You don’t hear the term “gay literature” that much anymore, or at least not in mixed company. Even in its mid-’80s-to-early-’90s heyday, it was a problematic term, derided by gay authors, and retarded by its not quite plausible premise that writers’ common gender and sexual preference unified their disparate talents and interests. Still, it did some good by identifying and celebrating a burgeoning seriousness among writers who happened to be gay, and, given the recent success of novels by artistic gay male writers like Michael Cunningham, Dale Peck, JT LeRoy, and others, its death as a popular term would seem to be strangely premature.
In fact, what discredited gay literature was not a lack of quality examples, but rather a deeply conservative notion among critics, anthologists, and academics who had a stake in the genre about what constituted the literary and homosexual. Essentially, that combination meant Henry James, Proust, John Cheever, and, in the wildest-case scenario, maybe Jean Genet. If your work displayed qualities associated with one or more of these writers, no problem entering the ranks. If you could both write in some semblance of their voices and fictionalize your own gay-related life experiences in endless variations—like, say, Edmund White, David Leavitt, or Andrew Holleran—you could even become a master. But if your influences were too far afield, or unidentifiable, or you didn’t write gay enough books—like, say, Samuel Delaney, Robert Pinget, or Manuel Puig—you quickly learned that just being gifted and dedicated to your art did not secure you a central spot in what has evolved (or rather devolved) into a highly provincial canon. It isn’t that gay literature is dead, it’s that the writers who continue to aspire to the Jamesian or Proustian have ceased to interest much of anyone who isn’t gay, male, and delighted with the norm.
Tom Spanbauer is one of the writers whose books began to appear during the heyday of gay literature, only to be ignored by critics who thought all gay fiction that strayed beyond these traditions was a blurry mass of experimental far-outness. The fact that his second novel, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon (1991), has become a revered cult book, is due almost entirely to its having been championed by fellow, often younger, literary misfits, straight and gay, in particular the novelist Matthew Stadler, whose machinations on Spanbauer’s behalf are largely responsible both for its return to print and for the publication of In the City of Shy Hunters, Spanbauer’s third novel. That the odd, poetic, elliptical Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon has survived, while equally bright-minded, off-center, well-published gay novels like Stephen Beachy’s The Whistling Song, Bo Huston’s The Dream Life, and Jonathan Strong’s Tike are all but forgotten, constitutes a small, belated victory for the principles that should have informed gay literature from the outset. The question now is whether Spanbauer’s comeback is cause for sentimental tributes or an opportunity to get beyond that already established benchmark.
At over 500 pages, In the City of Shy Hunters is a big, ambitious stylefest of a novel, in the mode of such recent gay megatomes as Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony, Allan Gurganus’s Plays Well With Others, and Dale Peck’s Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye. Its subject is the most revered and clichéd in all contemporary gay fiction—a gay man’s coming-of-age in the heat of the AIDS crisis. Even Spanbauer’s spin is pretty standard stuff. Protagonist William Parker is an insecure, shy, misunderstood small-town boy who escapes to New York City, where he finds acceptance in Manhattan’s bristling, hedonistic gay scene of the early ’80s. The novel holds a gaggle of off-colorful, iconic characters whose tastes in drugs, art, music, and condom-free sex will strike a nostalgic chord with anyone old enough to have haunted the period’s East Village bars, clubs, and performance spaces. The novel has a plotless, documentary-style narrative that essentially hangs out with Parker and company and lets incidents accumulate into a story of sorts that slowly cross-fades from a high-flying celebration of the offbeat and new to a high-flying meditation on the offbeat and dying. In between, love, sex, and a multitude of inebriants tussle with Parker’s evolving sense of self, while the still mysterious, fast encroaching AIDS epidemic gradually disintegrates the very world that promised him the perfect openly gay life.
What distinguishes Spanbauer’s novel from the rest of the pack is (and pretty much only is) his stylish, distinctive voice. Longtime fans will recognize its unusual sentences, at once choppy and strangely elegant, overly informative but weirdly surreal, tender of phrase yet cleansed of overt emotion. It can elevate a drag queen into a drag hallucination:
Crystal’s red Lee Press-On nails went from below her clavicle to over her shoulder to the dragons on the street corner behind her. The dragons were mostly young, mostly thin, mostly dark-skinned, all strapped into tight hot pants and miniskirts. In the light from the street lamp, their faces glowed, faces painted on faces. They all looked at me through the faces on them. Patti LuPone, Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Donna Summer.
Or it can envision a coming apocalypse in a fleeting stranger’s misfortune:
Just out the door and down the stairs, in the long narrow blue hallway, the unrelenting fluorescence, the fluorescent insect sound was the black snake run out of the dead guy’s arm, thick black down his arm, down onto his pants down onto the floor into the hole where the linoleum buckled and was a low linoleum valley, the thick black lake.
The major difference between In the City of Shy Hunters and his earlier novels is that Spanbauer has simultaneously thrown his voice into overdrive and abandoned the unusual, neat, but cloudy narrative sense that kept a cool breeze blowing through his heated, almost flu-stricken prose. As a consequence, the novel is a decorative, frantic, and mostly predictable affair. It’s not an inadmirable or even dysfunctional thing, but its standardized forward momentum leaves Spanbauer’s writing to its own devices, and the results aren’t pretty. Maybe a good point of comparison would be filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s recent Moulin Rouge, as strange as that may sound. Luhrmann and Spanbauer are similarly quirky artists whose first two works—Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet in Luhrmann’s case—involve exuberant infusions of dreamy lyricism into storylines with resonantly familiar ideals and goals. But, like Moulin Rouge, In the City of Shy Hunters is a kind of stylistic blowout that so prioritizes surface over content that the prose sculpts away most vestiges of the reality it addresses. Even the grittiest, most depressing incidents feel polished and fanciful, occasions for Spanbauer to raise his already insistent voice to a hysterical pitch. Here he is riffing on Parker and his dying lover, the drag queen Rose:
Rose’s chin up up, his eyes rolled back in his head, Saint Theresa Gone to Heaven.
My feet were soldiers, new-shoe stiff, about-face.
The splash of gas.
Left, right, left, right, my red Converse tennis shoes walked down Saint Patrick’s Steps.
The unmistakable sound: the match.
The cardinal a raven’s scream, high-pitched, off, wrong, horrible, ripping the duct tape.
My breath in. My breath out.
Just like that, I turned slow, like an old snake in the sun. In my ears, the air imploded. In front of my eyes, a brilliance.
The touch of the match covered Rose’s cassock and roman collar like a blue flame ghost.
A big bang, a big fucking bang.
The scream from Rose from another incarnation. Wild, finally home.
The scream we all live for.
Just as Luhrmann successfully puts his stamp on the musical, Spanbauer proves that he can work his magic on the gay coming-of-age novel. But where Moulin Rouge feels like a personal dream idiosyncratically accomplished, In the City of Shy Hunters feels more like an adequate job done with excessive care and fuss.
Ultimately, Spanbauer’s novel may be a rather unfortunate victim of the aforementioned gay literature problem. The joy of The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon was that it resembled nothing else without being in the least bit avant-garde. As with many novels destined for eternal cult status, its haunting passing resemblance to a conventional novel will no doubt keep it alive and operating in the fringes of the mainstream. It’s understandable if slightly disappointing that, having written an acknowledged minor classic, Spanbauer has chosen to try his hand at the kind of book that signals to the gay literary establishment that a writer is ready to be seen as a major player. Considering how little it takes to wow those gay critics and readers still hot to see their lifestyles reflected in a fancy-schmancy mirror, it might just work.