Review of Next to Nothing: Stories by Keith Banner

Next to Nothing: Stories by Keith Banner (Lethe Press, 2015). A Lambda Literary Award finalist.

This is the real Heartland, full of the everyday Americans you will find all around you, should you choose to look and see. These are not the trite buffoons of sitcoms, not the artificial, overwrought white trash inhabitants of “reality television.” These are people with whom you interact in a thousand little ways every day. The manager at Ponderosa. The sketchy family who run the video store beside the McDonald’s. That reminds me: These stories primarily feel set in the nineteen seventies and eighties, but aren’t. This dichotomy comes about because there are no smart phones in these stories. There barely are any cell phones. No computers. No cable television. Then again, there are still pockets of this nation that cell phones barely reach, where unattended land lines often don’t go to answering services or even have answering machines attached, and where people, when asked if they have an email address, are apt to say, “Nah. I don’t fool around with them computers.” Trust me, I ask that question and get that response often, for work. This is that America, rendered with unflinching realism and care.

Review of Saints and Sinners: New Fiction from the Festival 2015

SAS Anthology Scaled 2

Now an INDIEFAB Book of the Year finalist!

The latest book in which I have a story is Saints and Sinners: New Fiction from the Festival 2015, edited by Amie M. Evans and Paul J. Willis (Bold Strokes Books). It debuted during the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in March.

Is it gauche to review a book in which one’s own work appears? Perhaps. If so, I am unrepentantly so, having also reviewed the 2013 and 2014 editions of the anthology, as well as Best Gay Romance 2014 (Cleis Press) and Diverse Voices Quarterly vol. 6 Issue 21, despite having stories in each. Oh well. As of this writing only one other person has seen fit to review this volume (huge shout out to ‘Nathan Burgoine). Really, people? C’mon.

I love this anthology series, and this year’s edition did not disappoint. It started off on a very serious, pull-no-punches kind of note with “Gingerbread” by Eric Andrew-Katz. Set in Germany during WWII, it’s the story of a Jewish man who finds himself at the mercy of his ex-lover, now part of the Nazi machine. Brutal, bleak, and disturbing, it’s a hell of a way to open the collection.

The next story, “Wrens Knell” by Kristyn Dunnion, isn’t much cheerier. Stephen is a dead teenager in limbo, a victim of the systemic homophobia that turns schoolchildren, parents and priests into predators; murderers by proxy if not by point of fact.

Frank Perez turns things around with “Hustlers Court.” It’s full of humor and larger-than-life, loveably flawed characters, although I wish the waitress and lone female of the piece, who is described as “the large woman in a mu-mu,” “the mu-mu woman,” and “the large mu-mu lady” (that one four times), had been given a name, in the same way that Wills, Phillip, Benson, JD, Frizzy, Earl, John, Urban, Hoyle, The Oracle, Nox, Lamar, Spinato, Dorignac, and even the bar itself, the Double Play, and its competitors, the Grand Pre and Tiki’s, were all given names. Aside from that seeming blind spot, it’s a gritty, highly irreverent read which I liked very much.

The next story up, “Maple Beach People” by Lee Lynch, feels like part of a novel and really, really, really needs to be turned into one, if it isn’t. I’d buy that book in a heartbeat. The story concerns a network of women, all lesbians, struggling to carve out lives worth living while enduring the oppressive homophobia, misogyny and racism of the 1950s. Who couldn’t empathize with the young protagonist, Luce, as she tries to envision her future?

“What it was Turned Ollie Queer” by Mike Tuohy wins my vote for best story title, but I had trouble identifying with the good ol’ boys of the piece. As with the last story there’s entrenched homophobia and racism; there’s also, though, an outlandishness that’s meant to temper it with humor, only I didn’t trust the majority of the characters and so held my breath through most of the tale, anticipating violence. It did not manifest, thankfully, and a second reading allowed the humor to come fully to the fore.

