Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Little Altar Boy” by John Guzlowski— A Noir/Crime Novel

Guzlowski, John. “Little Altar Boy”, Kasva Press, 2020.

A Noir/Crime Novel

Amos Lassen

During the 1960s in Chicago in a refugee and immigrant neighborhood, detective Hank Purcell is at home when there is a knock on his door. Sister Mary Philomena has come to him because she has seen something terrible at Saint Fidelis Church and it is a violation of all that she considers sacred. She asks Hank and his partner, Marvin Bondarowicz, to look into a pedophile priest who she believes is abusing altar boys. Not long afterwards, Sister Mary is found murdered in the convent basement, next to a furnace stuffed with old papers and photographs. The case now becomes more complicated as it seems that the murder and pedophilia are connected in some way. As if his hands are not already full, Hank’s teenage daughter, has disappeared and she just might have been kidnapped by drug dealers.

The case is especially difficult because the Catholic Church is involved and Hank and Marvin must find a way to break through the wall the Church as around itself, attempting to protect its own. The story is based on a memory from Guzlowski’s childhood in his church parish in 1955. Three of the five priests there were pedophiles and quite naturally the Archdiocese of Chicago was determined to keep this quiet. Hank and Marvin had been affected by what they witnessed in World War II and this adds another layer to the plot. Guzlowski uses this subplot to show how war affects those who participated in it. He also reflects on the crimes that are committed in refugee/immigrant neighborhoods and his descriptions are full and often brutal and that unlike some of the dramas we see in public media, crimes like these are not easily solved. Not only do our detectives face terrible crimes, they have to deal with their own feelings as they work through the case.

I find that the fact that pedophilia in the Church is not only shocking but that it is still going on and devout Catholics still place their church above all. When the news first broke about pedophile priests, many refused to believe it and continued reacting to the church as they had always done while knowing that abuse remains active. The uniqueness of this book is the way we are pulled into the story and are constantly aware that not much has changed regarding pedophile priests. It only took a couple of pages before I was totally immersed in the events of the story—so much so that I finished the book in one sitting and wondering why these kinds of events are happening still today. Have we not learned from the past?

Guzlowski is a fine storyteller and as I stated earlier, he is a whiz at description. This is, by no means, an easy read and there were times that I was so emotionally involved in the story that there were several times that I had to look up from the pages and relax a bit. On the other hand, I could not stop reading. I did not feel a sense of relief upon finishing the novel because knowing what we know, it is only a matter of time before more cases of pedophilia at the hands of priests will come to the fore. Guzlowski makes us very aware of this. I deliberately have avoided writing in detail about the plot because I want readers to share the experience of reading a well written novel without knowing some of the facts ahead of time.

“The Knockout Queen” by Rufi Thorpe— Being Good

Thorpe, Rufi. “The Knockout Queen”, Knopf, 2020.

Being Good

Amos Lassen

Rufi Thorpe’s “The Knockout Queen” takes readers to the California suburbs and to a darkly comical story about friendship, the struggle to exist in our bodies, and just what it means to be good.

Michael sees Bunny Lampert as  the Princess of the North Shore. He watches  her at school and through the windows of his aunt’s house (where he lives next door), When he’s caught hiding out in Bunny’s side yard smoking a cigarette, they become best friends almost against his will. Michael is not the kind to open up, but he and Bunny begin to bond over shared secrets—they were both raised in abusive homes, have troubled relationships with their parents, complicated relationships with their sexuality. There are certain things that they do not share. Bunny can’t stand what she looks like and what she might be physically capable of, and Michael meets men on Craig’s List for anonymous secret sexual encounters. When Michael falls in love for the first time, vicious gossip circulates and a horrible and brutal act comes to define his and Bunny’s futures and friendship. They are suddenly forced into the adulthood that neither is ready for.

This is a dark and comic meditation on moral ambiguity. We have no victims and no heroes. Everyone is innocent and everyone is culpable and no one is absolved. We see brutality and kindness.  This is a coming-of-age story that is replete with heartbreak, honesty and hope. It is a

novel “about unruly thoughts and unruly bodies, about violence and love, about doing the wrong thing for the right reasons and the drag of human being.”  

Thorpe examines friendship and what connects us and she does so through detail and dark humor. Michael and Bunny are unique and are wonderfully drawn and leave strong impressions on the reader.

