RaveThe BafflerThe sensuality of Penman’s book is inseparable from the music of his prose ... Penman’s book isn’t so much about Fassbinder as it is a memoir of living alongside his films. Not a fan’s tribute, then, not a critic’s buttoned-up appraisal, but something with the gnawing compulsiveness of victim testimony ... Penman is particularly attuned to the political frequency of Fassbinder’s work.
PositiveThe New RepublicThe first biography of Converse, although biography is too tidy a word for this shaggy beast of a book. It’s a close study of Converse’s music, a patchwork memoir of Fishman’s own decade-plus obsession with the singer, and a piecemeal reckoning with the Converse family’s history of alcoholism, mental illness, and borderline incest. It’s also unabashedly a fan’s book, with all of the passion and chauvinism that implies ... One of the shortcomings of Fishman’s book. In lieu of primary sources, he offers a fan’s sentimental fiction ... Fishman is on firmer ground when he analyzes Converse’s catalog ... \'This is far from a perfect book,\' Fishman concedes at the end—and he’s right. Its structure is too often sloppy, with uneasy transitions from biography to personal digression; its tone is occasionally treacly; its treatment of Converse is hagiographic. But it’s likely the only—the final—full biography of Converse, and so I’m willing to see the book’s clumsiness as endearing rather than disqualifying because I want Converse to finally get her due without reservation.
Positive4ColumnsThroughout the book, she seems to waver: Is she writing a tragicomic confection, à la Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, or something trickier—a biographical novel virtually devoid of interiority, narrated by the panoramic voice of Fate? ... The approach Jemc settles on is a middle path between satire and family drama, although it’s hard to satirize figures who were, from birth, already caricatures of cloistered, bored, wanton nobility. Symbolism becomes overripe ... Occasional anachronisms—small and large—deflate the pomp of Jemc’s imagined world ... The history in Empty Theatre isn’t so much revisionist as retrofitted. It’s a narrative strategy that falters only near the end ... The tone sterilizes some of the bombast and madness of the preceding four hundred–plus pages, squeezing Ludwig’s singularity into a familiar, four-cornered emotion like loneliness. Here, perhaps, is what fiction offers that conventional biography doesn’t: a nugget of moralizing psychology in lieu of a denouement. Still, as a story of royals behaving badly and bemoaning their privilege, Empty Theatre has impeccable timing. Such stories have never gone out of fashion. They even used to be interesting.
PositiveThe New RepublicHe’s often upbeat in these pages—it’s a little jarring to see him enthuse over There’s Something About Mary and Jurassic Park—but also prone to enervating self-doubt and depression. He’s candid about sex and aging, but largely silent about formative trauma. His self-image as a would-be Hells Angel cruising bathhouses runs aground on the reality of Gunn as a rather domestic man who cooks dinner for his housemates, fusses over his lap cat, and putters around the garden. And that reality, too, abruptly segues into another: that of the kinky sexagenarian who hosts all-night benders and speed-fueled threesomes ... The letters draw out the contradictions that made Gunn something of an anomaly: an agile poet who renovated tradition to accommodate the rude litter of modernity. They also suggest that, like most great artists, he constructed himself piecemeal over decades—a process of continuous revision marked by alternating currents of grandiosity and despair ... That he wasn’t like everybody else is what makes these letters worth reading ... An amusing subplot of the letters is how frequently—and in which direction—Gunn revises his estimation of other writers ... Nearly 20 years after his death, what endures of Gunn’s work is the plain, searching immediacy of his voice, which steadies the poems and is encountered afresh in the letters. Gunn reckons with his own contradictions—that is to say, his humanity—in lines often backlit by tragedy. Rather than succumb to dreaded self-pity or combust in self-aggrandizement, he opts for the more treacherous middle road of self-inquiry. There’s a meditative grandeur to some of his best poems, a gradual disclosure of the self that’s as much intellectual as moral. His formal courtliness and aloofness on the page are largely at odds with today’s young poets.
