Macho Sluts (October 3, 2009)

Patrick Califia, the controversial author who first wrote and published Macho Sluts in 1988, writes in a new Foreword for the 2009 edition, of his awareness that most mainstream readers, and a great number of the queer ones too, will find more reason to reject, rather than embrace, this landmark text. As Califia asks in the opening sentence of the essay, “Why should anybody buy a book of lesbian S/M smut… especially if the author is now using male pronouns and sporting a rather impressive beard?”

“Vanilla” readers, a term that Califia and his characters like to bandy about, may run from the violent content of the sexually explicit material, not ready to confront the notion that pain and pleasure can be found at the same time.

Feminists may shun the purposeful and demeaning subjugation of many of the characters, labeling it a pathological result of the dominant patriarchal ideology that churns through our society.

Even the segment of lesbian S/M culture that Califia attempts to give voice to may turn from the new edition of the work, given the author’s “disloyal” transition from lesbian woman to bi-sexual man in the late 1990s. Who, then, is this work for? And why has it endured?

As difficult as it is to step back from the sexual and social political wars in which “Macho Sluts” finds itself enmeshed, it is important to do so. It is only then that the work can be fully appreciated for the important historical document, and biting commentary on gender roles, that it actually is. As Califia writes, “This is no ordinary book of X-rated fiction. Its continued existence and popularity alone prove that.”

A Preface written by Mark Macdonald acts as a brief history of the book’s battle with Canadian censorship. A protracted legal skirmish between Canadian Customs and importer Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium in Vancouver, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, rewrote the script in terms of speaking out against the illegal suppression of ideas.

Macdonald writes that the right to distribute the book initially fell victim not only to overzealous customs officials, but also, “a camp of neo-Victorian, right wing feminists who felt that sexual expression itself was to be scrutinized with suspicion.” From the perspective of the clinical evaluation of the book as an important tool in the battle for free speech, “Macho Sluts” is worth a look.

As for the stories themselves, even if one does not find the idea of lesbians tying and beating each other up to be a personal turn-on, Califia’s writing is a cut above the swill you would encounter reading “Penthouse Letters,” or other over-the-counter, mainstream erotica. Califia isn’t just trying to titillate. He is trying to write–and he has plenty of value to say.

“Macho Sluts” is not simply a collection of stories about people on the fringes of society trying to get themselves off. They are real, with lives, and most importantly, feelings.

One of the stories, “Jesse” contains this insightful musing on the loneliness that often accompanies a hardcore S/M lifestyle: “The next time I called up a few of my other old friends, they treated me with what I thought was distaste… So I gave up calling anybody I used to know.” These lines touch on the despair that accompanies the fight for understanding, even within the “safe” confines of your own minority group.

This idea is continued and further developed in “The Hustler,” a futuristic fantasy where Califia envisions a dominant matriarchal society. Yet, even amongst the female population, there are still outsiders. Califia’s character, the titular Hustler, wonders, “why so many of us have not profited greatly from the women’s revolution, despite the fact that we are women. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the right kind of woman.”

“The Spoiler,” details the adventures of a man (another marked transgression for some in a work of lesbian pornography), who, like Califia himself, violates the norms, even in the left of center world of S/M. Califia writes, “We are raised to think that everything in the world occurs naturally as a set of paired opposites. It is almost impossible for us to know what anything is if we cannot locate and define its counterpart. The spoiler was an anomaly.”

All of this is not to say that the primary mission of Patrick Califia’s “Macho Sluts” isn’t sexual excitement. The author provocatively asks the reader to consider his or her answer to the following question: “Are you more afraid that you won’t have any fun–or that you’ll be thrilled to pieces? Which is it? Be bold.”

Be that as it may, one should not bypass this text out of a knee-jerk distaste for S/M pornography. No matter what your sexual orientation, fetishes or fantasies, the work offers important cultural and historical lessons that are still very much relevant in a post-Proposition 8 fight for human understanding and equality.

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Mean Little Deaf Queer (July 6, 2009)

Mean Little deaf Queer (the lower case “d” is empathically intentional) by Terry Galloway, is a “special” memoir.

However, in this instance “special” does not refer to the nebulous, often negative connotation of the term, which Galloway both accepts and rejects as forever the albatross to be borne about the neck by members of the disabled community.

No, the work is “special,” because it is, quite simply, one of the finest, most nakedly honest and humorous autobiographies out there to be read.

Rendered deaf at the age of nine through the tragic use of an experimental antibiotic on her then-pregnant mother, Galloway’s rich language resonates with the lifelong bitterness of person who is well aware of exactly what she’s lost.

As if finding yourself in a sudden world of soundless confusion at such a tender age were not trying enough, the author had the bad karma to be born a gay woman during the Cold War – in the South.

Add “box size” hearing aids and huge glasses into the mix, and Mean Little deaf Queer has all the makings of a tragedy, a Lifetime movie of the week about an inspiring woman of limited means.

But to view the memoir through this two-dimensional lens would be a tragic mistake of another kind. The work is so many things, like the formidable author herself: partly David Sedaris-esque in its slice-of-life essay moments, part slapstick farce, so very real, and always laugh out loud hilarious.

The work does more to put a “human” face on the lives on the disabled, gay community than anything I can remember in well, a long time.

I challenge you not to look at blind, deaf, or otherwise impaired people we mostly sweep our eyes over each day, in a different way after reading this memoir.

Because if there is one thing that Galloway makes clear – she is not a victim. She is every bit as flawed, nasty, bitter, funny, loving and complicated as the perfect specimens she often feels closing in around her – in many cases, her own family.

Perhaps nowhere does Galloway make her aching humanity more painfully, and side-splittingly obvious than in the chapter entitled “The Performance of Drowning.”

I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say, never has such un-PC, sociopathic behavior been so funny. I felt deliciously dirty afterward.

There are so many poignant moments in the book, often placed right next to the gut busting laughs.

This easy flow of emotions feels both organic and invigorating due to the author’s oft declared love of, and skill with, language. Galloway writes, on page 70, “I was enthralled by the effects spoken words could have, like another kind of music.”

That a hearing impaired person would grow to revere speech in this manner is at once heartbreaking, and indicative of enormous thoughtfulness.

Terry Galloway takes a fair amount of potshots at herself in the memoir: everything from her appearance, to the inherent comedy of her physical challenges, to her innately dramatic flair.

This is perhaps one of the most disarming and endearing aspects of the work. The woman is not afraid to laugh at herself, even while admitting things in print many of us would find difficult to say, even to ourselves.

Galloway makes no bones about her childhood desire to be a “beautiful boy”, a desire it seems, that never wholly subsided. She frankly discusses the vengeful hierarchies of the “Deaf” (congenital) versus “deaf” (due to illness or accident after birth) communities.

The reader is left with the impression that there is nothing Galloway won’t say, no tough issue off limits – and we are assuredly the better for it.

In essence, the young Terry Galloway is a deaf, queer Bridget Jones, only with a lot more sex, drugs and alcohol. It is one of the feats of Galloway’s work that the reader is left oddly comforted knowing that the physically challenged as morally messy as the rest of us.

At the same time, it is impossible not to rejoice in the happiness she eventually finds in the arms of her partner, Donna Marie.

In the Prologue, Galloway writes of her affection for the memoir, stating, “it’s the crappy ones I’ve lost my heart to.” Rest assured, there is nothing “crappy” about this life story.

You don’t have to be disabled, gay female, or even an avid reader to be most entertained with this completely honest, engagingly entertaining work of literature

23 Hours (July 2, 2009)

As the fourth book in David Wellington’s vampire series, 23 Hours is hereby excused from being considered a “hanger on” to the dominating pop culture sensations that all things bloodsucker have been in recent years.

