The Beauty of Men ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Beauty of Men ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The lead character in Andrew Holleran’s 1996 novel, The Beauty of Men, is a forty-seven-year-old homosexual named Lark. He lives in New York, until “the plague” comes along and changes everything, taking the lives of many (most) of his friends. When his mother has a terrible accident that leaves her completely paralyzed, he “escapes” from New York and goes to live with her in a small Florida town. (He rationalizes later in the book that she “had the accident” to take him out of the New York world of men, to a place where he would be “safe.”)

In the bleak Florida town where Lark lives, he is mostly alone, except for the several hours a day he spends in the nursing home where his mother is confined. The rest of the time he is on his own to reminisce about the friends who have died, read, watch television, and reflect on his wasted, unfulfilling life. He believes he is in love with a thirty-four-year-old man named Becker, with whom he had one tense sexual encounter. The problem with Becker is he doesn’t seem to live Lark very much and isn’t interested in seeing him again. Becker has a lover with a handlebar mustache—don’t you know?—and a pubescent daughter he is trying to raise without a mother.

In his loneliness, Lark humiliates himself by frequenting gay bars and bathhouses, where he is like a ghost because his hair has turned white and he is so much older than the rest of the men there. He also turns up frequently at the “boat ramp,” an isolated, wooded area where men go to meet each other for quick, anonymous sex. (Going to the boat ramp is demeaning and dangerous.) He’s hoping to hook up with Becker once again but, of course, that isn’t going to happen.

The plot of The Beauty of Men shifts back and forth between Lark’s frustrating and disappointing life and the problems he has in dealing with his paralyzed mother. She wants to return home to die, but if Lark allows that he will lose whatever freedom he has. Does he find happiness and fulfillment at the end of the novel? Don’t count on it. It’s a dark, realistic excursion into one man’s unhappy life. There will be no Hollywood ending.  

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Everybody Else Went On Ahead ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Everybody Else Went On AheaD ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(I posted a different version of this short story previously.)

I had known Weston Bicket since we were both five years old, in kindergarten. If I had anything like a best friend, he was it. Some people didn’t like him because he was different from everybody else and he had a bad leg that made him limp and kept him from playing basketball and other stupid games we were made to play. I sometimes envied him because he wasn’t made to take P.E. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “P.E.” means “physical education.”) He had an extra study hall while the rest of us were being humiliated in front of the whole class by our lack of athletic ability.

Weston lived in a big house that had seen better days on the edge of town, behind the railroad depot. (The town wasn’t big enough for a “train station,” so we just had a tiny railroad depot that looked unused and haunted.) He had no brothers and sisters; his parents went off and left him on his own a lot. His father ran around with other women (according to the gossip that my own mother was all too willing to spread), and his mother was an unrepentant floozy who spent a lot of time drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in taverns and bowling alleys. (Weston’s parents’ philosophy of parenting seemed to be: “Let the child raise himself. That’s what we did and look at us!”)   

Weston didn’t like to talk about his bum leg, but one Friday evening during summer vacation when we were alone at his house, I asked him how it came to be the way it was.

“I was a breached birth,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“I came out feet first.”

“Came out where?”

“You know. You saw the pictures in the biology book.”

“Oh, yeah!” I said. “Disgusting!”

“Yes, it’s disgusting. The whole thing is disgusting.”

“So what happened with your leg?”

“I was stuck in there. The doctor pulled too hard on my leg and broke it and dislocated it.”

“Didn’t that hurt?”

“They thought I might never walk, so I guess I’m lucky to be walking at all.”

“You’re lucky in other ways, too. You don’t have to take P.E.”

“Yes, I am blessed in that regard.”

About nine o’clock that night a big thunderstorm blew up out of the southwest, which was where most scary storms came from. Weston’s parents were gone for the weekend and he didn’t know when they’d be back. He asked me if I’d spend the night. I never knew before that he was scared of thunder and lightning.  I thought it would be fun to spend the night in his upstairs bedroom with just the two of us, with plenty of cookies and potato chips, but when I called my mother and asked for permission to spend the night, she told me to shag my cowboy ass home without further delay, storm or no storm. She always knew how to spoil a good time; she did it effortlessly.    

We were thirteen and in the eighth grade. While most of us were growing taller and “filling out,” Weston remained tiny. The eighth grade wasn’t kind to Weston. One day he fell on the stairs going from one class to another and broke his ankle. He had to stay at home for two weeks “recuperating,” and when he came back to school he had a heavy cast on his leg and a pair of crutches. “I was the class lame-o before!” he said proudly. “Now I’m the lame-o for the whole school!”

