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A five-part series wherein I examine the pitfalls—both real and imagined—and difficulties—both encountered or merely anticipated—to being a gay author in the 21st Century, and attempt to discuss how said pitfalls and difficulties can be used to our advantage, thereby employing the old adage “Making lemons into lemonade.” (And, in advance of the inevitable inquiry, allow me to retreat into the naivete allowed one of my advanced years and answer simply: “What’s a Beyonce?”)




Part 4:
Devouring Sebastian Venable
or
Me and Tennessee Williams



“Is that what you think? That Skipper and me did sodomy?”


— Brick, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I am not a huge fan of Tennessee Williams. He, himself, described his work as dark and violent and professed hope psychiatry might help him to “write with serenity”. Either therapy disappointed him, or he tried it after writing Sweet Bird of Youth. Ugh. I do, however, like Cat on A Hot Tin Roof. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it until very late in my “association” with Williams. No, we met far too early…

I must have been older than twelve when it happened because I knew that the lady playing Elizabeth Taylor’s mother was the same one who had provided the demonic voice in the Exorcist. So I was old enough to have seen the Exorcist (junior high?) but young enough to have no idea the guy playing the handsome doctor (Montgomery Clift) was gay. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t all that familiar with the term gay. I had experimented with another boy. I know that happened no later than the beginning of junior high, because I remember him shunning me at school (he was a jock and I was a brain, so it wasn’t necessarily the fooling around that led to the shunning, but I’m sure it didn’t help).

I was already writing novels. Mostly trying to work out a sequel to Logan’s Run, because, well, it needed one. Which puts this sometime before William F. Nolan beat me to it. And it had to be summer because, even then, I did my best work after the rest of the household had retired for the evening. And it was on the late late show. This was in the days when we got three nationally broadcast stations moderately well, and maybe two locals up in the UHF, the quality of at least one of which depended on the weather. Probably it was on one of the locals as our broadcast affiliates signed off earlier (Remember that? When you could turn on the tv and there was literally nothing on?).

There I was diligently filling page after page of my spiral notebook, some old movie playing in the background, when I gradually came to realize that something strange and unique was happening in the film. That film was Suddenly Last Summer.


SLS MOvie Poster.jpg



In case you haven’t seen it, the movie concerns the attempts of an old woman to have her niece lobotomized. Appears something went wrong on vacation, something involving the old woman’s son’s untimely death, and she doesn’t want her niece, who was along on the vacation, spilling the beans.

I know where you think this story’s going. You think there I was, the little future gay boy, slowly deciphering the clues that the deceased son was gay! Boy, you really haven’t seen the movie. I think I was in my twenties before it ever occurred to be Sebastian Venable was queer. And probably, even at that point, it took someone telling me flat out. (Actually, I kid. I may have sussed out the truth about SV that night in my tweens, it just wasn’t the strange and unique thing drawing my attention.)

That would be Katherine Hepburn. I’m sure I’d seen her before. We were a visual media family. Movies and tv shows played constantly when we were home (no sitting around taking turns reading for us, no family concertos; we talked, but mostly during the commercial breaks). But there was something about KH and that role, Violet Venable, which really struck a chord.

If you HAVE seen the movie, you probably remember the scene where she describes the time Sebastian saw God in the Galapagos. In case you haven’t:




Side note: where can I get a winged skeleton statue for my conservatory?


Hepburn was nominated for an academy award for her performance in Suddenly Last Summer (as was Taylor—neither won). Watching the flick today there’s no denying the histrionics of both the words and her reading of them. But I will argue that she somehow manages to refrain from quite going OVER the top—she just gets there, sinks in her teeth and hangs on for dear life. And keep in mind, my story is about watching that scene as a 12-ish future gay boy, feverishly scribbling away at a derivative sequel to someone else’s intellectual property…In the middle of the night.

I credit Hepburn and SLS for finally retiring my attempts to continue the adventures of Logan and Jessica. I think it actually even put me off novels for a while and made me decide playwriting was where it’s at. (OK, why is it playwriting but also playwright?) I do know that during high school I composed several plays that climaxed in overwrought confessionals voiced by either staggering spinsters or future gay boys ready to break out. (Half way through high school I accidentally picked up On Wings of Song by Thomas Disch and feel back in love with novels.)

