a time.

Clifford has a few scams with shady local characters, but Van manages to keep out of the worst of all that. He does go out occasionally with Clifford and his girl, who is an exotic model in a local department store. He also makes friends himself with some of her friends, even if he feels self-conscious in doing so.

Even more upsetting (and rewarding) to Van is his involvement with MacArthur and his family, coming after glimpsing MacArthur’s seemingly lonely son one day when he was at the general’s house delivering some materials that he had typed. When he hears that this boy Arthur’s birthday is approaching, he sends him some toy soldiers. Not long after this, MacArthur comes to the young man and asks him whether he would be willing to spend time with his son. MacArhtur likes Van’s southern accent, and he prefers that his son pick that up rather than the affected British speech of his tutor.

Van and the young eleven-year old become friends, and Van starts to look forward to his Saturdays at the MacArthur house.

Complications arise when Clifford is discovered to have been consorting with communists. As part of the fall-out of Clifford’s impending arrest, Van is asked to stop his visits to the MacArthur boy.

As Van’s world in Tokyo starts to collapse, he nevertheless finds the opportunity to attend a football game that MacArthur stages on the site of the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima. There is some historical truth to the staging of this football game, but as Knight explains, it actually happened in Nagasaki. MacArthur was trying to establish a new spirit of cooperation on the site of mass destruction, but for many who attend, especially including Van and the young Japanese girl who accompanies him, the effect is nearly devastating.

This bittersweet mood suffuses the novel, and Knight has created a masterpiece of restraint and understatement. What happens to Van when he returns home and his success, or lack of success, at setting up his life there is beautifully told.

Knight tells a wonderful story here, and a reader comes away feeling that the depth of feeling that results is more than one might have anticipated.

Michael Knight

The Typist is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mark Merlis takes on Washington

After enjoying two of Mark Merlis’s novels, I decided to try a more recent one.


Man About Town

Mark Merlis’s Man About Town (288 pages, Harper, $3.95) attempts to tell the story of a gay man who works as a legislative analyst in a conservative Democratic administration. Joel Lingeman, suddenly on his own when a partner of fifteen years walks out, tries to come to terms with the closeted Washington scene.

As we witness Joel’s unsuccessful dating and his dull forays into local bars, we also hear about some of the work he is doing in Congress, especially work on a homophobic bill that tries to remove Medicare benefits from AIDS sufferers who had practiced unsafe sex. At first dismissive of the bill, even as he helps a Western senator to put it together, he finds himself caught off guard, when the administration takes up the plan, and Joel finds that he has to try to undermine it in some way.

While Joel is having these professional qualms and feels all the frustration of meeting closeted gay republicans who are both smart and handsome, he fantasizes about an image he once saw. The image was one of a fetching young man in a bathing suit ad, who seemed to be inviting intimacy, at the back of a magazine of the 1960s called Man About Town.

As Joel’s immediate gay life in Washington seems to go nowhere—men he meets and even those he dates seem to do nothing but disappoint him—he becomes more and more involved with the fantasy of the young man in the ad. He even goes so far as to hire a private detective to see whether he can discover the whereabouts of that young charmer.

As the contemporary world becomes more frustrating, both professionally and personally, Joel retreats into the fantasy and follows up leads until he is ready to confront that young man, now some forty years on.

The results of this quest are not at all what Joel expects, if he expects anything, nor is his response anything but surprising.

Joel is an interesting character, but I lost sympathy with him and could not really follow him into this fantasy, even when Merlis used it to point at a reasonable moral. I felt that Joel was an unsympathetic and depressive character, and Merlis let him go too far into his fantasy. There might have been a life for him in Washington, but Merlis wouldn’t really let him look for it.

Man About Town is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Mark Merlis rewrites a classic.

Because Madeline Miller’s novel was so engaging, I decided to go back and read Mark Merlis’s novel on a similar theme. It was just as delightful as I remembered from reading it in the 1990s.

An Arrow’s Flight

Mark Merlis’s own novel about the Trojan War is called An Arrow’s Flight (384 pages, Stonewall Inn Edition, $15). In this novel, Merlis tells the story of Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, who emerges after that hero’s death to take part in the destruction of Troy.

