Thursday, August 16, 2007

Monday, August 6, 2007

Book Review: Michael Tolliver Lives

I am a big fan of Armistead Maupin and the Tales of the City books. I love the memorable characters, the way Maupin plays with the language of the day, and the surreal coincidental meetings that suggests San Francisco is nothing but a large village. Maupin firmly sticks a push pin in the point on the cultural timeline that he is trying to capture. He writes about the time as he lives it and he does it damn well. Reading any of his previous Tales is like looking through a photograph album of another time.

Michael Tolliver Lives is a little different from the others. While still a beautiful and amusing photograph there are fewer of those serendipitous meetings probably because the book is written from Michael Tolliver's point of view where the earlier books were written from a omnipresent perspective. The characters are just as memorable and Maupin certainly plays with the language of the day.

Michael, "Mouse" of the earlier books, is now 55 and feeling it. This is his story of finding a new love and dealing with the life, death, and choices faced by middle-aged gay men. He stumbles into a "May-December" relationship with 33 year old Ben. He continues relationships with many of the other characters of the earlier books, accounts for those who are not present, and creates new and engaging characters. It's like catching up over dinner with someone with whom you have shared two or three decades.

For the middle-aged queer, it captures some of the angst and the fears that comes with growing older. Even though Michael is happily "married", he still voices many of the insecurities of this time in life. He deals with wider issues such as the cultural wars with his evangelical family in Orlando, post 9/11 politics, and changes in the gay community. Anna Madrigal, the dignified free-spirit, is a significant part of the book and always a reason alone to read these books. Anyone who in any measure has been disenfranchised from their biological family will appreciate Anna Madrigal's reference to the "logical family" or the group of individuals who actually love you back fairly unconditionally. So, let me strongly recommend this book before going on to discuss at length two things that made me really crazy about it.

1. Ben,the husband. Clearly the book has some autobiographical elements to it as I've always assumed all of Maupin's books have. Maupin is married to a younger man in reality. So, the fact that Michael, as a character, is part of this intergenerational connection is reasonable. But Ben is a character that is obscenely idealized. There is no bad in Ben. He is a bit like Melanie in Gone With the Wind. Like Melanie, every word and action from Ben is likely to induce sugar shock. Ben is never short nor snippy. He is, in fact, sensitive and always in tune with what Michael needs at every moment of their time together. He suggests to Michael an open relationship with rules and I hoped with everything I had that this would somehow lead to jealousy and a decent fight. That was too much to hope for. While the other characters indulge in pot and booze we are told that Ben is wholesome and that this is maybe a fault. He even does yoga. By the end of the book I was praying he would knock over a liquor store, push a pedophile over a cliff, or do something really dark to even out all that goodness. I hope Maupin's husband in real life is as compliant as Ben. On second thought I don't wish that on anybody.

Part of the problem with the gay community is the idealization of youth. It's our core religion and is as damaging to the middle-aged (and the often narcissistic younger) queer as the most Bible-thumping Pentecostal church. One has to wonder if Michael's significant other had turned out to be a contemporary would we have seen such sainthood? I doubt it. Chances are we would have seen someone who was moody and insecure. In other words, he would be normal. I can't help but feel that this idealization of Ben is Maupin's yearning for youth over acceptance of a perfectly decent time of life called middle-aged.

2. This is my own hang-up and, someday, I may talk to a shrink about it. I hate the use of words like "daddy". This book does "daddy" to death. Any label like that, when it is overused until it becomes shorthand for a person, makes me flinch a little inside. I may be middle-aged, but I've never been involved with the birth of a child nor have I signed adoption papers. I am nobody's "daddy". (If one digs too deep, there is a weirdly incestuous element to this phraseology.) It's like applying "bear" to anyone who is a tad overweight and hairy. What is this need to pigeon-hole? Again, it is my own hang-up and I am over-analyzing the characters, but I could have enjoyed this book more with about a 75% reduction in the "daddy" talk and a little more character development instead. Even Saint Ben in the book says something that suggests to Michael that he is trying to avoid sounding like he is too much into these roles. When did living a role become a good thing? A little good natured role-playing once in awhile is fun, but leave it in the bedroom.