PositiveThe BafflerLaughing it off is central to Mueller’s aesthetic. Her stories regularly sketch traumas—rape, overdose, illness—with a survivor’s comic irony. Perhaps that’s why her legacy feels so incongruous now ... Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, a new, expanded edition of Mueller’s posthumous 1990 collection, is, contrary to most retrospectives of writers silenced by AIDS, not a testament to what we lost when Mueller died, but a freewheeling sensorium of her life. These pages are sordid with cigarettes and beer, dog hair and breastmilk, lipstick and shit. Mueller is fully present on the page, as a joking ingenue, a cynical den mother, and a genial euthanizer of art world pretensions ... Much of her work falls into the stylistic and thematic camp of New Narrative, a loose cohort of writers, based largely in San Francisco in the late 1970s, who used their own lives as grist for experimental and discursive fictions ... Mueller is less theoretical than some of her New Narrative contemporaries, but no less enamored of cheeky provocation ... The stories from this period are evocative vignettes of Mueller hustling to provide for herself and her son ... Her criticisms jibe with Gary Indiana’s ... What comes through in all of Mueller’s writing is her generous devotion to pleasure. Besides her appetite for booze and drugs, she found beauty in unlikely places.
PanNew York Times Book ReviewHis rendition of heteroflexibility in Vietnam-era New England has a guilelessness that strains credulity. Boys snuggle, hold hands, confess their homosexual inclinations without shame ... Alongside such wishful uninhibitedness are scenes that verge on parody ... Improbabilities compound and betoken a deeper murkiness in the novel’s vision. Is this the story of a gay man’s coming-of-age? Is it about the rot that many venerable institutions cover up? Is it about the bafflements of love? For Galassi, it’s about all of these, without full commitment to any one. The novel has a halting rhythm, structured as a series of vignettes that sometimes fizzle or introduce dead ends. The prose, much of it flat or clichéd, only underscores the desultory effect ... Galassi is convincing when he depicts the insularity of boarding schools and adolescent bonds. But when he tries to express the mysteries of the heart, or capture the verisimilitude of boys on the brink of manhood, he fails the grade.
Adrian Nathan West
Rave4ColumnsWhere other authors might opt for satire, West instead delivers a kind of highly wrought kitsch realism that implicates everyone, including the narrator. His style’s mingled tenderness and grotesquerie can sometimes read like a distant cousin to Winesburg, Ohio ... The competition distills all of the novel’s other themes, particularly the idea that changing your body, your attitude, or your surroundings will somehow change your life. Americans’ faith in self-reinvention—a faith that is now itself a commodity—is the final punchline.
PanThe New RepublicTreating Maier like a riddle makes for good jacket copy but can also turn her into a kind of Rorschach: One sees in her whatever the critical mode du jour demands ... Although Marks acknowledges that it’s impossible to accurately diagnose Marie [Vivian\'s mother], this doesn’t stop her from premising the whole biography on such drive-by psychologizing. Indeed, the book is a case study for what responsible biographers shouldn’t do. Some of Marks’s theories are more credible than others ... One of the assets of her largely lackluster biography is the gumshoe work she does chasing down [Vivian\'s father] Carl’s records and filling in his story ... her creativity, her art, is inextricable from mental illness. That’s a generic enough argument, but in Marks’s hands, it turns cloying. Her interpretations of Maier’s work sometimes take unfortunate cues from clinical analyses ... As I read, I was increasingly irritated by this reductive and patronizing portrayal of Maier ... by pressing her into a queasy Hallmark narrative of a woman triumphing over her demons, Marks’s biography unintentionally undervalues Maier’s achievement. Photography wasn’t a \'coping mechanism\' but her life’s work.
Positive4ColumnsThe artifice of fiction is ventilated with memoiristic candor ... The narrative subterfuge of its first half gradually coalesces into a knotty memory book that’s less about Miles the person and more about Miles the talisman that unlocks Cooper’s artistic compulsions ... Simultaneously concentric and telescopic, a metaphysical wheel that spindles across time while always orbiting the question of whether Cooper’s love for Miles was ever requited. The answer to that riddle will intrigue Cooper’s longtime readers more than newcomers to his work ... For readers not already seduced by the Miles of the cycle, the new novel’s style will likely fog any deeper understanding of him as a flesh-and-blood person. That’s to be expected. Muses are indecipherable by nature ... The novel abounds in...internal echoes. For the reader the effect is occasionally disorienting, with the seemingly disconnected vignettes evoking the messy tectonics of memory itself.
