|Review By: Anthony Smith|
Coming out stories are something of a mainstay of gay writing. They can be, however, somewhat formulaic and it was thus with some misgiving that I approached this edited volume of coming out stories. Boys Like Us is an unusual volume on at least three counts: the stories are autobiographical non-fiction; the contributors include some of the most prominent American gay writers; and the contributions were written specifically for this collection.
The writers sharing their accounts of coming out include Edmund White, Samuel R. Delany, Andrew Holleran, Christopher Bram and Michael Nava, to name some of the better known. Absences include Felice Picano, Paul Monette and Martin Duberman, who have told their stories already. The events depicted occur between 1949 and 1995 and thus give us particular insights into the changing nature of American society and the ways those changes have shaped the experience of coming out.
The contributions vary markedly in their structure and content. Some, like Edmund White’s Cinnamon Skin, are richly detailed and fully realised narratives of the period in the writer’s life when they first experienced sex with another man. Others, like Samuel R. Delany’s Coming/Out are incisive and intelligent meditations on the nature of coming out, of the varied contexts and settings in which some aspect of coming out is achieved. Perhaps less successful is Douglas Sadownick’s contemplation on coming out and the importance of Jungian psychoanalysis in Hell’s Kitchen.
Some of the narratives are simply surprising. Money Talk by David Drake is a very brief but delightful contribution that deals with his coming out over the telephone to his stockbroker, a man he had never met but had dealt with for some years. Alan Gurganus’ contribution He’s One Too is a much darker piece, dealing as it does with a young boy’s erotic attachment to Dan R___ , a friend of his father. Dan R___ is subsequently arrested for ‘liberties taken with a minor’ in the men’s room of the local J C Penny store.
In Samuel R. Delany’s preface to Coming/Out he observes that
all the incidents I’m going to recount…changed my life. But they changed it in small, distinct ways. None of them marked a before or after point, distinguishing absence from presence. Rather, each is notable because it was a point of change, a point where what was present before was still present, only in rearranged form.
Each of the contributions in the volume illuminates in some way the myriad ways in which those incidents come about and what it is that is present before and after, and the ways in which their form can be rearranged.