I was often unsettled by what I read here but in a good way because I was forced into thinking about violence, beauty, and privilege. We see the pain involved in changing friendships and it is uncomfortable. Thorpe writes wonderful descriptions and gets into the inner feelings of her characters. We read of “an unlikely high school friendship with intensity and attentiveness” and in doing so we get a good look at ourselves.

“The Wanting Life” by Mark Vader— An Unconventional Love Story

Rader, Mark. “The Wanting Life”, Unnamed Press, 2020.

An Unconventional Love Story

Amos Lassen

“The Wanting Life” by Mark Rader is a drama about secrets and sacrifice and an American family. Set in Rome, Cape Cod, and Wisconsin during the summer of 2009, and in Rome during the spring of 1970,  this is the intertwined story of three members of the Novak family: Paul, a dying priest haunted by his past; Britta, his self-destructive sister and caretaker who is trying to find meaning in a world without her husband; and Maura, Britta’s daughter, a thirty-nine-year-old artist who’s facing a choice between her husband and two children, and the man she believes is her true love. Here is storytelling at its best. We not only get intricate psychology but also real characters and a serious exploration of faith. This is a multi-generational story that questions desire, truth, and what it means to lead a full life.

We look at what it means to deserve love and to be loved. The characters reveal the mystery and power of great love, when that love is out of reach. I found it especially relevant to me in that we read about what we lose as we age and the power and necessity of remembering and that there is always an opportunity for a different future than what we thought.

We explore the emotional costs of seeking and sacrificing romantic love though an insightful and compassionate family drama that focuses on desire, love, and what it takes to live a full life. The focus is on happiness, fulfillment, and love.

Rader uses three intertwined lives filled with longing, regret, desire, grace, and hope  as a conduit for his plot. We read of the family’s fears and secrets and we are reminded that the world is filled with lonely people and we get an understanding of the human heart in conflict with itself.

“Lion’s Head Revisited: A Dan Sharp Mystery” by Jeffrey Round— Facing the Past

Roundy, Jeffrey. “Lion’s Head Revisited: A Dan Sharp Mystery”, Dundurn, 2020.

Facing the Past

Amos Lassen

 Private Investigator Dan Sharp  comes to Ontario to Lion’s Head in the Bruce peninsula because of a case in which he must face his own dark past. When a four-year-old autistic boy disappears on a camping trip, his mother does not want to call and instead, she calls in private investigator Dan Sharp after she receives a ransom demand. 

As he begins his investigation, Dan learns there are plenty of people who could be responsible for the kidnapping. There is an ex-husband who wrongly believed the boy to be his son; the boy’s drug addicted surrogate mother, the boy’s grandmother, who has been denied access to her grandson; and a mysterious woman whose unexpected appearances set everyone on edge.

At Lion’s Head in the Bruce Peninsula, where the boy disappeared, Dan is forced to face his own brutal upbringing. When a suspected kidnapper is found dead, Dan suddenly chases the ghosts of both the present and the past.

Dan Sharp is a smart gay private detective. who specializes in finding lost persons. Jeffrey Round’s books explore LGBT themes especially regarding the representation of gay men in crime fiction as well as insight into the gay community. There is a lot of suspense and tension in Round’s writing and he has drawn characters who are well developed and believable. While this case is complicated it is not difficult to follow. Of course, it helps that Round is a master of description and character construction.

It is Sharp’s job to find the 4 year old autistic boy who suddenly was missing on a camping trip. The boy’s mother lives with her female partner and the missing boy’s actual biological father, Eli who is a past schoolmate of both women. Could the kidnapper be any of suspects mentioned above or someone else?  When the ransom money goes missing. it is not clear whether he can be saved and as he works on the case, Dan’s life in danger.

Dan grew up in Lion’s Head and while he investigates, he faces the past emotional trauma  he had to deal with as he grew up. In his personal life and at the same time, Dan’s son is on a college break with some of his supportive friends while Nick, his policeman lover is trying to decide whether they should move in together. We want Dan to find happiness but his plate is quite full.

With the help of Nick, they review the suspects and try to follow the trail of the kidnappers; figuring that there must be more than one of them. The intense plot and Round’s writing skills kept me turning pages as quickly as possible. There are surprises and twists that kept me guessing. This is so much more than a mystery/thriller and I really love that.

“The Lucky Star” by William T. Vollman— Desire and Life

Vollmann, William T. “The Lucky Star: A Novel”, Viking, 2020.