Rave4ColumnsZambreno and Guibert are perhaps an odd couple. Where the latter wrote unabashedly of cruising and gay sex in a milieu that included Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, Zambreno writes here of motherhood, adjunct teaching, and life in Brooklyn. She’s aware of the dissonanc...Yet, one of the pleasures of her book is the affinities she traces between herself and Guibert ... The book is a riposte, however incidental, to current critical dogma in which outsiders are presumed to lack the authority to write across difference...While she doesn’t exhibit Guibert’s ravening lust, she has some of his acidity, his charisma, his meditativeness, his improvisational grace. She has, too, his comfort with slipperiness, both in terms of subjectivity and of form ... Despite its elliptical style, Zambreno’s book cultivates patience, a digressive but ruminative mode that goes beyond close reading of Guibert toward an actual embodiment of his voice ... Zambreno conceives literature as inseparable from identity but not constrained by it. Her approach demonstrates one version of what reading is for, what literature is for—not to make us more empathetic, much less improve us, but to offer an intellectual, emotional, or creative experience we would not otherwise have. Literature makes life more bearable. And for those who are ill or dying, literature has the additional capacity to make them \'more fully human,\' as Zambreno suggests. To document our own deaths is to prove that, for a while anyway, we survived.
Positive4ColumnsRather than focus on the killer—who has all the allure of a wet cocktail napkin—he foregrounds the lives and milieus of the victims. It’s a reparative act that doubles as an extended elegy for the decades of closeted or bullied queers who encountered similar demons in schoolyards, across dinner tables, in pews, or in the browser histories they desperately erased ... Green, who identifies as straight, never explains why the victims obsessed him ... a salvage operation not only for individual lives, but for a whole bleak chapter of underground queer life ... Such offbeat details compensate for Green’s smooth but bland prose ... preserves the poignant irony that the trust and vulnerability that once made gay bars synonymous with gay community were also vectors of death, both in the form of murder and, later, HIV/AIDS ... Most true-crime writers favor the crime half of the equation. But there’s also the imperative of truth—not just the factual tally of names, dates, and numbers, but the existential question of why such horror happened at all.
Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
RaveThe New RepublicThe Bacon who emerges in Stevens and Swan’s biography has the clammy decorum of a proper Englishman cut with the tragicomic wit of the Irish. He erased or denied parts of his history he didn’t like; he destroyed canvases that fell short of an impossible perfection; he couldn’t speak about himself without getting drunk first. He was an S&M enthusiast who lived with his childhood nanny. He painted disturbing vignettes but was an effervescent fixture at London bars. His states of betweenness, of paradox, make him that rare artist who actually rewards 900 infatuated pages.
MixedThe New RepublicGopnik’s biography excavates many new or forgotten angles ... the bio doesn’t really hum until the 1960s—the Factory years ... [Regarding the] final phase of Warhol\'s career...Gopnik doesn’t make a convincing case for why these portraits were anything other than paydays to fuel Warhol’s shopping addiction ... Gopnik isn’t particularly interested in Warhol’s moral deliberations. Just as the artist leveled ethical distinctions into particolored mulch, Gopnik breezes through Warhol’s indiscretions ... Gopnik’s bio tends toward hagiography ... Gopnik’s book is rife with...clunkers. Some of them are baffling ... Some of the writing is regrettable ... Other sentences have about as much weight as Styrofoam ... Ultimately, what’s missing in Gopnik’s book is a clearer perspective on Warhol’s mature years, when he personified art market excess.
