A review and meditation on Ethan Mordden’s How’s Your Romance?
[With grateful acknowledgment to Matt Brooks for his input and advice, though any remaining mistakes are mine]
Reviews of Ethan Mordden’s latest novel, How’s Your Romance?, have been surprisingly mixed. This is the latest (and ostensibly the last) of his Buddies sequence of novels, a series of interlocking short stories spread over five volumes about several gay men from New York. I’ve a Feeling We’re not in Kansas Anymore was published in 1985, How’s Your Romance? in 2005, so that 20 years of gay life are represented. Many commentators have talked about the ‘universal relevance’ of these stories, and in one sense, in that sense that all well-written stories have universal relevance because they address the human issues of sorrow and loss and love and friendship, that’s true. Some have called him the ‘gay Jane Austen of Manhattan’. But like that supreme mistress of the English novel, who wrote on a piece of ivory two inches wide, his view of the human predicament is taken through a small and narrow window. And I believe that’s one, perhaps the main reason, why this novel hasn’t been received with the acclaim which greeted his previous tales. His writing is as accomplished as ever, his insights as sharp, his humanity and empathy as profound. What’s changed is not his ability or style, but the market.
Some background: When Mordden started writing in the mid 1980s, it was the height of the AIDS epidemic. Gays had won few rights. Anita Bryant, the orange-juice queen, had in 1977 run a vicious scare campaign about gays “recruiting” our children. It was only a little over a decade since the American Psychological Association had declared (in 1973) that being gay wasn’t a “mental disorder” (some straight individual psychiatrists and psychologists have yet to come to terms with that). The noisy and occasionally violent revolution which started after Stonewall, just over 40 years ago now, hadn’t yet delivered the huge advances we’ve gained (though as Mattie B discusses in this issue, we still have some way to go). If you were gay or gay-shaded there was a battle on. Lines were clear. Either you were with us or you were against us. Any deviation from the party line was treason. But this implied that there was a “gay lifestyle”, a “gay culture”. Gay men weren’t just different from the broad mass of humanity because they preferred sex with other men. They (we) thought differently. We dressed differently. We had good taste. We were good at interior design and the arts. We had “the Knowledge”. Once it was enough to call a man ‘musical’ to label him as gay.
When analysts talk about the ‘invention’ of homosexuality, they don’t mean that there weren’t men who preferred men throughout the history of mankind. They mean that the malign interactions of psychology and religion produced paranoid homophobia, powerful taboos (“never get too friendly with another man”) and absurd labelling (“don’t wear pink”), in response to which men who liked men (only some of whom were ‘gay’) created gay ghettos, physical and cultural, where they were safe. If straights rejected us, we would reject them. We would discard their values, and make a new civilization, a new culture of our own. This process began long ago, but gathered force in the last quarter of the 20th century, in a classic Hegelian dynamic of thesis and antithesis, action and reaction. At the peak of the 50s homophobia, when 20% of all jobs in the US were by law closed to ‘homosexuals’, the counter-revolution (the Mattachine society, for example) was already beginning.
But as we won more and more rights, as homophobia started to weaken, the gay sensibility and gay solidarity so necessary to produce a cohesive movement to win these rights itself grew weaker.
Much of the gay writing from the 70s and 80s has dated terribly. What happened to queens? Gay bars? Wearing pink? TV still uses these old stereotypes, just like foreigners still think Ozzies say ‘cobber’. But gays themselves have moved on. Today, young people don’t care—more or less, though there are still, even in civilized countries, hotbeds of bible-bashing homophobia—about whether their friends are gay or not. Gay is no longer taboo, a social crime worse than murder or rape, which it was when I was finding out about myself. The young men from my daughter’s generation experiment with sex with men. There is no shame, no stigma. As Mordden comments in How’s Your Romance?:
“… for someone who is supposed to be closeted, Tom-Tom seemed to have no secrets from the males, who were doing that trendy nineties thing of flirting with the gay boy and making lewd tease jokes”
And (Tom-Tom is speaking):
“You know. The ones who have to stay with you on Friday nights and they get affectionate and suddenly it’s more sex with straights, which seems to be happening a lot lately. No wonder the heteros think marriage is endangered.”
And (Ken, “Bud’s” cousin, is speaking with Bud):
“Did those people give you some idea about whether the guy is gay?” [I asked]
That stopped him briefly.
“It’s different nowadays,” he told me. “Everybody’s completely mixed together.”
[Ken] was dauntingly likable: buoyant, reliable, supportive, generous, and even smart. He had none of the Knowledge, however: my generation made that unnecessary by effecting the historical transition between national homophobia and Will & Grace.
This is “Bud’s” opinion (“Bud”, our narrator, is of course Ethan Mordden himself, and he occasionally doesn’t bother with even that thin disguise, or forgets, and calls himself Ethan.) He rather disapproves. Because he knows that the gay culture is dying, a process exactly parallel to the way that, as discriminated-against and despised Jews were accepted, so they have ceased to be “Jewish”. A sub-culture develops as much in response to discrimination as it does to its intrinsic roots. And gay culture is particularly vulnerable because you only find out you’re gay at puberty—or later—so membership isn’t automatic. In retrospect perhaps, pointers towards your being gay were often clear, but most of us only found out at puberty. I didn’t know until I was 22. New members of the tribe need to be accultured. What happens to the culture when that process stops? When falling in love with; having sex with; marrying someone of your own gender is quite simply no big deal?
From the 1930s until recently, acculturation happened in gay bars, in meat racks. How else were you going to meet other members of your tribe? Where else could you be sure that the others present were like you? There were in fact a few other milieux where you could be pretty sure others were like you. Ballet, the theatre, and music and opera were obvious places where gay was accepted if not de rigueur. For many years, restaurant waiters and busboys, and certainly cocktail waiters and many bartenders in “straight” bars were gay, as well, and the careers were well known to be welcoming to us. Part of what informs Mordden’s fiction is the life he has lived as a gay man in the theatre, both musical and operatic.
You know, the key thing about us runaways is that we all come to Stonewall not because of our education but because of our hunger for freedom. We enter it obliged not to people we resent but to people we adore.
Your first few interactions with older gay men taught you how to be gay. Because you didn’t know how before—all sexual and emotional links you saw and experienced were het. There were no templates, no paradigms. And it seemed to us then, that male-to-male interactions—because of how we met—were primarily sexual, not emotional. That thread ran through gay culture, and it was very different from the way straights paired up. Sexual fidelity (until AIDS) wasn’t publicly valued. All this Mordden profoundly understands. If he feels uncomfortable with the way gay life has changed now, who can blame him? Alas, his readers have. Iconic in the mid 1980s, to young gay-shaded people now he appears passé.
Gays are the men who have fun being men. We’re inventing the wheel. We were inventing a sex manual and professions so we wouldn’t have straights bossing us around, and styles for leisure, and even a politics. But most of all, we were inventing a method by which men could relate to and support and enlighten and perhaps love each other.
Like many men who loved men before the boundaries of gay grew fuzzy, Mordden longs for emotional closeness with men, even though the way we all met other gay men was via sex, not friendship. How do you manage the transition from a trick to a friend? Mordden doesn’t answer. Yet his novels are filled with a generous and humane depiction of love between men which is only peripherally and incidentally sexual, painted with as fine and skilled a brush as the inimitable Jane’s. Mordden emphatically rejects a loveless life—emotional loyalty is exalted, even as his men are sexually unfaithful to each other. (Again, think of the emotional lives of backstage folk.) His group of best friends is a family, an idealized and perhaps unreal family, where love (philia if not eros) conquers all, where quarrels are never fatal or destructive, where poisonous family dynamics don’t happen—a resounding negation of the nihilism of, say, The Boys in the Band. One has many doubts about this idyllic depiction of gay life. Can it really be like that? Is this how it’s done? And what happens when you get too old to put your picture on a dating site (as happens to Dennis, Bud’s best friend, when Little Virgil leaves him for Vince Choclo)? When you no longer have the glue of sex to keep you together? When Mordden’s generation is old, who will they sleep with and love? Of course, this is a question which faces heterosexuals as they get old, too, but perhaps hetero marriage allows a sort of companionship between best friends when the hormonal fires have died down. Staying together is expected, societally sanctioned.
Mordden is hostile to gay marriage. He thinks we shouldn’t ape the heteros.
Are gays having so much sex simply because it’s pleasurable? Or is it part of a psychological transaction?
Which is countered by:
It’s interesting because while gays supposedly have a lot of sex, what most of them really have is a lot of relationships, including odd ones.
It’s true – we do specialize in odd relationships, perhaps because we have already taken so many steps towards personal liberation just by accepting that we are not like everyone else. We are already odd and outsiders. What does one more kink matter?
The satellite group around “Bud’s” cousin Ken have all slept with each other but remain each other’s closest friends. Tricky, one would think. And if there is angst among them, it’s not about their sexual adventures but their emotional connections. This is profoundly unstraight, and marvellously liberating.
It was so simple before, in the days of early Stonewall. Fantasy cartoonists proclaimed the styles: on the one hand, Tom of Finland’s dangerous giants, and on the other Toby’s plunderable goslings. I kept wondering whether these artists were tapping into something universal or were outlining a vision dear only to themselves. But the porn-stars were not kids: hairy-chested Richard Locke, one of the first guys to take a tattoo (a butterfly on the right thigh); an eerily handsome galoot named Paul something, who Colted under the billing Ledermeister; and an angel-faced hoodlum named Jimmy Hughes who won The Advocate’s Groovy Guy contest. [….] You could not be a kid, it seemed. You could not even be you. You had to be big, rough-hewn, surprising. Bright and funny – the essence of urban gay – was unhot.
There remained the irony that gay culture reveled in what I call “the knowledge” – basically all that Broadway, old Hollywood, and opera, with glitzy trivia thrown in – yet wanted the Clone innocent of it. This was a bequest of Pre-Stonewall, the world of johns and hustlers. Sex occurred between a piece of trade and a piece of fruit; there were no ‘gay men’. By the understanding of the age, the very idea was an oxymoron. Thus when we decided to cease being fruit, we tried to turn into trade.
Lars Erich, who is German, and whose grammar is as endearingly solipsistic as his mind is sharp and his body hot, says:
“Homophobes are afraid of too much everything in the world. Just a few things they can understand – house, food, jobs, vacations. But ideas,” – here he held up a warning finger very close to me, leaning in, flirting and teaching – “are mysterious. Mystery is troubling. They want to kill what troubles them, ja? So a folk that lives entirely in its own way is very troubling, very to be killed. Being gay is not just different language, religion, king. It is different in every way.”
Mordden says, pretending that it is “Bud” speaking, that he doesn’t believe that anyone is truly bisexual, of course an article of faith of true-blue gay-rights partisans. Bisexuals are gays in denial.
And that brings us to a final type, marginal yet timelessly essential to the gay world: what I call the 60-40. You won’t find this genre of man hanging around Splash, but he might have turned up in a bathhouse in the old days, on a night when his wife had taken the kids for an overnight to visit her mother.
The 60-40 is apparently straight, actually. (For an even truer statement, switch the adverbs.) Sixty percent of him is attracted to women, enough to make a marriage, enough to make a marriage on and, if he is a willing stooge of homophobes, stick with it. However 40 percent of him seeks carnal knowledge of men, and that is a hefty fraction of oneself to control. The healthier 60-40s find outlets on the sly and may even leave the marriage; the more damaged 60-40s go through life insane with frustration at all the Hot Guys downloaded into the American consciousness by advertising, movies, and real life, hating what they were born to be and, sometimes, heading “family preservation” for the Religion Nazi community.
Generally, 60-40s never enter gay life in any true sense. You may meet a few describing themselves as “bisexuals”. But most 60-40s don’t describe themselves at all. They feel perilously submerged in choices. The true 60-40 is a shadow figure, one piece of him maintaining a profile existence as a round-the-clock hetero and the other piece frantically darting in and out of a fantastic existence: ours. A single honest moment and he is destroyed.