Desire and Life

Amos Lassen

In the past, National Book Award William T. Vollmann wrote about  the lives of the dispossessed in San Francisco. In “The Lucky Star”, he returns to them with a parable about the limitations of desire and life at the margins of society. The story centers on a woman with magical powers whom everyone loves, and who has to love them all back.

Neva has been initiated into a coven of island witches and begins to fulfill her fate in a Tenderloin dive bar. Her worshippers include Richard, an introverted, alcoholic, occasionally omniscient narrator; Shantelle, a profane, aggressive transgender sex worker; Francine, the brisk but motherly barmaid and Frank, who has renamed herself  Judy after her idol Judy Garland. When Judy starts to love Neva too much, Judy’s retired policeman boyfriend begins a mission of exposure and destruction.

We read of slow burn relationships with Neva, a magical Christ-like figure who is both cursed and blessed with the power to dispense endless love. Vollmann comes across as vulgar and sick yet beautiful in his use of prose. He makes us aware of the value of everyone who is around us .

The language is spiritual and sexually graphic yet the novel brims with compassion while exploring celebrity culture, gender identity, incest, Christian sacrifice and the heroism of “marginalized people who in the face of humiliation and outright violence seek to love in their own way, and stand up for who they are.” To say more than that would ruin a terrific read.

“Romance in Marseille” by Claude McKay— Physical Disability, Transatlantic Travel, and Black international Politics

McKay, Claude. “Romance in Marseille”, Penguin Classics, 2020.

Physical Disability, Transatlantic Travel, and Black international Politics

Amos Lassen

“Romance in Marseille” is Claude McKay’s pioneering novel of physical disability, transatlantic travel, and black international politics. It is vital document of black modernism and one of the earliest overtly queer fictions in the African American tradition. It has now been published for the first time having been buried in the archive for almost ninety years. The novel traces the adventures of a troupe of dockworkers, prostitutes, and political organizers (collectively straight and queer, disabled and able-bodied, African, European, Caribbean, and American). It is set largely in the culture-blending Vieux Port of Marseille at the height of the Jazz Age. Lafala is an acutely disabled and very wealthy West African sailor. He stows away on a transatlantic freighter and when discovered, he is in a frigid closet and becomes frostbitten by the time the boat docks. He was once an agile dancer but now he loses both of his lower legs and sees himself as “an amputated man.” Due to an improbably successful lawsuit against the shipping line, Lafala scores big financially in the United States. After his legal payout, Lafala returns to Marseille and resumes his trans-African affair with Aslima, a Moroccan courtesan., McKay’s novel is filled with senses of searching for sexual pleasure and liberty and explores the heritage of slavery within modern economy.

This first-ever edition includes an introduction by McKay scholars Gary Edward Holcomb and William J. Maxwell. The novel reflects the “stowaway era” of black cultural politics and the author’s career as both a star and skeptic of the Harlem Renaissance.

“Romance in Marseille” widens the canon of novels written by Harlem Renaissance writers and because it was written in the second half of the period, it shows that the renaissance not only continued to be vibrant and creative but also turned its focus to international issues. Here we read of the  tensions between Communists and black nationalists.

Claude McKay celebrates his ex-pat youth in his novel which is both a creative work of fiction and a historical document. It is a fascinating and timely reading of an era in which solidarity-building across racial identities and national borders is necessary and difficult to achieve. This is a satire of the political activists and intelligentsia of 1930s Harlem and the capstone to McKay’s literary career.

The book was written shortly after the period it covers. It reflects that era with an intimacy that would have been impossible to capture in a later time. Reading this today is like finding a lost world that, with its struggles over race and class in New York and elsewhere. We peep into an overlooked era when turmoil in Europe and the Depression at home did not stop Harlem’s writers from carrying on with their work.

“Real Life” by Brandon Taylor— Intimacy, Violence and Mercy

 Taylor, Brandon. “Real Life: A Novel”, Riverhead Books, 2020.

Intimacy, Violence and Mercy

Amos Lassen

Brandon Taylor’s “Real Life” is a novel of intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town. Wallace is working toward a degree in biochemistry at a Midwestern college. He is an introvert, black and queer from a small town in Alabama and even though he has moved on, he is still haunted by his childhood year. He has friends but he maintains a distance from them for his own self-preservation.

