By Douglas Sadownick
I heard about author Felice Picano a little more than twenty years ago. I was coming out in New York City as a 19-year-old novelist wannabe in 1978. New York virtually undulated with male sex and there wasn't a porn theater or alleyway I didn't frequent. In my shy, lower middle class Jewish way, though, it took me a while before I dared to touch anyone in those dark nicotine palaces. I was only 18, after all. I feasted on the orgy of gay love through a safer medium besides the body: I read.
The Lure, a story about a gay murder, introduced me to the Dionysian side gay sex and intrigue while teaching me, at the same time, about the finer things of life (like good sentences harnessed to a gay-centered vision). This picture gay life haunted me with its beauty, loss, friendship and lyricism. I hard discovered a new art form.
Unlike James Baldwin or even Walt Whitman (two heroes) and even unlike Allan Ginsburg (whose Howl I carried in my backpack), Picano and his ilk of gay writers wrote about the gay urban life in which I was finding myself: the streets of New York during the tail-end of the sexual revolution when gay men equated free love with mind expansion and social change. Reading cemented my identity in a hundred different ways. That was a time before Reagan, before young gay people had lost all hope of ever being a part of something larger than themselves.
The collective of gay writers that Picano went on to found in the early `80s was called the Violet Quill. The group included such luminaries as Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Michael Grumley, Robert Ferro, Christopher Cox, and George Whitmore. White's A Boy's Own Story, Holleran's A Dancer from the Dance and Ferro's The Family of Max Desire are known of as the classics of that period. Some referred to the collective as the "gay literary Mafia." Others called it the Gay Bloomsbury Group, referring to the mostly queer collective of writers in 1920s England (E.M. Foster, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Stratchey) who gave the bourgeois novel both realistic and artistic status as never before, ushering in 20th Century modernism and alienation. Similarly, the Violet Quill did much for a gay cultural identity that was just being born. This, the most important group of gay writers since Stonewall, articulated the belief that can people can be free-can be leaders-if only they could overcome their oppression. They wrote for gay readers never once caring to explain themselves. They wrote using the language gay men used. They wrote to both shock and seduce straights out of stupid complacency. They wrote, whether they liked it or not, to further gay liberation while being terribly literary. That was new.
Twenty years later, I am driving up the Hollywood Hills to eat one of Felice's famous home-cooked meals. I am going to interview him about his newest book, "The Book of Lies," to come out in October from Alyson Press. But I hardly feel like a dispassionate journalist. Much has changed in twenty years. An epidemic took all but three of the members of the Violet Quill. Many of the writers Picano supported with his own publishing company-Seahorse Press-especially the members or the Black Gay Harlem Renaissance, have died. Picano, of course, has kept writing. And his support of younger authors like me has been unflagging. Like the writers of his generation, he knew that gay literature had to be part of a collective movement to achieve anything of lasting value. One person alone could only do so much.
As a gay-centered psychotherapist, who distanced himself from novel writing because I felt it didn't mainstream gay publishing advanced gay liberation enough past its assimilationist dead-end, I have found myself oddly intrigued by Picano's new work. On the surface it seems part roman-a-clef, part-whodunit. But actually it is a book about coming out, self-knowledge and even the erotic gay soul-while exposing one lie after another.
Ross Ohrensedt is an assistant lecturer at UCLA whose research focuses on an imaginary gay literary group, The Purple Circle, which published books out of New York City (coincidentally during the same time as the Violet Quill). His job is to catalogue the works of Purple Circle member Damon von Slyke. In the process, the gay academic discovers a secret and quite controversial manuscript that describes the story of a young boy who kills his brother. Fascinated with the find, and committed to making a career based on exploiting it, Ohrensedt embarks on something of a picaresque journey to see the remaining flamboyant members of the Purple Circle to try and piece the mystery together. The result is a story with a serious of uncanny turns that make the end of the "Sixth Sense" tame by comparison, at least in gay terms.
