Hell-bent for Leather
I’ve been anticipating reading Faggots for a long time, and I really, really wanted to like it, but alas…
I shouldn’t even put that ellipse there, only because Mr. Kramer uses them, along with a lot of other creative punctuation, throughout the novel, causing much distraction and frustration (for this reader anyway.) Set in the milieu of the late 1970’s New York gay party scene and written in a stream of consciousness style that is frequently funny, but at times maddening, the story follows many characters (too many) in the mostly nocturnal world of gyms, discos, parties, bath houses, and Fire Island getaways. Knowing that the AIDS epidemic is looming on the horizon adds definite shadings to a contemporary reading. The sex scenes are beyond graphic, and it appears that Kramer is passing some judgment on the excess. As documented in his play The Normal Heart, Kramer became the voice of sexual responsibility during the early AIDS epidemic, much to the consternation of some gay community members. Reading Faggots in this context helped me to center a story that is frankly all over the damn place.
Even though his syntax drove me nuts, I did appreciate Kramer’s vast vocabulary that sent me to dictionary.com on several occasions. He’s in possession of a brilliant, passionate intellect that gives urgency to his essays and speeches, but it feels like he spit out this book in a great spasm of creative energy without much editing. I saw The Normal Heart on stage in the 80’s and it was one of the most moving artistic experiences I’d ever experienced. I watched the recent television version at least four times, so one could say I’m a fan of Larry Kramer’s work. There is an engaging story inside Faggots, it’s just difficult to find beneath the unbridled writing style and the complexities of too many characters and storylines. The book caused an uproar at the time, shocking straights and pissing off a lot of gays who felt the portrayal was over-the-top and negative. I can see their point, but Kramer insists he told the truth and perhaps that reflected on a certain shame about the lifestyle they were living.
The novel works best when focused on Fred Lemish, described as the hero and an obvious stand-in for Kramer, who has at thirty-nine has grown tired of the bathhouse, party, and disco scenes and just wants to settle down with his mercurial lover, Dinky. I found myself wanting to skim over all the other vignettes and get back to the Fred story. I can get into a good unrequited love story, no matter what the premise, but it’s hard to care about characters with names like Randy Dildough. I get that it’s satire, but I found it distancing. I want to know these people, to like or hate them, but reading Faggots I felt like a fly on the bathhouse wall. It does not help to humanize a group of people who were once considered less than human. I detect a bit of self-hatred coming from Kramer projected onto these characters. One of the big clubs is called The Toilet Bowl, which doesn’t exactly conjure up the most romantic images. The sex isn’t sanitized either, and Kramer gets down and dirty describing the look, sounds, and smells of anonymous encounters. Drugs also play a large part in the scene, acting as a lubricant as it were towards an ever-deepening quest for not only personal freedom, but for personal connection. The search for the elusive other is the strongest theme of the book. There is an emphasis on looks, and the quest for youth and beauty is keenly felt. One of the characters whom I found sympathetic is Timmy, a teenager beauty plucked from the Port Authority destined to become the next great star. One wonders how long it will take for him to be yesterday’s news. Not too long, I’m guessing. The further I read (and at nearly 400 pages it’s long) the sadder I became. There is definitely a sense that the party is rapidly coming to an end, and by the time I got to the infamous double-handed fisting scene I was ready to move onto Miss Marple.
There is no denying the potency of, and creativity, of male sexual energy and the culture was enriched by the freedom these men fought for. For understanding the gay movement in New York during the 70’s, Faggots is required, if difficult, reading.
A good companion piece to this book is the excellent documentary “Gay Sex in the 70’s” (Kramer appears in it and Faggots is quoted). It’s a highly educational (and entertaining) portrait of a unique time in the history of human sexuality. The film features honest narratives by men who lived to tell the tale. It describes the same gay universe that Kramer does in the novel, from the bathhouses and clubs of Manhattan to the paradise of Fire Island in the summer season.
I’m grateful that most of my gay friends survived the first AIDS crisis, but I did lose one close friend in the early 1990’s. To see someone go from blooming health at thirty-six to dead by forty is a trauma I will never forget. I can’t even imagine what is what like for these men who lost so many friends and lovers, entire communities wiped out. In the film Larry Kramer says that he angry that gays continue to identify themselves by their dicks, to which another man replies:
It may have seemed trivial, but it’s where we learned to love ourselves, to love each other, and it’s what made possible our heroic reaction when the war came.
So in the context of this larger story, I’m glad I read Faggots. Larry Kramer went onto being a founding member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and one of the movement’s most relentless, and loudest, activists. I’m happy that he’s still battling it out in his 80’s. I just wish it were a better book. There is just too much muchness to it, but since it’s about a period in time that was all about freedom leading to excess and an endless party that abruptly came to a tragic end, maybe that’s right.
For more about Larry Kramer, check out this documentary.