Positive4ColumnsScanlan’s stories are the opposite of traditional, New Yorker–style fiction. She favors situations rather than plots, and is fond of first-person narrators who withhold interiority. There’s scant character development, and no grand epiphanies. Her pieces don’t end so much as stop in their tracks, leaving the reader with the muddled buzz of bad weed. They’re also compact—the longest runs about six pages. The acoustics of language are central ... her work offers its own canted mix of eroticism and absurdism, its own gnarled comedy of gender and class ... At their best, her stories make other writers’ work seem fatty and uptight ... The party line of most realist fiction is specificity, not uncertainty. Scanlan, however, is an artist of omission ... These lacunae and non sequiturs are thrilling in some stories. In others, Scanlan underplays her hand ... For all the variety of their predicaments, Scanlan’s narrators also speak with the same measured neuroticism. The book sometimes feels like a single, visceral monologue, albeit one you’re happy to prolong ... To her credit, Scanlan treats the reader like a collaborator capable of keeping pace with sudden reroutes ... Scanlan’s stories tell you almost nothing—which, in these cacophonous times, is the mark of a true radical.
PositiveThe NationLike volume one, The Brutality of Fact veers among melodrama, tragedy, and farce. Kramer mixes fictional transcripts, playlets, lists, and monologues. There’s no real plot, at least in the conventional sense, just the relentless torrent of history in which those in power suppress or kill gay men ... The novel’s effect is that of an open mic night in a subterranean bar where everyone has an ax to grind ... All the crosstalk conjures a bricolage that’s manic and overstuffed but also hypnotic. While Kramer’s moral ancestor is Defoe, his stylistic contemporaries are Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, and James Ellroy, novelists who take similarly gonzo liberties with historical fact. The difference is that for Kramer, queerness is the essential condition of American history and the American character, rather than race, class, or religion. The persecution and suffering he experienced as a gay man lend gristle to the novel, as well as an afterglow of rage, the megawatt fury that once got him labeled the angriest gay man in the world. He is self-aware enough to mock his single-mindedness ... Kramer is content to steamroll through history with little consideration for how queerness intersects with race, gender, economics, or any other totalizing force ... Whatever its grotesquerie, its inelegance, its repetitiveness, The American People also takes your breath away. There are few novels like it in our literature—not only in terms of scope but also in its crazed stagger between pathos and camp, realism and absurdism, plain lyricism and obscenity.
Lou Sullivan, Ed. by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma
PositiveThe New Yorker... chatty and tender, casually poetic and voraciously sexual ... Reading Sullivan’s diaries now is both dissonant and familiar ... Outdated terms and places from the recent gay past can lend his world the mustiness of a time capsule. And yet Sullivan’s struggle to claim and embody his identity, and the way he writes about that struggle, is wholly contemporary. Some of this is surely due to the universality of self-doubt: his loneliness and isolation, his fear of being stigmatized or unloved, still resonates ... There’s something Whitmanesque in [Sullivan\'s] celebrations of male lust, of cruising, of anonymous bodies coming together in an ecstasy that’s quasi-spiritual ... necessarily provisional and condensed ... given how many contemporary trans narratives are rooted in trauma, [the editors\'] choice to foreground trans pleasure and sensuality is celebratory, even radical.
Sara Stridsberg, Trans. by Deborah Bragan-Turner
PositiveThe BafflerAlthough Valerie follows the contours of Solanas’s life, the novel isn’t conventionally plotted. It’s more like a postmodern collage of imagined transcripts and interviews and snippets of lyrics...spliced with Stridsberg’s own mythopoetic evocations of Solanas’s life. There’s a metafictional layer, too ... The result is a novel that conveys Solanas’s ambiance but not necessarily her substance: the pain she carried with her so long it hardened into faith ... she remains a cypher ... In the end, Valerie is as much a tragic literary story as a tragic biographical one. Stridsberg conveys how a fitfully brilliant and audacious writer was dogged—and then silenced—by her own words ... Valerie gives us Solanas as she probably hoped to be: still failed, yes, but vindicated.
PositiveThe NationThe book is part biography, part true-crime saga, and part sociological study of how race, class, and media collide ... raises thorny questions about victimhood ... Taylor’s Southern roots offer Levin a convenient segue into that region’s economic history, which is also the de facto history of welfare and its racist stigma.
