Book Notes: Gay Fiction Roundup

As promised, our Pride Month series this year includes reviews of the best GLBT-themed books that have come to the attention of Reiter’s Block. These short fiction anthologies stood out for their fine writing, diverse perspectives, and emotionally compelling characters.

*Steve Berman, ed., Best Gay Stories 2008 (Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2008).

This anthology boasts an appealing mix of genres including fantasy, horror, and crime fiction, along with more traditional literary fiction. The economic and racial diversity of the characters also held my interest. As a woman writing about gay men, I appreciated the inclusion of two female authors here. Favorite tales: Raymond Luczak, “Interpretations,” the story of a sign-language interpreter working with deaf gay men at the beginning of the AIDS crisis; Holly Black, “The Coat of Stars,” a magical-realist love story about a Hispanic tailor who must win his childhood sweetheart away from the fairy queen; and Jeff Mann, “Taming the Trees,” which combines the rural, S&M, and “bear” subcultures in the unlikely persona of a middle-aged professor missing the one man he truly loved.

*Richard Canning, ed., Between Men (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007).

This is a fine collection of contemporary literary fiction, enhanced by Canning’s introduction, which highlights important themes in the stories and places them in their cultural context. Some novel excerpts work better than others as stand-alone reads, but all authors are high-quality. Overall, the book’s flavor is subtle and melancholy. Favorite tales: Kevin Killian, “Greensleeves,” a disturbing account of a power game between a wife, a husband, and his gay lovers, whose motives are left to the reader’s imagination; John Weir, “Neorealism at the Infiniplex,” in which anger, grief, and comedy collide at the funeral of a friend who died of AIDS; David McConnell, “Rivals,” the unforgettable story of a female teacher who seduces an eleven-year-old boy (an excerpt from his forthcoming novel The Beads); and Tennessee Jones, “Pennsylvania Story,” the dark romance of two abused men reenacting their past.

*Donald Weise, ed., Fresh Men 2: New Voices in Gay Fiction (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005).

This anthology series showcases emerging gay male authors of literary fiction. Not surprisingly, casual sex and unfulfilled longing are common themes, though handled in a variety of ways. In my opinion, the most original and substantial tales in this book are clustered toward the end: Rakesh Satyal, “Difference,” an unbearably tender and sad story of a young man who can’t get over a breakup; Ted Gideonse, “The Lost Coast,” in which a vacationing male couple’s relationship is tested when tragedy strikes their fellow campers; and James Grissom, “A Bright and Shining Place,” which addresses homophobia in the black church and how it strains one interracial couple.

*Richard Canning, ed., Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007).

Canning once again works overtime as editor to provide a masterful survey of AIDS literature from the pre-1996 period, before the new drug therapies offered HIV+ people a chance at a normal lifespan. All the stories are powerful and well-written, but I was particularly affected by the following: Edmund White, “An Oracle,” in which a young hustler on a Greek island helps a man grieve for his dead lover; the late Allen Barnett, “Philostorgy, Now Obscure,” about a terminally ill man gently closing the book on his complicated friendship with two women; Thomas Glave, “The Final Inning,” about the suffering of closeted gay men in the black community; and Dale Peck, “Thirteen Ecstasies of the Soul,” a lyrical tribute to two dead friends, told as a series of prose-poems.