In spite of these flaws, every middle-aged man will get something from this book. Most middle-aged gay men will have something in common with Michael. And it is, as are all of Maupin's books, a good, satisfying, fun read.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

An Ode to The Gold Coast

The Gold Coast, for those not in the know, is a neighborhood bar in West Hollywood. The reason it deserves the "neighborhood bar" designation is because it is not the sort of bar people would travel far to enjoy. Some bars in West Hollywood do draw the out-of-towners and perhaps one or two of them drift into the Gold Coast on a Saturday night, but, all-in-all, this is a haunt that only collects the locals.

The Gold Coast has a DJ but no dance floor. Usually the guy in the booth plays the old disco hits or the quirky songs of the 1980's. Once in awhile, he switches from being a DJ to a being a VJ and a music video is flashed simultaneously on the six flat screen televisions (a nod to modernity) sprinkled around the building. Generally these screens broadcast silent television network offerings with occasional closed captions.

Below the DJ booth presides a pool table which is the centerpiece of the Gold Coast. It takes up most of the area. It is the best lit space in the bar and usually has a crowd of players and spectators. The games always appear friendly.

There are two bars: a long bar at the bar entrance and a small, more intimate bar at the rear exit. The entrance bartenders always look busy; the exit bartender has time to talk.

The clientele is generally made up of the "average Joe" gay. The pretty boys have their own dance halls more west on Santa Monica. While there are representatives from all age groups, the Gold Coast crowd is predominantly on the doorstep of middle age, middle-aged, or those who have already passed through middle age. Racially, there are more Caucasians than non-Caucasians, but a mixture of black, Latino, and Phillipino guys are thrown in for some balance. Usually, there are two or three women present and one or two guys who are dressed as women.

On this particular Saturday night, there is a medium-sized attendance. You neither have to fear having your drink jostled when walking across the bar, nor is there really a place to stand if you want to be alone either.

Looking around, the place owns it's share of colorful characters. Near the front door, a man probably in his 50's with a full head of unnatural yellow hair, suggestive clothing, and a bandana tied around his neck is living an homage to 70's porno star Peter Berlin. More power to him.

A dwarf, a little person, a midget (What is the politically correct thing to calls these people again?) is perched on a high bar stool near one of the service areas of the front bar. One has to wonder how he climbed up on the teetering stool. He stands up on the cushion at one point to get the bartender's attention for another beer. It is tempting to warn him about toppling the stool, but a quick remembrance that he is indeed an adult and should know what he's doing squelches that impulse.

By far, the youngest person in the bar looks like a pre-soldier Elvis Presley. He is thin, but not in a rickety way - a solid thin. He wears clothes that lets the observer know that he is skinny but not wasting. He has black hair and it is tall but not quite a pompadour. His sideburns extend down toward his jawline. His eyebrows are oddly arched and very dark. His face dances and twitches pleasantly with expression as he talks with the odd assortment of overweight and predominantly bald men who crowd around him.

On the bench that runs across the tinted store front window of the bar, is an older couple. They obviously arrived together. Each must be at least in his 70's if not 80's. On the table in front of each is a 8 oz glass with amber liquid and another identical glass with water. They are both wearing garrish bands on their left hand ring fingers, but the bands are not identical. Both are a little more neatly attired than the Gold Coast demands. They are wearing expensive-looking sport shirts and cardigans even on a hot July evening. Both look a little sullen. Maybe it's the sweaters.

At the exit bar, a tall man with huge worked out shoulders and a chest to match is chatting with the bartender. Upon further observation one notices that below the disciplined chest flows into a soft and ample gut that runs over the belt - a contradiction of anatomy.

One of a couple brags to a man next to them that he "does" his companion "bareback" every morning before he goes to work. He says it loudly enough so that he is sure to gather an informal audience of those who are standing around. The smile on his face seems to indicate that he is either drunk or that he truly savors the exhibitionism of the moment. As the kids say: TMI, Too Much Information.

I guess if there is nothing else to get from a visit to Gold Coast is that there is something for everyone. Doesn't matter what you look like, how old you are, or whether you're on the hunt or just hanging out. There is something for everyone.

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