Thursday, June 20, 2019

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Houston Incident by Steve Allen

Fourteen for Tonight by Steve Allen ; New York : Henry Holt & Company, 1955
New York : Henry Holt & Company, 1955

"It's a long road that has no turning."

This Irish proverb is the opening line of Allen's short story, Houston Incident. Meaning "your luck will change," is it offered as a bit of encouragement, or wishful thinking on the part of its speaker?

On a Houston street, Mac, a 'boy' traveling from Chicago to the west coast is engaged by an unnamed fifty-ish man in a mismatched suit. After agreeing with the statement, Mac takes the man up on the subsequent invitation to join him for a cup of coffee. After he has had his fill of coffee and hot dogs, he agrees to the offer of a bath at his nearby hotel.

The use of the term boy to describe Mac is meant to emphasize his naiveté. While earlier in our history, adolescence was considered to continue for several years beyond age eighteen, this 'boy' is certainly above the age of consent.

What at first appears to be a typical story of the homosexual predator with a plan to corrupt an innocent youth is complicated by the youth himself using his appeal to get his needs met. In fact, the predator is reduced to the prey, drunkenly begging the young man to stay with him.

Houston Incident first appeared in Steve Allen's (yes, that Steve Allen) short story collection, Fourteen for Tonight and was later included in the 1990 collection, The Public Hating.

Bibliographies & Ratings: Cory (IV); Garde (OTP, c*); Mattachine Review (IV); Young (44)

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Man With a Thistle (Self-Portrait) by Lucian Freud

Man With a Thistle (Self-Portrait) (1946) Lucian Freud (British, 1922-2011) Oil on Canvas 80 x 69 cm Tate, London
Man With a Thistle (Self-Portrait) (1946)
Lucian Freud (British, 1922-2011)
Oil on Canvas
80 x 69 cm
Tate, London

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Head of a Greek Man by Lucian Freud

Head of a Greek Man (1946)  Lucian Freud (British, 1922-2011)  Oil on panel  28.4 x 24.8 cm (11.25 x 9.75 in)  From the Collection of John Craxton
Head of a Greek Man (1946)
Lucian Freud (British, 1922-2011)
Oil on panel
28.4 x 24.8 cm (11.25 x 9.75 in)
From the Collection of John Craxton

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Cast the First Stone / Yesterday Will Make You Cry by Chester Himes

Cast the First Stone was published as Chester Himes' third novel. In fact, it was begun before both If He Hollers Let Him Go (1942) and Lonely Crusade (1947) but struggled to find a publisher.  What was eventually released by Coward McCann in 1952 barely resembles Himes' original manuscript, having been rewritten multiple times by the author and suffering through heavy editing and reordering by the publisher. An author in the vein of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes left the US after this disappointing experience with the publishing industry.  He would relocate to Paris where he later gained success for a series of novels set in Harlem featuring two black police detectives, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. In 1998, Himes' original manuscript, under the original title, Yesterday Will Make You Cry was published by Norton, restoring an important literary work.

Cast the First Stone by Chester Himes ; New York : Coward McCann, 1952
New York : Coward McCann, 1952
Jim Monroe has just begun his sentence of twenty to twenty-five years for robbery. He's young, still a teenager really, and good looking. From the moment he sets foot in the prison, there is already competition to make him. There is an honesty about the existence of wolves and fags within the prison. It quickly becomes clear that everything in the prison is transactional; poker games, smokes, and sex.

As Jim becomes acclimated to his new environment, he begins to understand if he helps others, he’ll get something in return. While he was perceived as a prospective fag upon his arrival, he quickly gains capital by running poker games and occasionally fronting money to those in need. Others are willing to fag for him, should he want that. Over time, Jim's descriptions of other inmates becomes increasingly tinged with adjectives of beauty or a sense of attraction.

The bulk of novel is focused on the day-to-day activities of the prison; work assignments, meals, working around the rules, getting caught breaking the rules, being transferred to less desirable jobs and cell blocks for breaking the rules.

While the relationship between inmates and guards is always adversarial, there are examples of violence against inmates resulting in broken bones and even death. One prisoner dies of pneumonia while in the hole because the guards won’t allow him to see a doctor. During an escape attempt, prisoners from other wards brutalized or kill several guards in the process. When the prisoners are caught, punishment is swift. When a fire breaks out hundreds of inmates die while locked in their cells. Guards do little to save them and many inmates put themselves in danger to save others.

Jim longs for connection with others, but he rejects the constant conversation about sex with other inmates. Metz is the first inmate he meets that he has a true connection with. They talk about everything including religion and philosophy. It is in the aftermath of the fire however that Jim finally asks Mal, an inmate he met on his first day, to be his woman and kisses him. This traumatic event and his need for connection begin to change how he sees relationships. Later, an innocent friendship with Dido, a young inmate who is unsteady and quickly grows dependent on Jim, grabs the attention of the other inmates and the guards. Dido is devoted and would do anything for Jim. Their complicated relationship puts Jim's possible commutation at risk.

Told in the first person, Cast the First Stone reads like a pulp novel, with a focus on sensational themes. Hiding between the lines are glimpses of the true emotions of the characters but the focus is on the action of the story, not about how the characters feel about their situation.

Yesterday Will Make You Cry by Chester Himes ; New York : W.W. Norton, 1998
New York : W.W. Norton, 1998
Yesterday Will Make You Cry feels related to Cast the First Stone, but is obviously the more sophisticated and complex of the two. Told in the third person and including an extended flashback that provides the background of Jim's childhood, the characters are more complex. They aren't a caricature of the 'prisoner.' While they are tough, they also have feelings and crave human connection.

Yesterday retains some of the pulp sensibility and language, surprisingly for the 1930's using the f-word. However, the overall feeling is of a true literary work — complex and engaging.

In Melvin Van Peebles' introduction, he discusses the problematic cover copy on the 1950s paperback release which certainly implied that the novel was about black prisoners. This, no doubt, came from a belief that a black writer couldn't (or wouldn't be permitted to) write white characters. While there are black characters in the novel, all of the central characters are white.

Peebles' criticism is so strong, that it is truly jarring that the publisher decided to use an archival photograph on the dustjacket that shows a prison lineup of all black men. Further exacerbating the message, when Library of Congress created the catalog record for the work, they assigned it a subject of Afro-Americans—Fiction. It appears we still can't imagine a black man writing white characters.

Bibliographies & Ratings: Cast the First Stone: Cory (III); Garde (OTP, a***);  Young (1826 *)

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Self Portrait by John Craxton

Self Portrait (1946-47) John Craxton (British, 1922-2009) Oil on paper 32.3 x 23.2 cm (12.75 x 9.125 in)
Self Portrait (1946-47)
John Craxton (British, 1922-2009)
Oil on paper
32.3 x 23.2 cm (12.75 x 9.125 in)

Friday, April 19, 2019

Out of Sickness by John Paignton (John S. Barrington)

Out of Sickness by John Paignton ; London : Neville Woodbury Limited, 1950 Cover illustration by John S. Barrington
London : Neville Woodbury Limited, 1950
As the novel opens in 1939, David, an extremely handsome young Englishman, has just inherited the estate of a Frenchmen who has committed suicide in Cannes. Wanting to study art and having been supported by the Frenchman in his studies, he was now free to travel and do as he wished. Searching for love, he falls in and out of relationships with both men and women finally culminating in marriage. When that sours and he is nearly out of money, he travels by ship to America partly to avoid the encroaching war in Europe but also to avoid his feelings around his failed marriage.

When he returns to Britain the war is in full effect and much has changed. Everyone is doing what is necessary to get by, including members of his family. One of his brothers is being kept by a rich man and his sister falls into prostitution. The underworld of bohemians, queers and black market racketeers in the West End of London that we would normally associate with the period between the wars continues unaffected even once the horrors of the Blitz begin.

Acting as a stretcher bearer for the A.R.P (Air Raid Precautions), David helps to rescue those trapped in bombed buildings. While there is tremendous fear, misery, and death all around, everyone is also in search of someone to love. David goes from one person to another, searching for that special one but it always ends in disaster and disappointment. While he has liaisons with both men and women and at one point in the novel refers to himself as bisexual, his search for love is always directed towards women.

Portrait of John S. Barrington  by Angus McBean
Portrait of John S. Barrington
by Angus McBean
'Like the houses that were collapsing suddenly, completely, irrevocably, human beings were also falling to pieces, their values changing ; some mental canker was destroying happiness.'

The end of the war finds David without funds and his decision to hustle to make ends meet appears to bring his search for love to an end.

The content of the novel is based on actual experience. According to the dustjacket, 'the author spent ten years living this novel, and five years writing it.'  John Paignton was the pseudonym of John S. Barrington. Barrington is better known for his photographs of physique models published during the 1950s and 60s. After the war, he managed to get some of his earlier photos into physique magazines of the time and also started advertising at magazine kiosks in London. That's how he met Neville Woodbury, an artist and collector. Woodbury would later start an imprint that published a handful of books. In exchange for photography lessons and models supplied by Barrington he produced both Out of Sickness (with Barrington's original cover art signed 'J.S.B.') published under the Paignton moniker, and Art and Anatomy published under Barrington's actual name.

Bibliographies & Ratings: Young (2960)