Originally posted, Thursday, June 12 – Two wonderful books have come out recently —Let Me See It,, by James Magruder this month, and The Tooth Fairy, by Cliff Chase, back in February. The first is a collection of linked short stories, the second a memoir, and both are fun to read, moving, and formally inventive — top notch, from this passionate reader’s point of view. Both feature gay male characters — Cliff’s narrator is Cliff, of course, and Jim has split himself into two fictional protagonists, cousins Tom and Elliot. Both writers are good friends of mine, I knew they would love each other’s work, and I also knew an evening of them reading together would be terrific entertainment. This is why I am hosting a book party for them at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road, on June 19th at 7 pm, so I hope you can come.
Here’s some Winikesque backstory, plus excerpts I asked the guys to select.
I met Cliff in New York in 1981 through a mutual friend with whom we both went to college. Jennifer was my best friend at Brown, but transferred to UC Santa Cruz, where she met Cliff. When he later moved to New York, she made sure we met each other. Cliff was sweet, nervous, super-smart and writing weird experimental sci fi stories at the time. I was a manic-depressive mess and way into hard drugs. I had connected with Jennifer at school through my on-again, off-again interest in Eastern spirituality; she and Cliff had met in a campus Christian group. Though we enjoyed each other’s writing and company, it is perhaps no surprise Cliff and I didn’t become best friends on the spot, and I moved away from New York, thank God, the next year.
After that, I got to know Cliff better in absentia than I did in person by falling in love with his work. The Hurry-Up Song, a memoir of his brother’s death from AIDS; Queer 13: Lesbian and Gay Writers Recall Seventh Grade, a great anthology of personal essays he edited; his first novel, Winkie, about a teddy bear suspected of terrorism (!). The Tooth Fairy took me deepest of all, with its stunningly readable one-sentence-at-a-time record of observations and feelings. It is one of the more amazing renderings I’ve ever seen of what it feels like to have a human mind. But instead of going on about it, I refer you the excerpt below, and to the reading on the 19th.
Jim Magruder I met not long after I moved to Baltimore in 2009, in the natural course of trolling around for other writers to be friends with. We arranged to meet for coffee at the Evergreen, but by chance, both of us were at a low ebb that day and conversation foundered. Soon after this I read his hilarious, wonderful novel Sugarless, following the misadventures of a gay teenager at speech team competitions in the 1970s, and I knew I would try a lot harder to impress him next time.
Since then, we have become very close and it was he and his partner Steve Bolton who hosted my daughter Jane and I in Uganda this past winter, which you may have read about here. Jim has also appeared in Fishbowl – here’s a nice summery essay for you. Anyhoo, I read a few of the stories in Let Me See It before they were published: “Tenochtitlán,” about two kids from very different families working on a school project together, and “Elliott Biddler’s Vie Bohème,” which is about a gay kid’s semester abroad in Paris. These were exactly the kind of short stories that piss me off because I want to read a whole book about the characters, not just a few pages. So imagine my delight when I learned this would be possible.
Here are the excerpts – I’ll see you at the Ivy on the 19th. The store is also taking phone orders at (410) 377-2966.
From The Tooth Fairy, by Cliff Chase
Cliff says: This is from the chapter on college (1980) and the B-52’s, “Am I Getting Warmer?” I picked this because it both demonstrates and explains the book’s approach to memory.
As the brand-new record strummed its cockeyed beat, I stared at the five of them on the cover: angular cut-outs on a flat, horizonless yellow—three boys, two girls—defiant in their thrift-shop clothes and poofy wigs.
Journal entry: “Legitimate (I think) fears and desires concerning my sexuality are taking the form of guilt.”
Remembering that time requires extra kindness toward myself.
I spooned fuchsia-colored yogurt from the plastic tub.
Under a vaulted timber ceiling, I pulled the heavy blue Canterbury Tales from the shelf marked with the course number.
For now, let the white space between these sentences stand for what couldn’t be seen then; or what can’t be remembered now; or my open fate; or the open, bare-bones arrangement of a B-52’s song (drum kit, guitar, cheesy keyboard, toy piano)—my soundtrack that winter and spring.
From Let Me See It, by James Magruder
Jim says: This is from one of the first stories I wrote, in 2002.
Hootchie Mamas / Elliott, 1982
“Sometimes you have to spend money to make money,” said my mother from the other side of the dressing room curtain. I heard her rustling in her purse. My mother navigated life with a set of four mid-sized Ziploc bags. “Now show me how they fit, son.”
I stopped in the middle of disentangling the glossy cardboard tag from the fly in my boxers. The smooth way her sentence rolled out made me suppose that spending money to make money was a great, general truth she had been holding back until I graduated from college. That had been five days ago. When I picked her up at the county airstrip, I was astonished at how much she seemed to have aged in ten months. After years of upsweeps, bouffants, soft perms, and body waves in shades from straw to honey, years of curling iron burns on the countertops and plastic dye gloves stuck to the bottom of the powder room wastebasket, she had let the gray come in, and come down straight in a pixie. And she was wearing tan leatherette flats, nurse shoes practically. Without her hair and heels, she looked like an unusually merry old elf, or a children’s librarian. When we began to fight over who would carry her three clamshell suitcases, she began to assume her traditional contours, and I was relieved to see her reapply lipstick in the passenger mirror. Soon she was tapping the car window with a tangerine fingernail, pointing at things as if they didn’t have trees and birds and gas stations in Chicagoland.
I roomed with two women my senior year, and from sloth and anxiety about life after Cornell, not one of us had given a thought as to where we’d make our parents take us for graduation dinner. By March, the only restaurant accepting reservations on the big weekend was the Howard Johnson’s in Slaterville Springs, so we decided to cook for our families and make a feast of our shortsightedness. I was the one with no money, and because I had only one parent to put up, my mother was going to stay in my room and spend the week after graduation seeing the sights of Ithaca, New York. Entertaining her on my turf would be stressful, I knew, but if anyone had to worry when the families convened, it would be my roommate Janine, whose mother was an alcoholic night owl with a pronounced interest in our sex lives.
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