Next we have the speculative fiction piece “Femorph” by James Russell. The world of the story is one where bodies have obvious dual natures from birth, with one gender asserting dominance and becoming cemented at adulthood, a process termed “calcification”. Aaron is a teenager torn by his desire for conflicting things: the friendship he shares with his best friend Michael, who is gay, vs. the sexual attraction he shares with Michael’s alter-ego Michelle. The thing is, there can be no ambivalence, no shifting back and forth between the personalities inhabiting a body once calcification hits, or the consequences can be fatal. I loved this examination of sexual attraction, gender identity, selfish vs. selfless-ness, and societal expectations, and I hope it finds a wide audience.

I know exactly why I like the story “Fat Hands” by John Kane. It’s because it’s filled with things that remind me of Michael Kearns: Silver Lake, Hollywood, HIV and AIDS, bathhouses, created families, friendships that span decades, and the wisdom of one who has lived life with his eyes wide open. The crispness of the prose elevates the story, rendering what might be maudlin, uplifting and poignant instead. That’s quite a trick.

The next story, “Days of Awe,” is mine. I’d love feedback, if you’ve read it. Moving on, I thought I wouldn’t like “Pageant Girl” by Sam Hawk, because I am not a fan of beauty pageants in general, and ones involving small children tend to make me apoplectic, but I found myself rooting for Elsie and her coach, Bennie. You know what did it? A shared hatred of her biggest competition, Miss Dallas Northeast. In the early nineteen nineties I spent a week in Mesquite, TX. Let’s just say I can relate.

I expected to like “‘Til it Bleeds” by Jerry Rabushka, because I so enjoyed his “Sample Day” in last year’s anthology, and I was not disappointed, though I was thrown for a bit of a loop when the story turned out to have an omniscient POV. It was also rough walking around (mostly) in Kurt’s skin, though I had a hard time identifying why that was. Here is a man who tries hard to figure out his feelings, yet always ends up blaming others for his unhappiness, his loneliness. I’m not sure what his problem is, or how to fix it, but I like him.

Felice Picano’s story “A Perfect Fit” is a time-travelling head trip of an adventure. The hero is sent back several thousand years, in order to investigate the early days of a legend, but as the story events unfold he finds his life and that of the historical figure being conflated. The question arises for the reader: Will he be able to go home? (I’d also like to know if this a fraction of a novel.)

The last story is “Basketball Fever” by Maureen Brady. I admired, first of all, that it has as its protagonists two women of “advanced” age. Charlene and Shoney also aren’t rich or beautiful, and never have been. They’re everywomen who have become friends because their seats as season ticket holders for the WNBA team The Liberty happen to be side-by-side. The thing is, they’ve got a lot more in common than basketball, but fear of rejection keeps them from exploring any potential relationship beyond the sports stadium, right up to and past the last game of the season. Thankfully, they get an opportunity to correct that mistake during a post-season celebration at Madison Square Garden. I loved the affection they exhibit for one another, and the gentle humor that runs all through the story. It’s another one I’d like to see be developed into a longer work.

There you have it. Well, sort of. You can actually have it by clicking here:

http://www.boldstrokesbooks.com/9781626393912e.html

Death By The Riverside

“Death by the Riverside” by J.M. Redmann. (Bold Strokes Books, 2009.)

This is the first of the Micky Knight Mystery series. Based on the blurb, I had an inkling I would like it. It turns out I was wrong. I didn’t like it; I loved it.

Right from the get-go, the story was hilarious. Micky is a great character: sarcastic, sharp-eyed, keen of mind, and always, always cool. She’s flawed, very human, and therefore relatable. She’s wounded yet she’s also kind, deserving of a happiness that’s always just out of reach, which of course makes her sympathetic. Beyond her perspective, the author knew exactly which elements would make the story a terrific in-joke without going too far (a bar called Gertrude’s Stein made me laugh out loud), the plot kept me guessing, and plenty of action ensured things stayed lively.