And Hepburn and SLS (and Tennessee Williams—even though I often struggle to appreciate him—credit where credit’s due) taught me the power of dialogue. Not how to make it sound natural; I really don’t think that was Williams’ gift. But how to make it sound completely unnatural and still work. How often will people you know in real life pontificate on the cruelty of nature and seeing the face of God? How many times will you find yourself embroiled in such potent family drama as getting your niece lobotomized to cover up the fact your queer son was eaten by street urchins? Hopefully never. (I should mention that Williams’ sister was lobotomized. So, y’know, wow.)

That Williams had universal appeal is inarguable—both in the scope and longevity of his fame. So why do I struggle with him? Well, in a nutshell, he reads to me as so much self-flagellation. I know, I know, it was a different time—a time when the homosexual in America was under attack in ways he or she never truly had been before. In The Other Side of Silence, John Loughery describes the years between World War Two and Stonewall as especially dangerous for homosexuals. He doesn’t specifically tag Stonewall as the point of change, and I have only done so for expediency (I figure most people reading this will have some idea of when and where and what “Stonewall” was). The book recounts some rather horrifying anecdotes, not just of witchhunts, but of a subset of people rendered nearly powerless to resist. But gay literature did exist that pushed back against the stereotypes and preconceptions of the time—some James Baldwin for instance (1962’s Another Country rather than 1956’s Giovanni’s Room, even though the latter seems to have the sustained affection). Williams, on the other hand, always struck me as someone who sacrificed self-image (his own and that of his peers) to make a buck. (There’s a link on my website where you can send your hate mail.)

Sebastian Venable is the prototype for the fifties’ gay predator. And he doesn’t just die. He’s cannibalized. And, at the end of Sweet Bird of Youth, Chance (who, admittedly isn’t identified as a homosexual, but does trade on his sexuality) isn’t just killed, he’s castrated and thrown on a pile of garbage (I may be conflating the play and the movie here, which end slightly differently). Cat on a Hot Tin Roof doesn’t kill Brick, but Skipper’s already paid in full before the play starts. As has Blanche’s husband in Streetcar. Am I misreading his underlying theme.

Amazingly I’ve read most of Williams’ work. I blame Christopher Bram, who’s book, Eminent Outlaws is a favorite of mine. I’ve also read most of Gore Vidal’s novels, and a healthy sampling of Truman Capote. I’m still working on my Baldwin, but, after The Sound and the Fury, gave up on Faulkner. I think Williams outshines them all in name recognition and the widespread continued appreciation (and performance) of his work.

I wish I appreciated him more, if for no other reason than the way he got me to consider dialogue. It’s just not in my nature, I guess.

And Nature is cruel. Sebastian knew it all along.


AuthorPic

Jon Wilson is the author of Cheap as Beasts, a current finalist for the Lambda Literary Award Best Gay Mystery of 2015. He’s also written a follow-up volume, Every Unworthy Thing, as well as two westerns. He lives and works in Northern California, where he looks and sees the sand all alive, all alive. As the new-hatched sea turtles make their dash to the sea, while the birds hover and swoop to attack. And hover and swoop to attack.



The Pink Lemonade Blog Tour continues tomorrow at Jon Michaelson’s Murder Blog, and, if you missed any previous entries, you can find them HERE (Part 1), HERE (Part 2), and HERE (Part 3).

I’m giving away a signed copy of both the Declan Colette books at the end of this blog tour. Just leave a semi-cogent comment (which, I suppose, means I’ll have to allow “YOU SUCK!”) to any of the five parts in the Pink Lemonade Blog Tour to enter (if you leave multiple comments or comment each day, you get entered for each comment)!


CAB

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5 Comments

Filed under Books

5 responses to “

  1. Jon, this is some really amazing writing! I learned all sorts of things here, and I’m always happy when Montgomery Clift is mentioned in any context. I’ve never read any Williams because the bleakness and hopelessness just never appealed to me but I think I need to watch SLS right now.

  2. Thanks. There is a lot of despair. I find he goes down best with a smooth drink.

  3. Pingback: First blog post – bookwritersanon

  4. Pingback: Guest Blogger: Pink Lemonade by multi-talented author, Jon Wilson | Jon Michaelsen

  5. Pingback: Guest author Jon Wilson – Charlie Cochrane – writing the beauty of his eyes

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