Although it may be tempting to view the novel through the lens of HBO’s current hit show True Blood, or the wildly popular Twilight young adult book series that has turned young Robert Pattinson into a bonafide teen sensation, the obvious comparisons are simply too easy.

Yes, the book is about vampire hunting. Yes, it hits stores right smack in the middle of a veritable Dracula renaissance. However, 23 Hours is both more, and in some cases less, than its contemporaries in creating a modern vampiric mythology.

The heroine, semi-famous lesbian vampire hunter Laura Caxton, finds herself behind bars in maximum security Pennsylvania women’s prison, Marcy State Correctional Institution, at the inception of the novel.

In case the reader has not read any of the previous books in the series, Wellington quite charitably fills you in on how Caxton came to find herself incarcerated: in short, she kidnapped and tortured a suspect with ties to the vampire community.

Her willingness to cross over to the wrong side of the law, even with the noble intent to save lives, proves too much for her by-the numbers boss, Deputy Marshal Fetlock, and he throws the book at Caxton.

Structurally, the novel is divided into three sections, entitled, respectively: Bellows, Guilty Jen and Malvern. Though it is the latter two sections where the vampire bloodlust and chase ultimately plays out, it is the first part, Bellows, which proves to be the most riveting.

This 42 page section offers a bleak account of warrior Caxton’s dehumanizing conversion to inmate. The repetitiveness, hopelessness and loneliness of life inside a maximum security prison is much less Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, and much more Oz.

The ability to identify with the humiliating pain of Caxton’s animalistic jail rituals is so complete that I felt the need to put the book down a time or two to wipe a tear from my eye. Large credit goes to the vivid internal dialogue Wellington creates for his protagonist.

That said, delving into section two, Guilty Jen, is quite jarring, and I am not sure the book ever recovers.

Basically, we are transported from Dead Woman Walking right into Terminator skull cracking territory, as Caxton begins her 23 hour quest to eliminate her vampiric nemesis, Justinia Malvern, once and for all.

The novel suffers from this clumsy transition. The suspense thriller is written at an 8th grade reading level, with such gratuitous gore and objectification of the female body, I often felt at times as though I were reading a Christopher Pike young adult novel, rather than mature adult fiction.

The objectification and repeated mutilation of the female form is the more incongruous, as each and every major character is a woman: heroine Laura Caxton and her girlfriend, Clara Hsu; Caxton’s “celly” and dubious moral consideration Gert Stimson: the villanous Justinia Malvern and her partner in crime, Warden Bellows.

Where male characters do exist in the novel, they serve as glorified extras, one-dimensional foils such as Fetlock, or vampire chum like the many Correctional Officers at Marcy State. I am conflicted about this.

On the one hand, the novel is nothing if not a message of female empowerment. Yet at the same time, this women-centric world is a touch unrealistic and ultimately frustrating. I realize it’s a lot to ask for realism of any kind from a vampire action novel, but it would have been nice to see one fully formed man in the cast of characters.

It is easy to appreciate the little touches, the slight differences that Wellington’s own brand of vampire mythology brings to the canon.

For example, the vampires in 23 Hours are not sexy. The author goes out of his way to make clear that Justinia Malvern is not the compliment to Anne Rice’s Lestat.

On page 70 of the novel, she is described as follows:

“Her head was completely hairless. She didn’t even have eyelashes. She had long triangular ears, one of which looked like it had been chewed on by animals…Her mouth was full of broken fangs.”

In Wellington’s world, garlic is powerless against creatures of the night, and older vampires need much more blood to stay “healthy” than their young counterparts.

These bits are fun, but not enough to mask the work’s overall shortcomings, such as the endless action scenes that don’t often do much to move the plot.

Most disappointingly, the “gotcha!” ending of the novel is one that anyone over the age of 13 would have seen coming from a mile way.

23 Hours might serve as a must-read for fans of Wellington, and those who just can’t get enough of vampires in general. However, there are certainly better examples of parasitic action literature than this unchallenging and ultimately lumbering work.