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

I Am Skippy Wellington ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

I Am Skippy Wellington ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

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

I had fifteen minutes before bus time so I sat down on one of the ratty seats with part of the stuffing coming out. It was Friday night of a difficult week and I felt terrible. My toothache was killing me, I felt a cold coming on, and I had heartburn from the spicy goulash I had for dinner. I took another pain pill for my tooth and was beginning to feel sleepy when somebody sat down beside me. I turned my head and saw it was Skippy Wellington.

“How are you, Dickie?” she said.

I was surprised, not only that she would speak to me, but that she knew my name.

“Just wonderful,” I said, sounding more cheerful than I felt.

“I’m Skippy Wellington,” she said.

“Yes, I know.”

“Isn’t it funny that we should both be at the bus station at the same time?”

“Yes, isn’t it?”

“I hate the bus station, so it’s good to have somebody to talk to while I wait.”

“Yes, the bus station is, uh, ugly.”

“How do you like college so far?”

“It’s all right.”

“You’re in your first year?”

“Second.”

“I’ll bet you’re finding college much different from high school, aren’t you?”

“Well, I have to study more.”

“What’s your major?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

“I guess you can decide that later on, when you’re further along.”

“Right.”

“As for me, I have a double major, English and drama. I want to be an actress and if that doesn’t work out I guess I’ll teach English. I was in one Drama Guild production in the fall. Now I’m studying another part in another play, to be staged in the spring. If you’ve ever carried the lead in a play, you know how much work it is.”

“No, I haven’t ever done that,” I said, realizing how stupid I sounded.

“And, you know, I don’t like the roommate I have now. Her name is Rocky. Isn’t that absurd? A girl named Rocky! If I can make it through another week without strangling her, it’ll be a miracle!  

“Why don’t you ask to move to a different room?”

“I have, but there isn’t a vacant room for me to move to now. I’ll have to wait until somebody drops out.”

“I was lucky to get an end room,” I said. “No roommate.”  

“Yes, that was lucky. Where do you room?”  

“Prentiss Hall.”

“Well, isn’t that a coincidence? That’s where my boyfriend rooms. You must know him. His name is Peter Piper.”

“Yes, I know him. He’s on my floor. I mean, we both room on the same floor.”

“Isn’t Peter something? He’s just the all-American boy, isn’t he?”

“The truth is, I don’t know him all that well. We don’t move in the same circles.”

She laughed. “You are funny, you know that?”

“No, I didn’t realize it until now.”

“He’s very good-looking, don’t you think, with his blond good looks?”

“I haven’t ever thought about it.”

Hah-hah-hah! Oh, Dickie! Come on, now! You can admit to me that you find Peter attractive. I won’t think you’re gay.”

“Well, I guess the casual observer might find him attractive.”

The casual observer! Hah-hah-hah! You are original!”

“Is that my bus? I think I just heard my bus! I don’t want to miss it!”

“No, it isn’t your bus yet, Dickie. Do you talk much to Peter? You know, man to man?”

“I hardly talk to him at all. A couple times in the TV lounge is all. He offered me a cigarette one time, but I didn’t take it because I don’t smoke.”

“You never heard him talk about girls or dates he’s been out on or anything like that?”

“No, nothing like that.”

“You see, I’m terribly in love with him. We’ve discussed getting married when we’re both finished with school, but I’m not too sure about him. I know a lot of people find him as terribly attractive as I do. When he tells me he’s in love with me and wants to spend his whole life with me, I’m not sure how seriously I can take him. Do you know what I mean?”

“I think I do.”  

“You’re never heard him say anything about a girl named Doris? She’s a biology major.”

“No, I don’t know her.”

“I’ve heard that Doris calls him up all the time, and she makes sure she’s in the places where she knows he’ll be. She is so forward! She’s such a swine and will do anything, I’m sure, to take him away from me! I’m terribly jealous. Oh, this is all too much! You probably think I’m just being silly, don’t you?”

“No, it’s okay.”  

“I’d like to strangle Doris.”

“I won’t tell anybody.”

“If we wait two or three years before we get married, I’m afraid I’ll lose him. I won’t be able to hold onto him that long with so many different girls after him.”

“That’s a tough one.”

“But if I go ahead and marry him now, I can kiss my acting career goodbye. You see, he doesn’t approve. He thinks women should be traditional like his mother and not be interested in bettering themselves. He thinks I’m just being silly when I say I want to be an actress. He doesn’t take me seriously as a person. Do you take me seriously as a person?”

“Sure.”

“I’m terribly serious about my acting. After I’ve acted on the stage for a few years—and I mean the real stage and not college productions—I plan to go to Hollywood. I think I have what it takes to make it big. People have told me I have talent; I know I have talent. I also have the drive and the ambition, which are just as important as talent.” 