Andrea Dworkin, Ed. by Joanna Fateman and Amy Scholder
RaveBoston ReviewDworkin did have something of a preacher’s scorched moral indignation, an eloquence borne of her own experiences as a prostitute, rape survivor, and battered wife. And like any great firebrand, she did not brake for nuance ... But Last Days also reveals a more measured writer than many might remember. Dworkin was a talented stylist, and however aggrieved or incensed her arguments, she expressed them with meticulous lucidity. And even occasional wit ... The book also highlights Dworkin’s vulnerability, a trait that subsequent caricatures all but obliterated. Indeed, Last Days at Hot Slit may find a more receptive audience today than Dworkin ever had during her lifetime ... Dworkin was more than the writer of alarming misandrist screeds that critics made her out to be. At her best, she looked with ultraviolet clarity at how much women are forced to endure, to accept, to apologize for, to clean up, to sacrifice, to suffer just because they are women. She understood that a woman’s lot in life is often permanent and has the vivid pathos of a scar.
RaveBoston ReviewAlthough Indiana was not seduced by the Cult of the Name, it is all but impossible to read these pieces today and not think about how they helped shape public perception of Jeff Koons...Jenny Holzer...Gerard Richter...Eric Fischl...and the other art superstars such as Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Sherri Levine, and Robert Mapplethorpe who came into his crosshairs. It is also impossible to read the columns without savoring their radioactive wit and aphoristic intelligence ... Indiana has the thankless honor of being one of our culture’s most prescient critics, and one of its most distinctive. His voice is unabashedly queer, the slant catcall of an outsider empathetic to other outsiders but combustible toward anything institutional ... Few critics today write the way Indiana does in these columns, and fewer still are so prepared to burn bridges or make enemies. Social media has arguably depressed this brand of idiosyncratic, bilious, often sarcastic criticism ... Written during the AIDS epidemic—U.S. AIDS-related deaths topped 10,000 by the end of 1985—Indiana’s criticism functioned as an existential plague journal, one man’s weekly effort to determine what’s authentic and what isn’t, what matters and what’s bullshit ... Indiana was, and remains, a different kind of writer—a sui generis mash-up of Ambrose Bierce, E. M. Cioran, Lester Bangs, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
RaveThe GuardianAs a record of obsession, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark delivers a nearly fluorescent portrait of the fanatic’s life: the sleepless nights and shut-in days, the rabbit holes of online message boards, the underground economies of samizdat information ... no matter how grisly things get – and there’s no shortage of horror with more than 50 sexual assaults, at least 10 murders, and tableaux of psychological torture – McNamara retains a sense of humour. But it’s a humour tempered by moral exigency. To identify a killer is to take away his power and render him banal, McNamara argues. In one of the book’s many sharp insights, she likens herself and all amateur detectives to the killers they seek. Both perpetrator and sleuth share an uncommon and singular compulsion ... \'The Golden State Killer haunts their dreams,\' McNamara writes. \'He’s ruined their marriages. He’s burrowed so deeply inside their heads that they want to, or have to, believe that if they locked eyes with him, they’d know.\' You come away from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark suspecting much the same of McNamara.
Bill James & Rachel McCarthy James
RaveThe MillionsThe Jameses have an advantage that contemporary reporters and investigators did not: namely, access to newspaper archives, digital maps, and spreadsheets. Based on deep-dive analysis, they argue—elegantly and persuasively—that these seemingly haphazard murders were connected, and that one man is to blame. If that’s true, and if we attribute all of these slayings to him, we’re talking about the worst serial killer in U.S. history, responsible for more than 100 deaths … But how do we know that these far-flung murders are related? The Jameses list 33 unique ‘signatures’ that define the killer’s methodology and that recur with startling frequency at numerous crime scenes … The idea that axe murders somehow represented America’s id during a period of runaway modernization is one of the book’s many fascinating theses. ‘There are trends and fashions in crimes as much as in any other area,’ the Jameses write.