It's hard not to try and guess which members of the Purple Circle are based on the Violet Quill. There's a man who robs a bank; another who is closeted; another who talks like Quentin Crisp; another who seems to be the only remaining success story. I couldn't help but feel I was reading about Picano in this description of Dominic de Petrie's personality: "It was refreshing in one sense, as the no-longer-young-can be bracing, in that he evidently did not believe he had to accommodate anyone by social inanities such as diplomacy, politeness, or unguardedness. On the other hand, he'd reveled aspects of himself I felt not everyone would consider of the highest order: his puerile glee in expensive, gaudy machines, in using them to outwit the police; his adolescently fast-though so far unperilous-driving; his preening attitude toward himself and all that was his; his air of presumption about what he'd earned..."
But I learned fast it would be a mistake to try and be too "literal" about tracing any of the characterizations in this novel to the people, places and things that made gay literary history. After all, Picano reminds me as we sit down to steamed salmon, wasn't such literalness the protagonist's near-fatal mistake, the very "muddle" that gets him into a car chase resulting in his near-death? "I am all of the characters," he says, with a seductive smile, "and none of them." Some of the characters are based on three of four of the figures, he says. "But you can't do an exact identification between them and members of the Violet Quill," he adds. "First off, there are two more of them [in the Purple Circle] and even if you did exact comparison, you'd never find out who the other two people are." Picano has written a mystery book. The "who's who" game is one of the snares-a trap no doubt to boggle the minds of the uptight Queer Theorists bound to try and deconstruct Picano. Another snare is the bibliography in the back of the book, which pulls you into comparisons whether you like it or not.
Why didn't Picano write the definitive book about the Violet Quill? "I'm not ready," he says, referring to the fact that only three of the members (himself, White and Holleran) survived the devastation of AIDS. The Book of Lies was both a way of not dealing with the pain of that loss as well as beginning to, he says. It's taken him nearly four years, and a move from his Native New York to get over the death of his lover-best friend Bob, with whom Picano shared life for almost 15 years. He says he wrote the Book of Life to amuse himself. But sometimes you take the Picano irony in the same way you take De Petrie-with a grain of salt.
For there's much that the Violet Quill and the Purple Circle do seem to have in common. Both circles emphasized the impact artists have on the people around them. Both created alternatives to heterosexual families. Both made the theme of friendship a motif that separates straight fiction from gay in that it suggests that the gay spirit connection is a link more immediate and lasting than that of blood. Both groups emerged out of enormous oppression they had not quite conquered. Comparing the phenomenon of the ghost dance Black Elk had written about to the holocaust the Purple Circle survived Ohrenstedt wonders "What must it have been like to be alive then? In 1985? In 1885? To have watched your tribal brothers die? To have watched your gay brothers die?" This tribal comparison, he realizes, is the key to the Purple Circle. "They had not only written of the renascence, they'd not only lived through it, then'd then suffered and died of it, or suffered and survived a new massive die-off of their people: their lovers, their friends, the soulmates."
With a poignancy that runs throughout the whole book in a subtle way, Picano has Ohrenstedt saying: "Every one of their biographies therefore was a tragedy, no matter how ultimately triumphant it turned out." Did these writers have to sacrifice themselves for the sake of furthering gay history, for the sake of writing about the events leading up to their own ghost dance? That's a question Picano can't answer. He does say that what brought his colleagues together was nothing more nor less than vital necessity. "The Violet Quill came about in an effort to legitimize gay writing," he says. "There were gay writers and gay books before us, no question about it. But we were really the first to say that gay literature was literature in the way that James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Henry James was literature-that there was a group ethos and sensibility that helped make this happen. And that we actually succeeded in getting our books read and reviewed by the mainstream as well as the gay media, which was equally as difficult. It was a two or three prong affair that could never have been done individually."