During a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with a straight, white classmate, Wallace’s defenses are torn down and formerly hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community emerge.  

Brandon Taylor writes wonderfully restrained dialogue between men. We feel the emotion of the words and it is through the dialogue that the characters become incredibly real.  Wallace has to learn how to understand and deal with his while at the same time face racism and homophobia. He harbors a fear of failure and does not really know what it is to live in the “real” world of friends and potential lovers.

Taylor goes a step further in the creation of Wallace; he examines the gay male body in detail showing how “it can sabotage and complicate a queer male heart.” Through Wallace we see how we sometimes fail both as lovers and friends and how we do not make a place for the stories of the people in our lives. We are afraid of connection out of fear of connection and only by relating stories like Wallace’s can we free ourselves.  

“Real Life” takes place over three days and reading about those three days shows us  a lifetime filled with misfortune and daily injustices towards certain minority groups by those who ae thought to be allies.  We see the lives we don’t live and the sense of privilege we get from being white..
Wallace’s group of friends is white and the racial disparity is extremely obvious. Wallace continually seems to be the scapegoat for his friend’s problems yet he is also a confidant they want to confide in but they never really seem to want to learn about him or see how he’s doing. His friends see any problem he has is filled with overreaction and drama. The friends use him as a way to feel better about themselves. He provides temporary relief and he never thinks about or questions their disloyalties even though they are obviously using him.  

Wallace begins a romantic relationship with Miller who buries his sexuality and they begin to become part of each other’s lives. Through their traumatic pasts we learn who Wallace and Miller really are, as well as about everyone else around them. Taylor shows the toxic friendships and race problems in the world, and the general lack of empathy of our generation.

What makes “Real Life” so  profound is in its asking if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds and at what cost.

“Winter Masquerade” by Kevin Klehr— Through the Looking Glass

Klehr, Kevin. “Winter Masquerade”,  NineStar Press, 2020.

Through the Looking Glass

Amos Lassen

Kevin Klehr’s hero, Ferris awakens to find himself aboard the “Sea Queen”, not understanding how he got here. He does know that he really wants to be home with his boyfriend. He does not want to be on “an enchanted cruise ship sailing on a chocolate sea.” It seems that there is only one person who can help Ferris and that is the alchemist but he’s been kidnapped. Then there is a very strange ransom— high tea with scones and jam.
On board, all of the the passengers are getting ready for the Winter Masquerade, a ball known for love and magic. We can only wonder what is really going on.

This is the story of two universes—-Ferris’ voyage and time in a fantasy world and his life at home. When Ferris first begins his sea journey, he is on a very strange and absurd adventure but as we move forward we realize that he gains strength as a result. I also realized that the story is not as absurd as it first appears. We all have strange occurrences in our lives and often by escaping reality, we learn something about ourselves.

Ferris sees that he never lost those who care the most for him but it took  a world of fantasy and strange characters for him to understand this. The characters at work at making him understand this and eventually he is able to return to the real world more confident and stronger than he was when he left it.  What I first thought was going to be a “fluff” read became something much more serious when I realized the message that Klehr was sending us. The writing is clear and fun with great puns and characters’ names and seeing the world from a different point of view kept me reading. I also enjoyed the metaphor of the “Sea Queen”, a world that is always there for those moments when we need to escape the way we live every day.

“TOP 3”— A Swedish Story

“TOP 3”

A Swedish Story

Amos Lassen

The Swedish animated film “Top 3” consists of a simple story— Anton (Eric Ernerstedt) is a young college student who falls madly in love with David (Jonas Jonsson), a boy from his high school who is a couple of years younger. Anton’s life consists of lists, starting with the top three idiots he hates the most: the Prime Minister, me (himself), and you (David). With an honest script written by Simon Österhof and directed by Sofie Edvardsson, it is filled with little things that make it relatable, like how Anton bails on parties because it’s “laundry day”. The film is shorter than a feature but it does not  rush. It takes its time for Anton and David to chat, to travel, and to live together for a summer. Did I mention that it is animated? 

“Top 3” is about young love, long-distance relationships, and the heartbreak of learning exactly what you want in life. Anton wants to stay in Sweden in their little hometown village and enjoy movies with the fireplace burning in the winter. David wants to travel the world, and be on the move. Their dreams are at odds and their relationship, like many young ones, cannot handle the differences. 