“Do you have your bags packed? That’s important, too.”

Hah-hah-hah! Since you and Peter room on the same floor, I was wondering if you’d be willing to help me out.”

“Help you out how?”

“Well, it’s kind of a delicate situation. Keep your eyes and ears open and see if you see or hear anything.”

“Like what?”

“Well, boys love to talk about their conquests and things. They love to brag.”

“Peter would never brag to me.”

“I know, but you room on the same floor with him. You’re bound to see and hear things. Not only from Peter but from somebody else.”

“Are you saying you want me to spy on Peter for you?”

“Oh, no! Nothing like that! I just thought that if you do happen to come by any knowledge that you think might be of any interest to me you wouldn’t mind passing it along.”

“Oh, I don’t know…”

“I’d be willing to pay you!”

“Oh, no! I couldn’t take…”

“I know this is asking a lot, but you’re such a sweet and sensitive boy that I was certain I’d be able to talk to you about just anything.”  

“This is not really what…”

My phone number is in the student directory. Skippy Wellington. Call me any time, on any subject. It doesn’t have to be only about Peter. I knew the moment I started talking to you that you and I are simpatico. If you’re ever having trouble finding a date, I know dozens of girls who would be thrilled to death to go out with you!”

“Finding a date has never been my problem.”

Hah-hah-hah! You are so funny!”

“Here’s my bus,” I said. “I have to go.”

I stood up and she stood up beside me.

“Have a wonderful weekend!” she said.

She surprised me by putting her arms around me and kissing me on the lips. Her lips tasted like wax. I can’t say I liked it or disliked it; I was unmoved.

The bus ride home was longer than usual because it started raining and there was a wreck on the highway that caused a traffic jam. I tried to doze sitting in my seat in the dark, but just as soon as I went to sleep, somebody coughed or a baby somewhere behind me let out a piercing scream and I awoke with a start.

When the bus pulled into the station in my dreary home town, my mother was there to meet me in her ugly old Pontiac.  

“Hello, mother,” I said.

“Your bus is late. I was about to give up and go back home.”

“I could have spent the night at the bus station.”

“Don’t expect me to do your laundry and cook your favorite dishes all weekend long. I’ve got my hands full with your sister and the kids. She’s left Bobo for good this time and is ready to file for divorce.”

“Same old boring story,” I said.

“I think she means it this time. She’s terribly upset and the kids are out of control. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old on my hands all the time. Pixie has developed a smart-assed mouth that she’s picked up from watching TV. I’d like to wash her mouth out with soap, the way my mother used to do, but you can’t get away with that shit now.”

“Suddenly I feel sick,” I said. “I think I might have to spend the weekend in my room away from the rest of the family.”

“Nothing doing, mister! I need you to help me corral the kids. You can play Monopoly and Parcheesi with them.”

“I hate Monopoly and Parcheesi! I’d rather be sitting by myself in my room at school.”

“That’s very selfish of you,” she said.

“I have some news,” I said. “Of a personal nature.”

“What is it?”

“I have a girlfriend.”

“Is this a joke?”

“No, it’s not a joke. I just left her. She thinks I’m sweet and sensitive. She kissed me as we parted. She told me that any girl would be thrilled to death to go out with me. She’s very jealous.”

“I think you’re making this up.”

“No, I’m not! Her name is Skippy Wellington.”

“What kind of a name is that?”

“I don’t know. Chinese?”

“Is she pretty?”

“She’s a knockout. She’s going to be a big movie actress in Hollywood. Bigger than Lana Turner.”

“Sounds perfect for you.”

“We’ve discussed marriage. She wants to get married right away, but I told her it makes more sense to wait a few years until we’re both through school.”

“Don’t marry the wrong person like your sister did and have a miserable life.”

“Don’t worry. You may not believe it, but some people have good sense.”

She lit a cigarette and squinted at the oncoming traffic. She was distracted by her problems and didn’t seem all that interested in anything I had to say, whether it was true or not.  

Without signaling, she veered off the road onto the littered lot of a pizzeria, almost hitting a lamppost and a parked truck.

“I almost forgot,” she said. “I promised Pixie and Bucky I’d bring them a pizza.”

“Why is it that when I hear those names I always think of dogs?”

She took a couple of bills out of her purse and handed them to me. “Will you be a dear and go in and order a large pizza?”  

“I have a feeling I don’t have any choice,” I said.

Against my will, I got out of the car and went inside the pizzeria and ordered a large pizza with every topping available for my niece and nephew. While I stood at the counter like a dumbbell waiting for it until it was ready, I had a muscle spasm in my leg and I thought I was going to vomit. The perfect ending to a perfect day.  

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp