Online Edition: Summer 2000

The New York Years by Felice Picano

The New York Years

Felice Picano

Alyson Books ($12.95)

by Brad Jacobson

Felice Picano occupies that rare constellation of literary talent populated by such stalwarts of queer literature as Christopher Cox, Andrew Holleran, and Edmund White. He began his career during the bacchanalian heyday of post-Stonewall queer culture, living in and writing about a universe suffused with the unabashed sexuality respective of the parties, clubs, and bathhouses of a time far removed from the comparably tame exploits of today's gay men. Writing about what he knew, Picano gave voice to an experience which may have been lived before but which had rarely been written about without the use of coded language and sly allusion. In The New York Years, a collection of short stories written between 1972 and 1981 and published for the first time as one volume, readers are granted the rare treat of witnessing the birth of a supernova, a literary talent willing to take them on a tour of a long-gone New York City, once a metropolis of desire, now almost thoroughly co-opted and neutered by Walt Disney.

Picano may be a stranger to readers not well acquainted with the 1970's renaissance of gay male literature. Previous to this time, a very real sense of disdain and hostility towards homosexuality existed in straight literary circles. As David Bergman quotes then-leading liberal intellectual Joseph Epstein in The Violet Quill Reader: "Private acceptance of homosexuality, in my experience, is not to be found, even among the most liberal-minded, sophisticated, and liberated people. Homosexuality may be the one subject left in America about which there is no official hypocrisy." Some would argue such a sentiment still exists today, but thankfully, the queer community now has a commanding voice with which to confront these archaic points of view. At the time, of course, books with gay themes existed, such as James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room or Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar. But such works did not possess a distinctly gay voice, even when penned by gay men, and they most certainly did not offer their gay readers any kinds of heroes or sympathetic characters. Before Stonewall, novels with gay characters either relegated them to the sidelines or made them sensationalistic and/or highly tragic figures. Foreign works by authors such as Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann were of an altogether different ilk, so highly literary as to be intellectually unattainable to the lay reader. If an author chose to tackle the issue of homosexuality in an unaffected manner, his work would quickly be labeled pornographic, and, as such, hardly inspiring.

Into this jumble of less-than-affirming styles, the Violet Quill was born, and with it, some of the best authors of gay male literature, not the least of whom is Picano. Men like Cox, Holleran and White came together as fellow artists for advice about style and technique, as well as for the company of fellow gay writers who would not be shocked or put off about the subject matter which made up their work. As Bergman so rightly asserts, "The Violet Quill can be seen as the most important group of gay writers after Stonewall who rejected the accursed lot that critics . . . would have doomed them to, and who tried to articulate the belief that gay people can be free, not of their history of oppression, but of the feeling that they are forever condemned to 'the pain of the earth.'"

The New York Years certainly works to narrate the world of 1970's New York City, both to its benefit and to its disservice. On the whole, most of Picano's short stories are beautifully populated by complex, interesting characters who possess a keen sense of language and an even greater sense of establishing a connection with a reader. True, the characters are archetypes of the gay male culture--the trick, the sugar daddy, the gym bunny, the troll, the closet case--but Picano is so very good at revealing the humanity beneath a character's sexuality one forgives him for relying on what now may seem like stereotypes but at the time were original representations of living, breathing gay men. Standouts in the collection include the languorous narrative "Shy," the ensemble piece "Xmas in the Apple," the biting "Slashed to Ribbons in Defense of Love," and the clever, campy riff on the Ganymede myth, "An Asian Minor." Even the pieces that are a bit sub-par are worthy of their place in this collection, if for nothing else but the fact that they are prime representations of gay life in 1970's Manhattan. Picano himself admits to the datedness of some of his stories, most notably "Spinning" which he concedes "really seems to belong to the disco-drugs era in which it was written." "Expertise," a story devoted to a young man's empty quest to be the greatest fellator in the City, and "And Baby Makes Three," concerned largely with the petty jealousies and bed-hopping of a group of gay men on Fire Island, also seem dated material, given the wholesale promiscuousness present in an pre-AIDS era. These stories may not travel particularly well, but they do exist as fascinating bits of literary anthropology. Picano's tour of lives lived in the midst of cultural revolution is a must for anyone interested in the limits of human desire and sexuality.

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Summer 2000 Table of Contents