Queers, Proper and Otherwise

A pioneering text of gay literature, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912) is also a tribute to the power of Eros, no matter what its orientation. In his introduction to Michael Henry Heim's recent translation from the German (Ecco, $12.95), novelist Michael Cunningham argues that Heim has corrected for H.T. Lowe-Porter's "rather stern, disapproving" version, which has enjoyed a virtual monopoly since its publication in 1930. Besides making protagonist Gustav Aschenbach seem less pathetic and more tragic, the Heim version is also more forceful. Here are two takes on a passage where the aging writer and Tadzio, the beautiful Polish youth, start to bridge the distance between them. First, Lowe-Porter: "Some sort of relation and acquaintanceship was perforce set up between Aschenbach and the youthful Tadzio; it was with a thrill of joy the older man perceived that the lad was not entirely unresponsive to all the tender notice lavished on him." Now Heim: "Some kind of relationship and acquaintance was bound to develop between Aschenbach and young Tadzio; and the older man was thrilled to discover that his interest and attention did not go wholly unreciprocated."

James McCourt's Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985 (Norton, $17.95) lives up to the first word in its title in more than one sense, including that of "unusual." It's a sui generis grab bag of lists, two-page photo spreads, extended dialogues, interspersed essays by other writers, fictitious letters from the likes of Walter Pater and Christopher Marlowe -- and multiple other approaches to its subject. Early on, we get a "syllabus" of whom and what a proper 1950s queer would have been hip to, including Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Mae West; Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson; and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu ("in French; fake it."). Later, McCourt addresses in dialogue form the perplexing place of Gore Vidal in the gay pantheon.

"He thinks there's no such thing as homosexuality per se. . . . He says there are only homosexual acts. . . . He says it's only a construction -- something out of Oscar Wilde.

"Constructed truth; very much in vogue these days. Construction workers too."

Pop culture observer Cathy Crimmins is here to tell us How the Homosexuals Saved Civilization (Tarcher, $14.95). From what was civ saved? Why, stultification in an "American landscape [that] can seem like a wasteland. . . . " She cites such gay specialties as bitchy humor, as in David Sedaris's encomium to higher education: " 'College is the best thing that can ever happen to you,' my father used to say, and he was right, for it was there that I discovered drugs, drinking, and smoking." And she approves the straight world's buy-in to gays' eroticization of the male body: "Body-conscious straight men -- call them hetero gymrats, metrosexuals, or post-straights -- are looking better all the time. . . . The bar has been raised, and the women in their lives, increasingly influenced by the gay body aesthetic, expect their men to be lean, muscular, and smooth-chested."

In a more somber vein is Calvin Trillin's Remembering Denny (FSG Classics, $13), which bears out an epigram by Cyril Connolly: "Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising." The destroyed man is Roger "Denny" Hansen, a Yale classmate of Trillin's who had everything going for him -- brains, athletic ability, leadership and an infectious smile -- except self-acceptance. After peaking by winning a Rhodes scholarship, he failed to live up to that "promising" label and took his own life at age 55. As for Hansen's homosexuality, Trillin writes in dismay that "students at a place like Yale in the fifties couldn't have conceived of the possibility that the breezy, popular varsity swimmer we half expected to become President of the United States might have been gay. After talking to a lot of people who knew Denny in his last years, it seems to me that even after he began moving in gay circles in Washington he had difficulty conceiving of it himself."

Hansen's case demonstrates that although Stonewall -- the dramatic 1969 riots centered on a gay bar on Manhattan's Christopher Street -- may have benefited millions of gay men and lesbians, it came too late for others. In Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution (St. Martin's Griffin, $14.95), David Carter notes that in the late '60s the NYPD had been targeting gay bars in Greenwich Village and that on June 28, 1969, a raid on the eponymous Stonewall Inn elicited a startling reaction. Instead of politely dispersing as on countless previous occasions, the fed-up patrons put on an impromptu show, calling out to their friends and camping it up as they exited the bar. A crowd gathered, people began singing "We Shall Overcome," a cop shoved a transvestite, she bopped him with her purse, he clubbed her, and the enraged crowd attacked a paddy wagon. The action continued for several more days, and by the time it was over a new cause had joined the panoply of '60s and '70s movements: gay liberation.

-- Dennis Drabelle