This is a story we’ve heard before but Its originality comes from the specificity of its characters and their situations, along with the wonderful animation. The ending lacks conviction, as Anton suffers in his pain but it is a realistic ending, though. When we’re young, we’re unsure and full of mistakes and full of concerns about making those mistakes. We tend to second-guess everything and seeing that, the film becomes humanistic. 

Things start to go awry when Anton realizes that his dreams in life might be in direct opposition to those of his lover. In a companion film, included on the DVD, “A Halloween Trick”, an oversexed party boy finds himself at odds with his quiet neighbor in the days leading up to Halloween. He discovers that their miscommunication may have deadly consequences when he accidentally invites the wrong man home for the night.

There is nothing queer about “Top 3” aside from being a romantic comedy between two men. It is a distinctly conventional animated tale of David and Anton in which boy meets boy, boy falls in love with boy, boy and boy travel the world and then settle down, boy and boy realize they have different wants and needs in life, boy breaks up with boy.

The animation of “Top 3” has a stylized prettiness. With the visual impact of a children’s story book yet there is a corporate cleanliness to the care with which the scenes and characters are depicted. The title “Top 3” refers to a recurrent device used in the animation where David gives his Top 3 list for any situation. On the verge of his break up we learn that his Top 3 things to do on a final night with his lover are 1) Overdramatize everything 2) Discover something new 3) Be as bored as possible to make time pass slowly. The lists create punctuation marks of self-reflection throughout the story. The point of the plot is the learning process that each person goes through by being part of a couple. David learns that however much he yearns for the particular things that make him happy those things he enjoys are of less value compared to having someone to enjoy them with.

The film is terribly predictable, but only once you throw aside the expectation that because it’s a gay romantic comedy it will somehow be different than all the straight rom coms. It isn’t and that’s the radical point it makes.

It is the emotional push and pulls that make this such a resonating story. At the height of their relationship, Anton  and David are battled by the very things that first attracted them to each other. Their journey follows the two over time with title cards and vignettes. We see it through Anton’s point of view, with happy dances in his mind and made up scenarios. His best pal, Miriam is endlessly supportive to the two and she keeps Anton afloat.  Anton and David are faced with the question of “Where do we go from here?” Love can be unassured and out of order. When a companionship feels inconclusive, anguish gets the best of us. Anton and David were once looking at each other with joy and but then with uncertainty and pain.

Shown through Anton and David’s love story is a palette of bright colors. At the height of every scene is a Top 3 list voiced over by Anton himself.

“Always There by Leaving” by Lou Dellaguzzo— A Loner

Dellaguzzo, Lou, “Always There by Leaving”, Beautiful Dreamer, 2020.

A Loner

Amos Lassen

Paul is just twelve years old and is already a loner. He has stepped back from everything including withdrawing from his school, his family, and his own body. He hardly has a connection with the reality in which we all live. But he meets Hal, another angry youth, who carries his brother’s guilt (his brother was arrested for a violent home invasion). Even though the sources of their anger and loneliness are different, the two boys manage to bond by fighting but eventually  evolves into something more even while being unequal. There is affection between the two, but it is always tested  by Hal and his behavior, which is risky. They become involved in a shoplifting scheme that goes wrong—  they play dangerous games, and are present when the police raid on a gay bar.

Set in Newark in the late 1960s, life seems to fall apart around Hal and Paul. Hal’s schemes become wilder and they lead to a messed up drug deal and deadly violence. We learn of Paul’s dysfunctional family life and about the dangerous men who are willing to take advantage of boys whose families do not seem to care and who search for love. More than just a story, we get a look at “class, family, sexual difference, urban decay, and passionate friendships.”

I have always felt that a good read comes from the author’s plot ideas and construction, the development of characters, the quality of prose and “Always There by Leaving” excels in all three areas. I was unable to stop reading once I began the novel. There are rare twists and turns throughout and something about the two boys made me care about them. Lou Dellaguzzo brings us two characters that are unforgettable but then all of the characters found their way into my thoughts and are likely to remain there for a long time. Paul and Hal share a friendship that is far from the way many of us think about the word. They two boys build a love that began as a fight (and their relationship is often dangerous and violent) yet they have each other. Even though that does not always seem like the best thing, they both learn a great deal about love. Dellaguzzo takes us back to a time when being gay carried a lot of baggage. Hence, we are reminded of how lucky we all are today.