by Richard Stevenson [aka Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64)]
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)
I HAVE TO BEGIN THIS REVIEW of Richard Stevenson’s Cockeyed, the latest installment of his Donald Strachey Mystery series, by saying that I’ve recently discovered Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, those masterful and disturbing looks at gay life in Weimar Germany just before the rise of the Nazis. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read Isherwood before this summer — my wife’s taking a Brit Lit course and I’ve been snagging her books — but at the same time it’s been sublime to wallow some weeks in great literature that’s been completely new to me. All right, you know the old reviewing trick, mention the author under review, then the “great” author he or she is most similar to: hence Stevenson and Isherwood in the same breath. Well, in fairness to both writers, I’m not trying to do that here. What has instead piqued my interest is the question of what Christopher Isherwood would have thought of Richard Stevenson and his novel Cockeyed, of the state of gay culture as it has evolved and exists in the liberalized West at our particular moment in time.
The awful backdrop of Isherwood’s wild stories of gay nightlife in Berlin is the hindsight that lets us know that many of his characters would soon be forced to wear the pink triangle, be shipped to Nazi concentration camps, would die in them. Thankfully, the Nazis lost the war, homophobes have continued to lose the culture war, and though the threat of reversals and devolution is always possible, right now in America homosexuals are enjoying increasing levels of equality. I know that sort of statement will raise hackles on both sides of the divide, but I’ll stand by it: I’ve had gay family members marry in the past few years, have an “in” through them into the retired gay community here in southwest Florida that has left me laughing at the arguments of the Right that gay marriage will harm society. What I’ve seen of the gay community is that all the majority of its members really want is what the straight community already has: legally protected dull suburban life.
The argument of Stevenson’s Cockeyed, in a sense, is in that same vein: the book seems to ask questions like, “Have the rights that have come to gays in the US since the Stonewall riots actually detracted from what it once meant to be gay? Has equality come at the cost of the end of uniqueness? Has homosexuality lost its subversive qualities, its counter culture mojo?”
Don Strachey, the title character of Cockeyed and Stevenson’s mystery series, is a gay hunk of a private eye, who also happens to be in a long term committed relationship with his partner Timothy Callahan. They don’t drink to excess, don’t dress as women, don’t have fleeting sexual encounters with multiple partners, nor are their lives filled with shrill arguments, late night drama, crying, or slapping. In fact, they are usually, in Strachey’s words, “. . . settled in bed and ready to be cheered up by Jon Stewart at eleven, and then we try to stay awake for Colbert.” A running argument the couple has throughout the book is whether their life together is too settled, too straight, too normal, too, gulp, mainstream and wholesome.
Luckily, the focus of Strachey’s sleuthing in Cockeyed turns out to be everything the straight-laced Strachey and his partner are not: Hunny Van Horn, an aging, uber flamboyant, twink chasing, drama queen so exuberantly queer, so wildly reeking of what Johnny Carson used to wink-wink, nudge-nudge, call “a hint of mint,” that having spent over two hundred pages with him and his drunken sex crazed friends, I’m still trying to shake the glitter off of my page turning fingers. Because if you are into this sort of thing, Stevenson’s Cockeyed is exactly that, a precious and glittering page turner. The premise is that Hunny has won the first billion dollar lottery prize in history, a prize aptly titled the “Instant Warren,” after everyone’s favorite pinch penny billionaire, Warren Buffett. Soon enough, Hunny appears on various TV shows shrilly screaming, “God, I’m richer than Madonna . . . Oh, Madonna, honey, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that! Girl, nobody is richer than you are! If you’re watching, I’m still your slave, and even if I’m almost as rich as you are now, I’ll never be as fabulous as you are!” The myriad naughty boys from Hunny’s past immediately begin to rear their pretty heads, trying to get their hands on Hunny’s money for all the times Hunny put his dirty old man hands on them. Into the fray steps the strapping Don Strachey, PI, to sort it all out, but not before Hunny’s mother goes missing and a Bill O’Reilly stand-in attempts to use Hunny’s flamboyance to fan the flames of the culture war and get the billion bucks taken back.
On its most obvious level, Cockeyed is exactly what its title suggests: a light entertainment meant for a gay audience eager for its endless onslaught of double entendres and fellatio jokes (Hunny van Horn, after all, works at BJ’s Warehouse). But there is more here for even the casual reader. As Don and Tim discuss early in the book, the “minty” Hunny represents something of a dying breed, in Don’s words, “Hunny is one of a vanishing species . . .. Hunny is a gay man at his most primitive. He’s the untamed queer Neanderthal. He’s the rugged individualist on the old gay frontier. He’s a homo Huck before Aunt Polly tried to civilize him. Hunny is proudly out and proudly nelly. Hunny am what he am.”
“Vanishing species, I don’t think so. God if only,” responds the critical, and straight-acting, Timmy. “What Hunny am…is a loudmouth drunk and hideous old letch. It wouldn’t surprise me if the greatest threat to Hunny at this point is not some juvenile delinquent arsonist he had sex with, but any of the thousands of decent, sober, well-behaved gay men and women across America who see Hunny on national television and are now looking for ways to make this grotesquely embarrassing creature just disappear.”
The argument takes on its most subtle form when Strachey discovers that Hunny, who he and Timmy have heretofore mildly laughed at, was one of the Stonewall rioters. This commands an immediate and profound respect from Strachey, and leads to questions in the book over whether the men who were willing to live as “out” as Hunny did during the dangerous pre-Stonewall days are in fact the reason that the quieter “assimilationist” gays of today have the rights that they do. Men like Hunny, after all, were the ones who weren’t afraid to be who they were, to throw bottles at the vile police and get the gay rights movement born.
“In a world of gay folks like us who are busily turning queer life in America into a kind of insipid parody of our parents’ dull, stable existences, Hunny is this horrifying creature climbing out of the primordial homo ooze,” Don tells Timmy during one of their bedtime chats, and Timmy snaps back at him, “Insipid? Donald, do you think our life is insipid?”
It’s here that I’d like to return to Isherwood, chronicler of gay life in Berlin before the Nazi genocide. Though many of his characters were openly gay, Isherwood in his The Berlin Stories was not, perhaps he felt that he could not be for his work to reach a wide audience. What would Isherwood say to the idea of a gay “normalcy” today not much different than “our parents dull, stable existences,” as Stevenson tangentially debates it in his book? There’s no doubt that Isherwood would immediately recognize Hunny van Horn, appreciate him, even celebrate him. But what would he make of Don and Timmy watching TV together in bed like a bland, old, married couple? Would he recognize them as progress? Or might he also feel the loss of something?
Responding to Timmy’s question on whether their settled and stable life together is insipid, Don tells him, “No, I like it. It’s nice. It’s comfortable. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Then he adds, “But you know I like to quote Ogden Nash. ‘Home is heaven and orgies are vile, but I like an orgy once in awhile.’” While certainly not for everyone, Stevenson’s Cockeyed offers a lively and funny take on gay life and identity at the crossroads of modernity and acceptance. Even more straight laced tastes might like it, as Hunny van Horn might say, “Phooey, girl, why not? After all, what’s there to be afraid of, dear?”
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Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s new novel The Mule, will be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next year.