The Violet Quill got together only about nine times, between 1980 to 1981 to read to each other works in progress. Not much, really, to mythologize. There would be two readers a night, and the readings would be divided by desert. "It was very casual," Picano recounts. "The big moment was the coffee and desert in between-really. Andrew Holleran once said that the only reason he came was because there was going to be a black forest cake the next week. The interesting thing is that after the group broke up, most us remained together and were rather friendly." As Picano describes it, White and Holleran still help him with his work, "we give each other titles and critiques and support each other's work-we don't push it, it just happens." The group was most useful in finding the impulse to turn towards non-gay writing. "Edmund hadn't had a big success and everyone was pushing him away from gay writing. We encouraged him into writing A Boy's Own Story and that was a huge financial success. I myself was shifting gears into much more literary stuff than I was doing, and everyone was very supportive of that." The group was a bunch of friends and lovers (Picano dated Whitmore; Grumely and Ferro were lovers) who took their chief concerns-gay friendship and gay writing-quite seriously. In that way, it's not unlike some of the most important artistic collectives in the history of the 20th Century, such as Bloomsbury, the Harlem Renaissance, Gertrude Stein's Paris Salon, and the Best-for groups of gay and lesbian friends dominated those movements too.
The writers in the Violet Quill take their own legacy no less seriously and they don't really give the young academic who invades their quiet nostalgia the answers he wants. They tolerate him; they sense he's not one of them. Perhaps because he didn't live through the holocaust of AIDS; because he didn't fuck his brains out to get a taste of what Whitman called "adhesive love"; because he didn't risk his life for love; because he seem willing to risk them for his career; because he represents the youth of his age-the age of Los Angeles in the next millennium when the focus is on cars, fads and commercial goods. "[The main character's] gods are the three living members of the group," says Picano, "and each one of them tell him things about himself which have nothing to do with what he thinks he is. He pays a great deal of attention to them and each one of them illuminates him." The protagonist is the book, actually, that needs to get read. But he doesn't learn this until after he's nearly gotten killed and ruined-when it's too late and when he's revealed as a book of lies-when his web of deceit unfolds. What he does get is an image of masculine erotic love that is one of the most transcendent examples of gay male sexuality I have read about in a long time. The main character comes to "understand what had first and so much attracted me to what the Purple Circle was writing about, suggesting, aiming toward-a love stronger, more trenchant, more metaphysical than any other." It's not clear who he gets laid by-a person, a member of the Purple Circle, a ghost or a wraith. But it has a profound effect on him, an effect capable of challenging all the lies in the book: "Its effect was so powerful as to dizzy me, to render me without capacity to resist as it continued to enfold me within wave after wave of the most unceasing ardor, until I vaguely thought I must surely be moaning aloud in pleasure, on the brink of losing consciousness, and drenching myself in the most intense, attenuated, orgasm I've ever experienced. At the same time, I felt supported, gently caught up, almost lifted."
That's the Picano that first turned me onto gay love almost twenty years ago; someone who could write about sexual desire as the embodiment of gay soul. While his work has changed a lot since then, it's never strayed from a gay-centered universe (the same goes for White and Holleran). The book is oddly deceptive; it's a fast read for those people who like to escape themselves, but by the end of the book, you can't help but ask powerfully dangerous questions about gay identity and gay essence-as well as the gay closet-and you, like the main character-have to face yourself. At a time when gay literary theory and politics are dominated by social constructionism-which says that gay identity is constructed by social forces-Picano's book really lends itself as a parody to that world. "I don't mind the study of gay literature," he says. "I do find the creation of a `pseudo' field of studies less amusing. The fact that an entire language has been constructed to obfuscate the reality of gay life is shocking. These "queer theorists" really go out of their way to write about dead people because anyone alive would say it's all bullshit."
So no wonder he made the main character a gay academic who has to find himself. And while Picano is the master of the fast read, anyone who opens the Book of Lies to learn either about the Violet Quill or to learn about nothing-and have a fast read-is in for a major surprise. Picano hasn't survived for this long, and with these many books under his belt, to do anything different from what's he's done all along: to dramatize the conflicts of men trying to figure out the meaning and potential of what it means to be, and write about being, gay in a world that has yet to appreciate that powerful "myth of meaning."
Doug Sadownick is an award-winning author (Sex Between Men and Sacred Lips of the Bronx) and journalist who is now working as a gay-centered psychotherapist and who teaches clinical psychology at Antioch University.