Jane Austen never described the conversation among the men after the women retired from the dinner table to leave the men drinking their port, because she didn’t know what they said among themselves. Mordden doesn’t really know a lot about bisexuality. It is much more nuanced than he acknowledges. Mordden is probably a Kinsey 6, so that’s understandable, but it nevertheless means his analysis and understanding of bisexual men is not complete. Kinsey’s research (and most of the research since then) shows that there are far more 60-40s (or 70-30s or 50-50s) than there are 100% gays. Maybe 4 or 5 times as many. So many that some sort of bisexuality, at some period of our lives, is the norm for our species. We don’t do sex to have babies. We love fucking because it is intensely pleasurable. And the bonds engendered by sex—which Mordden describes so well—are clearly as important from an evolutionary perspective as the need to reproduce ourselves. In any case, are these men to be our allies as we battle prejudice and hatred, or our enemies? Unlike, say Patrick Gale or Shakespeare, Mordden doesn’t seem to like women: the only flaw in his fiction is the absence of sympathetically portrayed women (though he did write, under a pseudonym, a novel with mostly female characters). His take on the 60-40s is classic gay orthodoxy: bisexual men are in denial, or on a path from straight to gay. If only they would accept themselves and embrace their gayness, everybody would be happier! Well, yes, but what about their straight side? His bitter and sarcastic description of bisexual men is yet another hangover from the days when being bi was seen as letting the side down. I understand—I’ve on occasion felt that myself. About myself.
And yet. His novels are filled with bisexuals. In How’s Your Romance?, Vince Choclo and his friend Red Backhaus “tumble into gay”. The author’s portrayal of how they are adeptly hunted by two of his gay friends, of how they are gently led to discard their prejudices to accept the intense friendship of their gay hunters (for it seems to be that, rather than “love”), is acutely observed. But no matter how much Vince and Red enjoy their sex with guys, they are at best bisexual, and some of my acquaintance might argue that they are still clearly straights. Straights who like sex with a specific man. As one bisexual man of my acquaintance says about his ‘straight’ husband: I watch where his eyes go, and they follow women. In practice, the labels of ‘gay’, ‘straight’ and ‘bi’ are so loose as to be virtually meaningless, which is in effect what Mordden describes, even if he refuses to acknowledge it. Of course, this reflects his gay warrior upbringing, the angst and hatred (his revealing anecdote of his interactions with his father is a perfect example) he—and we—went through to accept what we were, to make a space for ourselves in a hostile world.
The hostile reviews are nonsensical. Mordden’s writing is flawless. At the most obvious level, there are no spelling mistakes, no confusion between “there” “they’re” and “their”, no misplaced apostrophes; there are no grammatical solecisms, no grating confusions between “me” and “I”. Yet his skill goes much deeper than that. Every touch is deft and polished. Every insight sharp, humane, precise. It is also very, very funny. The extended “porn story” which Cosgrove (Mordden’s ‘houseboy’) and friends write is a clear, tart and hilarious pastiche of Burroughs’ (“Cities of the Red Night”) style.
His bons mots are slyly witty and deliciously pointed:
“What do you call it when they’re masculine and strong but they don’t have muscles?” “Straight.”
“I know that looks are all that matter,” he says. “But they don’t reflect personality do they?”
There is no feud like two straight men who think they are friends.
One is reminded of Miss Austen’s dry acidic asides, or of another American sexual outsider and genius, Dorothy Parker. And, of course, it is no accident that the title comes from Cole Porter’s song of the same name.
One of the infallible signs of good writing is that your pleasure improves on subsequent readings. Poor writing is sometimes readable the first time round. At each following pass, the flaws become more obvious, more jarring. Rereading How’s Your Romance? for this review, I found it even better than I did the first time—funnier, sadder, deeper, and wiser. In fifty years, when historians look to understand late 20th century gay life—and straight life too, for it is gay culture which has defined and changed straights (“heterosexual” once meant someone who was excessively interested in women)—they will read Ethan Mordden to see how it was. And they will get pleasure as well as insight from his writings, when so many others have been deservedly forgotten.