Whose Song? and Other Stories
by Thomas Glave

Powell's Books
3723 SE Hawthorne
7:30 pm March 13

Three young men are violently raping a teenage lesbian. The narrative reveals that each of the rapists is experiencing at least some form of homosexual panic within. The girl is probably on her back, or at least that's how the reader is forced to imagine her, because the narrative focus is on the boys--Robbie, for example, is in crisis, trying to prove his masculinity and compensate for the fact that he once had sex with another boy: "But he was holding onto me and sliding, sliding way up inside sucking coming inside me in me in hotä," Robbie thinks.

Somewhere beneath this rapist is the victim, with a turpentine-soaked rag in her throat, practically ignored in terms of character development. It is at this point, in the title story to Thomas Glave's debut collection, Whose Song?, that the reader is finally unable to stomach all the excess horseshit. This is sad, really, because Glave is a powerful writer: like a less-refined Gertrude Stein when the prose reads like free verse, and a cruder, paranoid James Baldwin when the prose is more grounded.

Glave has been compared to Baldwin, and not entirely without reason: The young author, is the second gay black writer to claim the O. Henry Prize. Occasionally, his writing rises to the emotional and intellectual precedents set by Baldwin. The problem is, Glave's explorations of sexuality are far more self-conscious and at times, downright embarrassing.

Begin with the story "Accidents," in which one of a pair of gay lovers very eloquently gives himself over to insanity. The story is elegantly written and insightful. Only one passage is ruined by Glave's own prescriptions, but it pokes out through the text like a big, ugly rainbow flag: "Loving another man wasn't strange; people can't hate the idea enough to change it, for us or anybody." Aw, shucks. It's not an awful sentence really, just trite.

Perhaps more troublesome than the trite, pro-gay sentiment, is the gratuitous use of sexuality, like in "The Final Inning." In this story, a closeted husband and father, with a history of anonymous bathroom sex, is forced to confront the fear of AIDS when a friend dies of an AIDS-related illness. The story is a fast, bracing read that weaves itself into a satisfyingly bleak conclusion. Again, the only time the narrative gets clunky is when the protagonist thinks about sex with men: "Lay across his dusky thighs, smell his dusk, his musky parts in the hands; a palm to those musk-dusky parts moistened by the mouth." Why is the protagonist thinking about "musk-dusky" sex in a moment of AIDS panic? In a story that is already emotionally heightened, the passage is more masturbatory than relevant, and, ultimately, a detriment to the storytelling.

This is a problem with much gay literature being produced today: It keeps on fluffing us. With the exception of the repulsive "Whose Song?" the stories in Thomas Glave's collection are gorgeous, deeply conflicted and just shy of important. Glave is a stormy, luminous writer worthy of being heard. For now, however, he seems a bit too "moistened by the mouth" to know how relevant he actually is.