Not long after his cast was removed, Weston was caught smoking a cigarette in the boys’ restroom with two other boys and all three of them were suspended for three days. Getting suspended from school was about the worst thing that could happen to any of us. To be readmitted, he had to have his mother bring him for a closed-door meeting with the principal in his office. His mother wasn’t exactly the comforting or motherly type. She was a large woman with a deep voice, always smoking a cigarette, always scowling. She scared me just by looking at me without saying anything.       

And that wasn’t all. When we got our once-in-a-lifetime smallpox vaccinations, Weston had a “bad reaction.” His arm swelled up to twice its normal size and he became sick and had to see a doctor. The doctor said it was a “very rare” and “most unusual” side-effect of the smallpox vaccine that occurred in about one in a million people. “Did you ever see anybody so damn lucky?” Weston exclaimed. Everybody wanted Weston to roll up his sleeve and show them his arm, which looked like something out of a horror movie. I knew he was pleased by the attention.   

Because he was so small, Weston was often the target of bullies. One Saturday afternoon when the two of us were on our way downtown, we met the ugly, sadistic goon, Freddy Sharples, on East Main.

“Well, look who’s here!” Freddy sneered, showing his rotting teeth. “I thought I smelled turds!”

Our plan was just to ignore Freddy; we were going to go around him, but he blocked our way.  

“Just where do you two little bitches think you’re going?” Freddy said.

“None of your business!” Weston said.  

“I’ll bet you’re going to the store to buy some emergency feminine napkins, aren’t you?”

“That’s stupid,” Weston said, “because we know you already bought them all!”

“Oh, funny!” Freddy said. “You ought to be on TV!”

“We just met a big gorilla up the street. She was looking for you. I think she was your mother.”

“You know what happens to little bitches with smart mouths? They get their teeth knocked out!”

“I dare you to knock my teeth out!” Weston said. “I’ll call the police and they’ll come and pick you up and drop you off at the monkey house at the zoo with the rest of your family, where you belong!”

“If you don’t shut your mouth, you little creep, and show some respect, I’ll shut it for you!”

“I’d rather be a creep than a psycho, Freddy! That’s what you are! You might as well face it. Nobody likes you! People are afraid of you!”

Freddy jumped at Weston then and got him in a headlock. Weston struggled but couldn’t get loose.

“Let me go!” Weston said. “You’re hurting me!”

“That’s the point, shit-face!” Freddy said.

“Leave him alone, Freddy!” I said.

“Oh, you want some too, mama’s boy?”

He let go of Weston and came toward me and raised his dirt-encrusted knuckles in my face as if to hit me. I didn’t flinch.

“We’re not bothering you!” I said. “Just let us pass.”

“And miss all the fun?”

“No fun here,” I said.

“No?” Freddy asked. “I always think it’s fun beating the shit out of little kids.”

“If you want to beat the shit out of somebody, why don’t you beat the shit out of somebody your own size?”

“Well, that’s just no fun at all!”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Freddy,” Weston said. “Just how many years did you spend in third grade?”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Freddy said. “What’s it like to be a cripple?”

“I’m not a cripple,” Weston said.

“You look like a cripple! You walk like a cripple! Yes, I’d definitely say you’re a cripple!”

“You’re a no-good, smelly, cootie-infested piece of retarded shit!” Weston shrieked. “Your whole family is shit! You live in a junkyard! You have so many brothers and sisters you don’t know how many there are! Your brother went to prison for knocking an old lady in the head and nearly killing her! Your sister had a baby when she was fourteen!”

“You leave my family out of it!” Freddy said.

He hit Weston on the side of the head with his fist. The blow knocked Weston all the way off the sidewalk into the street. I could see right away that his eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. I thought he was dead.

“Look what you did!” I yelled at Freddy.

“Serves him right for disrespecting my family!”

Freddy ran off up the street, like the coward he was. He was trying to laugh, but I could tell he was scared.

I couldn’t leave Weston lying there in the street. He really was knocked out. I had never seen anybody knocked out before. He wasn’t faking it, either. When they got him to the hospital, they found he had a brain concussion and a fractured jaw.

I went to visit him in his room at the hospital one day after school. I had never seen him look so bad. He wasn’t supposed to get out of bed. He couldn’t move around much because he was dizzy.