Merlis rewrites that legend in a fascinating way. Pyrrhus is a young go-go boy/hustler who has escaped his island home to come to the big city, where he lives a 1980s gay life but at the same time seems to be following the plot of an ancient epic. All the details of this urban existence, including the clubs, the other go-go boys, and the smitten roommate, are told with wit and precision.

Almost out of the blue, as it were, an older man, a eunuch called Phoenix, comes to find him and persuade him to fight in the Trojan War. It has been foretold, it seems, by the oracle, and Pyrrhus decides to give up the wild life and see whether he can become a persuasive soldier.

Before going to Troy, though, Odysseus needs to stop along the way to try to persuade Philoctetes also to join the campaign. This soldier had been left behind on an island because of a wound that would not heal. And when they approach the island again, they decide that the handsome, young, demigod Pyrrhus should try to seduce him into returning to Troy.

Philoctetes illness very quickly seems analogous to AIDS as it existed in the 1980s and 1990s: a slow wasting disease in which a sufferer feels always a little more exhausted and rarely able to shake it for more than a month or two at a time. When Pyrrhus meets this older man, he falls in love for the first time. Merlis tells a beautiful story of the emotional awakening of Pyrrhus and how much trouble it causes him.

Merlis uses his classical frame and the characters of the Iliad to tell a story all his own, and a wonderful story it is. If you read it with a knowledge of the Homeric source, it is an utter delight. But even if you know very little about Homer, you can find this story surprisingly moving.

I am pleased to have read it again, and I recommend it for anyone interested in recent gay fiction. This is one of the great novels of the 1990s.

Mark Merlis

An Arrow's Flight is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Madeline Miller writes of Greek Love with passion and verve.

I heard about this modern-day Mary Renault from a friend, but this writer is far more riveting and, I would say, poetic than her predecessor. This is a novel to celebrate.

The Song of Achilles

Madeline Miller is a classicist who is obviously intrigued by the story of Achilles and Patrochlus which is familiar, primarily, from Homer’s Iliad. On the quite substantial material in Homer, Miller weaves a wonderful tale. The Song of Achilles (378 pages, Ecco, $25.99) is beautifully written and so finely crafted that one almost takes Miller’s fictionalization as historical fact.

What we do know is that Achilles and Patrochlus are depicted as loving friends in Homer’s poem. When Achilles is sitting out the Trojan War because of a violent disagreement with Agamemnon, Patrochlus tries to persuade him to fight. Eventually they hatch the plan that Patrochlus will wear Achilles armor in order to inspire the soldiers. When he does so, he is killed by Hector, who thinks he is killing Achilles. Achilles’s anger at Patroclus’s death is unbounded, and it leads him back into the war, where he kills Hector and is later (as predicted) himself killed by an arrow from Paris.

Miller tells that story compellingly. All of this is told in detail in the Iliad, but Miller has a gift of narrative that makes us pleased to hear her version of these events. Even more fascinating, though, is Miller’s creation of a rich backstory, based primarily in the myths surrounding these characters, but also adding imaginative and compelling details of her own.

The story is told primarily from Patrochlus’s point of view, and his growing self-awareness, coupled as it is with growing attraction toward his friend and benefactor, the handsome and golden-haired Achilles, is compellingly rendered. Miller also tells about Achilles’s attraction to his friend, and deciding, seemingly quite sensibly, that this intimate friendship can only have involved physical intimacy as well, she tells this side of the story with poetry and restraint. The love she describes is something very beautiful, and its beauty is in keeping with the character of her protagonists.

Complicating the love between these two young men is the angry disapproval of Achilles’s mother, the goddess Thetis. Thetis has grand plans for her son, and a male lover does not figure into her plans. Because of her animosity, she tricks the men about what she sees as their fate. Playing into her hands, they hardly realize how effectively she has taken control.

All the other character of this classic drama of war and betrayal are effectively drawn, from the huge and almost unthinking Ajax, to the Greek commanders, Menelaus and Agamemnon, and even to the Trojans, Priam, Hector, and Paris.

Madeline Miller has written a novel that will open these stories to a new generation of readers. If readers go no further than this novel, they will have learned a lot. But if it sends them back to the original epics, then that is even better. What a marvelous novel this is.

Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.