The balance of dialogue to exposition (written in the character’s appealing, ironic tone) was perfect, something I noticed because I’d just read a book where that was not the case, written by someone who should know better, and the result was wooden, recurring, soap opera-type dialogue, as jarring as an out-of-tune instrument. By contrast, there wasn’t a word of this book that struck a wrong note.

One final thought. This story is heavy on what’s termed “gay agenda”. That’ll no doubt put some people off, but it’s one of the things I liked best about it. Similar to the way that someone who likes vampire stories never wearies of hearing a new one, I’m always going to want to read narratives in which a person persecuted for being gay not only survives the abuse but triumphs.This one was great, and I can’t wait to read the next installment.

Short Stories 365/367*

“The Crooked Man” by Charles Beaumont from The Hunger and Other Stories (Valancourt, 2013). Originally published in Playboy magazine, 1955.

* Due to an error in the planning of these reviews, this is the final one.

Jesse waits for his lover in a private booth in a bar that caters exclusively to homosexual men. He’s nervous because he knows the person he loves isn’t welcome in the bar, and normally would never be let in. Tonight, though, she will be disguised as a man.

It’s the only way they can see one another. The newly elected government has closed all the parks and public squares, anywhere people of the opposite sex might spend even innocent time in one another’s company. Heterosexuality, you see, has been deemed barbaric, the basest sort of animal instinct. Women and men live strictly segregated existences, and procreation is carried out via test tubes and Petri dishes, everything clean and neat.

I know Fox media would have everyone believe we’re on the brink of the reality laid out in this story, because inflammatory “news” like that sells advertising, and I know there’s a website that claims this story was a cheeky unmasking of an actual “game plan” of an actual “gay agenda”, but the truth is very different. In reality this story describes the way things already are for lots of people. LGBT people.

Has it gotten any better in the sixty years since this story was penned? Sure it has, in certain places, and at certain times. There are some states where people can get married to their same-sex partner, some cities where they can’t be fired for being gay, or denied housing or medical care. But in some places it’s as if nothing has changed. In those places people still get thrown out of their homes, get forced into programs designed to brainwash them into being someone they are not, and get murdered in the street.

All this story tries to do is let someone who has never experienced that kind of discrimination and hatred walk a mile in those shoes. Does it expose the game plan of a group with a sexual agenda? It sure does. It’s the game plan of the heteronormative world we live in.

I wanted to close the project with this story because it is the sixty year anniversary of its publication, and because I think many people aren’t aware of it. If the plot sounds a little bit like an episode of the Twilight Zone, that’s probably because several of the Twilight Zone scripts were adapted from short stories by Charles Beaumont. The show has his style, if you will.

The only detail about Beaumont’s life I could find that in any way speaks to his sexuality is the fact that he had a wife and a couple of kids. That doesn’t mean a hill of beans, I know, especially during the McCarthy era. Probably more telling is that I couldn’t find his name on any Who’s Who list of LGBT folks. Therefore, I’m going to assume he was straight, and that he wrote this story because, as a writer, he was compelled to look at the world around him and comment on the things that kept him awake at night.

One last thing while we’re on the subject of straight men. Whatever else you may think of Hugh Hefner, he did publish this, then, and afterward defended his decision by saying, “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society then the reverse was wrong, too.”

Short Stories 365/366*

“Montgomery Boys” by Jonathan Harper from Daydreamers (Lethe Press, 2015).

This volume will be released in March. I was given an advanced reader copy by the publisher.

* Due to a couple of errors in the planning of these reviews, the final count will be 367.  Also, the final story in this collection, “The Bloated Woman,” was already reviewed here as part of the Lethe Press anthology The Touch of the Sea. See Short Stories 365/259.

Bruce spends much of his free time in an establishment called Montgomery’s, ogling the reedy boys who dance on the bar, bring drinks to the patrons, and regale them with grandiose future plans. It’s all bullshit, of course, as are many interactions with service industry professionals. If they like you they may say so, but if they don’t, they’ll pretend they do. It’s their job. How can you tell the difference?

We’re told that Bruce is nearly sixty and slightly resembles Santa Claus. Also, that he “no longer fantasized about sleeping with (the dancers).” But it’s not always about sex, is it? For some people, the turn on is exerting power over someone else. Bruce is revealed to be selfish and predatory. We discover this through his interactions with a co-worker, Sally, who’s a serial adulterer. They’re like a pair of sharks, eyeing the young men in their respective pools.

Lenny, the newest and also oldest of the dancers, doesn’t know any of this, of course. He comes across as aloof and haughty, annoyed by his need to work at Montgomery’s, but you also get the sense that he’s blocking out a lot.

Lenny rang true to me, but to be sure I re-read sections of Assuming the Position: a memoir of hustling by Rick Whitaker. Although this story is an examination of Bruce, not Lenny, consider:

I felt arrogant, as if my services were too valuable to give away, which was a wonderfully empowering state of mind…The arrogance eventually became a psychological burden, an unwanted defense. But at the time it felt pretty good. I was beholden to no one—that’s how I felt. I couldn’t be rejected because I wasn’t available, except for a price too high for the guys in that place to afford.

What Lenny doesn’t realize is that playing seriously hard-to-get only makes him that much more attractive to someone like Bruce, that much more of a “catch”.

Once again, there is no neat and tidy ending. It’s all open to interpretation.

Short Stories 365/365

“Costume Dramas” by Jonathan Harper from Daydreamers (Lethe Press, 2015).

This volume will be released in March. I was given an advanced reader copy by the publisher.

Note: There are two more stories in this collection. Due to a couple of errors in the planning of these reviews, the final count will be 367.  (Yes, I know. And I’m from a family of accountants. Go figure.)

The main character of this next story is an emotional wreck. He runs to his sister’s house every Monday evening to kvetch about his husband, Ron, who he describes as being “sidetracked with life.” He calls his sister “a patient soul, part therapist, part fortune teller, and one tough cookie.” I only see the first one. She listens to him complain for a few minutes, then switches on the television for an installment of a costume drama produced by the BBC.

At first the fact that the sister doesn’t offer any kind of advice was irritating, but then I realized she’s doing the right thing. They say you should never take sides when a couple is fighting, because the couple will most likely get back together and then they’ll be mad at you, maybe even see you as a threat to the relationship. So she’s wise to stay out of it and let him vent.

The thing is, he vents to her, but never to Ron. When he’s home he sulks and sighs heavily. But talk? Say what’s bothering him, or what might make him happy? Never. Is he self-indulgent? Clinically depressed? It’s impossible to say. When things get really rough he takes off for his sister’s, even staying away as long as a month, during which time neither man calls the other.

Ron seems like someone who has reached his breaking point. Frustrated by his husband’s perpetual funk and inability to articulate what might make him happy, he has decided to move on with his life. He goes out with friends, makes future plans that don’t include his husband, and, during the month he’s abandoned, transforms the garage into a rental unit.

No, he’s not upset at all.

Wayne is the renter from hell. A self-proclaimed artist and handyman, he drags junk back to their place for his projects and makes a racket at every hour. He brings to mind the Tasmanian Devil of the Warner Bros. cartoons. Naturally, Ron befriends him. They play video games together in the main house. You’d think if anything could push the narrator past his breaking point and get him to say how he feels, being forced to live with this guy would be it, right?

I like that nothing is resolved at the end of the story. Here I go again, recounting the phrase my former boss used to say: Art asks questions, it doesn’t give answers. That’s what this does. That’s what all the stories in this collection do. They hold up a situation and make you ponder what you would do if you were faced with it.

Or, perhaps, what you already do.

Short Stories 365/364

“No More Heroes” by Jonathan Harper from Daydreamers (Lethe Press, 2015).

This volume will be released in March. I was given an advanced reader copy by the publisher.