He wanted to hear what was going on at school. I didn’t have any good gossip to tell him except that we had the Constitution test in American history and Tallulah Midget, a seventh-grade girl, had hepatitis.

“Is it catching?” he asked.

“I think so, if you drink from the water fountain after her.”

“I’ll probably get it then.”

Finally the conversation came around to Freddy Sharples.

“Did you tell everybody how that son-of-a-bitch hit me in the head with his fist, just like Popeye?” Weston asked.

“I told them everything,” I said. “A policeman came by my house and wanted me to tell him what happened and then the next day at school the principal and the school nurse asked me a lot of questions. I just told them what I saw.”

“And that it was all Freddy’s fault?”

“Sure.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“They know that.”

“Are they going to put Freddy in jail for practically killing me?”

“There’s a rumor going around that he’s on his way to reform school.”

“Good! I want to be there when they come and take him away. I bet he’ll scream and cry like a little baby.”

“He’s headed for the pen. You can be sure of that. One day they’ll fry his ass in the electric chair.”

“I’d give a million dollars to see him burn!”

Weston was out of school for three weeks with his concussion. When he came back, he couldn’t remember anything. He couldn’t even remember what classes he was supposed to go to. He wanted to quit school but everybody told him he’d be a bum all his life, so his pride made him change his mind. He wouldn’t be able to quit, anyway, until he was sixteen. The law said so.  

When the school year finally ended, Weston wasn’t passed on to the ninth grade. He was going to have to start over in the eighth grade again when the new school term started. He would start back at square one. It would be as if his bad year never happened.

I was little sad that Weston and I would no longer be in the same grade and have all our classes together. We would still see each other every day and could always eat lunch together, but it would never be the same. He’d find a new best friend and so would I. He’d have a whole bunch of younger children to choose from, whereas I would be with the same old bunch I had always known.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Dancer From the Dance ~ A Capsule Book Review

Dancer From the Dance ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Andrew Holleran’s 1978 novel, Dancer From the Dance, is a compelling, beautifully written modern classic for the grownups in the audience. It’s the story of a group of friends in the libertine 1970s, a world that has vanished from the social landscape as completely as the flappers and debutante balls of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz age.   

Anthony Malone (always called simply “Malone”) is a blond Adonis, a “Nordic warrior,” whose blond hair and extraordinary good looks make him, all too briefly, the darling of the hedonistic homosexual world in New York City in the 1970s (before the “plague”). When Malone comes to New York looking for love, he meets Frankie, a blue-collar, under-educated man who leaves his wife and child to be with Malone. They are happy living together for a while, until Malone is no longer satisfied and begins experimenting sexually with a lot of different men. Frankie tells Malone, “If you ever leave me, I will kill you.”  (As lurid as this might sound, there are NO descriptions of sex acts anywhere in this novel.)  

Sutherland has been part of the New York homosexual “demimonde” for a long time. He knows all the principal players and their peccadillos. He is flamboyant, jaded, outrageous; he frequently takes on the guise of a woman. When Malone escapes from Frankie (after a beating that Frankie administers upon finding out that Malone has been unfaithful), Sutherland takes Frankie home with him, nurses his wounds, and becomes his mentor. He instructs Malone and introduces him to all the important people in their insular world. They are together constantly without ever becoming sexual partners.

Malone, under Sutherland’s tutelage, immerses himself in the world of dancing, parties, discos, Fire Island, and chance, uninhibited sexual encounters with any number of complete strangers. These people go dancing at four in the morning and exhaust themselves before the sun comes up. It’s a superficial world, a “world of the eye,” whose inhabitants trade on their youth and good looks. (When youth fades—when the hair thins and the muscles built up at the gym turn to flab—what do they have?)

In this nighttime world of dancing, glamor, gossip, excitement and youth, Malone is a “star.” Everybody knows him and desires him. But he, alas, is “unfulfilled.” He is always looking for that “something” that he can never find. He becomes a “call boy,” a polite name for a male prostitute. By the time he is in his late thirties, he is “burned out,” a jaded queen who never finds the “love” (or whatever it is) that he once set out to find.

Malone is a Gatsby-like figure, a “romantic,” an enigma, a misfit, a constantly searching, lost soul, looking for that green light at the end of the pier. It’s fitting that at the end of the novel he is last seen swimming out into the Atlantic Ocean away from Fire Island. Nobody knows exactly what happens to him, although there are plenty of rumors.  

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp