Saturday, January 16, 2010
I just finished one of the books I wrote about on my book list a few posts ago - Swish, by Joel Derfner. The subtitle is "My quest to become the gayest person ever and what ended up happening instead." And that, suprisingly, is what happens and gives the book depth.
Derfner, a musical theater composer, Harvard grad (as he reminds you), and too smart for his own good, has a great voice. I'm impressed with his ability to tell on himself; he's at times dangerously close to unlikeable. His honesty, though, and his great sense of humour, endear him to you. Or to me at least. He's human. Funny, smart, self-hating and self-aggrandizing in the same breath, he'd make a great friend.
What this collection shows more of, though, is his bravery and compassion. The essays are funny (I found myself laughing out loud a few times), and thought-provoking. The premise is that every time he does something that's super-gay, e.g. knitting, teaching aerobics, go-go dancing, casual sex, going to a gay camp, writing musical theater, he ends writing about something else, like his mother's death, his need to fit in, his anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, mental illness, why he makes art, body issues, his relationship with his partner, and more. The honesty of his writing manages to skirt the traps of facile quips and maudlin self-searching, resulting in humorous, honest, heartfelt and intelligent stories. And funny.
I was most struck by the longest, last story, in which he visits an ex-gay conference. It's probably some of the best writing I've read on it, giving both sides of the story, and leaving all intact with their humanity. He is honest about his own anger and confusion, as well as the true deep connections he feels with some of the men who are struggling with their sexuality. He's very smart about his own feelings, and how complicated the issue is, ultimately being able to love the people while acknowledging they may never agree. The man aren't cartoons, and he tells their sides exactly as they would, working out his own religious beliefs and feelings about his sexuality as well. It's sad that the majority (if not all) of the ex-gays seem like they will always be struggling, but Derfner evolves to the place where he is not condesceding or juding, and brings us along step by step on that journey.
Elton John is blurbed on the front of the book quoted that this is the best book about being gay he has ever read, and more than that it's a book about being human. I would concur in saying that the book (and the author's) heart is enormous, and through this search and its unexpected emotional journeys there is a great deal of compassion and humanity to be experienced.