First let me say that I can’t believe that yesterday, while talking about “We Only Flinch When It Isn’t Necessary,” I forgot to mention that Blade Runner is on continual play at Lunch Copeland’s house. It’s a great device that allows for comparisons between several of the characters and the film’s “replicants” (“androids” in the novel). I blame the omission on the mass quantities of cold medicine I’ve consumed over the past week and a day, as well as on the (medicine-induced?) insomnia of Wednesday and Thursday nights. Last night I took NyQuil, and it worked as promised. I’d hoped that this morning, having gotten many hours of rest, I would feel better. Before I could finish this post, though, I had to go back for more sleep.

Onward.

Richard is older than any of the protagonists in the previous stories. In his mid-thirties, he nevertheless hasn’t managed to find his professional footing. We’re told he has spent his time “accumulating master’s degrees in sociology and public health, teaching the occasional intro course, still trying to find stability as a researcher without the qualifications of a Ph.D.” That may be, but I have a good friend who remained in school until he was thirty and has been back once since. He’s one of those “most interesting” types Baz Luhrmann references in the commencement address more commonly known as “Wear Sunscreen.” I trust Richard is on that same path.

The story opens with six friends seated around a large table in the bar of a fancy mountain resort, playing a card-based game called Creature Coliseum: Battle Royale. They’re loud and irreverent, and the more conservative touristy-types surrounding them are on the verge of becoming a mob. It’s a great way to grab the reader’s attention while simultaneously painting a portrait of a handful of characters.

We’re told the group is merely warming up for a true RPG campaign later, and that they’ve been gaming together for years. The main character, Richard, tells us:

I was absorbed into this group in high school. Back then I was the anomaly: the lone queer boy with chunky braces and my own library of fantasy novels. Violent beatings and isolation were the tragedies of gay teenagers. That might have been my fate as well if I had not met Oliver. He had a way of collecting people, usually misfits, ostracized kids with nervous ticks and OCD. When he decided to become my friend, I felt pulled by the wrist and instantly indoctrinated.

I mentioned the other day that this was my experience, too, only in reverse. During elementary school I was a wallflower, but in my freshman year of high school I met a group of girls who’d gone to a different grammar school and lived near each other. They’d been friends for years. All three were lesbian. One of the three and I had a common interest in magick; the next thing I knew I was part of their group.

Years later it happened again. I was co-sysop of a BBS called The V.I.N.E. (The Vampire Information Network and Exchange, home of VampNet and the Immortal Coil ‘zine). The man I would eventually marry logged on to the board and then started showing up at the face-to-face meetings we held at a local coffeehouse. When he said he was a roleplay gamer, a group of gay neo-pagans I’d known from before the BBS days, who ran campaigns together, decided the folks from the face-to-face meetings should play Vampire the Masquerade. That game was instrumental in getting Rob and I together.

This story is a study in the effective use of knowledge gaps. The characters believe they know one another but have blind spots galore. In the course of the story they and the reader are handed a roadmap showing where the story is headed, but those blind spots render them unable to see the total picture. It’s a great piece to read multiple times, because you will keep seeing things you missed before.

About that. This project has gone over deadline because I’ve read every story multiple times. I don’t want to simply say I liked something or I didn’t; I want to grok each piece and say why it moved me or failed to do so. Before I got into this game I did not realize (and never would have believed) that people who will read your work and give you feedback are scarcer than hen’s teeth; that you can be published multiple times and still count on one hand the number of people who have read even one of your stories. Friends, family, and co-workers will rejoice each time something you’ve written is accepted for publication in a book or magazine, but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to read a single word. As Steve Berman once wrote to me, pretending to voice the internal monologues of such people, “Reading is hard.”

There are great relationships in this story. Richard may not be “well-cemented into adulthood”, but he is empathetic and observant. He, Corey, Neil, and the two Ed Joneses are much more of a team outside the game than they realize, and more typecast in it, too. I’m tempted to say that all the years they’ve spent gaming together taught them the skills they needed for the real life campaign they’re thrown into here. Then I remember they aren’t real.

Nice work.