Friday, April 24, 2009

I haven’t been involved with any projects that require research since the end of March, so I’ve recently shifted my reading from biographies and histories to novels.

I’ve never been a great novel fan but the chance discovery of Song of the Loon by Richard Amory (a pseudonym) among our books has set off an exploration of gay novels from the 1960s—a transitional period in gay fiction.

Amory wrote three books in the Loon series: Song of the Loon was the first and by far the most popular, a very big seller with several printings, it was a revolutionary departure in tone from the norm in gay fiction. Copyright 1966, it was among the very first gay-themed books in which being gay was free of angst and shown in a wholly positive light, in which the protagonist lived happily and did not arrive in the final pages a shattered, guilt-ridden wreck.

In print and on stage, the wretchedly unhappy homosexual had traditionally been seen as a toxic alien in society who was expected to retreat into invisibility or suicide to cease being an inconvenience and scandal in respectable society. On the subject of homosexuality, Britain’s King George V memorably opined, “I thought THAT sort of man killed himself!” And on the English stage, THAT sort of man frequently did, usually in act 3 after he had finally been cornered, unmasked and roundly condemned for moral degeneracy by all and sundry. He would rush off-stage, there would be a period of tense waiting among the self-righteous, then the gunshot was heard from off left and everyone relaxed in recognition of the moral order having been reconfirmed once again. All that was missing was a rousing chorus of Rule, Brittiania! but you get the point.

Song of the Loon was a radical change; set in the American Northwest in the 19th century, it’s a romantic-erotic fantasy of a land populated exclusively by men in which, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, the men are all handsome, the trappers are literate (improvising poetry, dropping foreign words like “rinascimento”) and intellectually sophisticated, and the penises are all above average. The Indian tribes are prosperous, unthreatened by the white population, peaceful and sexually liberated, originators of the Society of the Loon whose members have shed not only inhibitions, prejudices, and heteronormativity, but also the poison of jealousy.

One earns one’s loon medallion—a little amulet that renders gaydar unnecessary and saves a lot of time—from the wise and ancient chief who is the Society’s guru, through a series of sexual encounters with members both white and Indian, capped by a final journey into the deep forest on some kind of peyote-like drug that leads to dreams the ancient chief analyzes to see if one is ready for membership.

If it sounds a bit hokey, and it may, the fact is that Song of the Loon fell like a rain of sweet balm on parched and wounded gay readers, providing a vision of a transformed, ideal society that supported and celebrated them and provided the opportunity for a great deal of guilt-free sex into the bargain. This was three years before Stonewall in New York City. Fritz had read the Loon books years ago and was interested in my reaction at various points in the plot. The first thing I noticed is that Amory’s prose is rhapsodic, and the plot is an ecstatic fantasy of a gay utopia (an author’s note at the beginning states that there never were Indians such as his creations, warns against worrying about anachronisms and improbabilities, and advises just giving oneself to the pastoral genre). I experienced the sex scenes as art porn, extraordinarily positive and poetic, without the usual, tired clichés of porn novels. The book’s attraction was obvious and its fame completely understandable.

The other two books in the series are Song of Aaron (which it turned out we also have) and Listen, the Loon Sings, which we don’t or which at least we haven't found yet. I’ll start Song of Aaron as soon as Fritz finishes rereading it.
Finding the trilogy is difficult. All of it—and most of Amory’s other output—is out of print. Because of its many printings and a later edition with an introduction by Michael Brodsky, Amazon and Abe Books list Song of the Loon, used, for just over six dollars--but the other two, which apparently enjoyed much smaller circulation, go for upwards of fifty dollars each. One Amazon supplier offers a copy for $350.

When I’ve read all the Amory that we have, I’ll proceed to Christopher Isherwood, whose work, amazingly, I know only through adaptations like Cabaret.


PS--if you Google Richard Amory the first site that comes up should be one devoted to gay writers. On the Amory page is a biographical note by his son, Cesar Love, and his fiercely anti-homophobic novel Frost is available for download--but that's the only one.

I just did an Interlibrary Loan Request for Song of the Loon. Even today we need more "light" gay reading. Something between the superficial, sugary reading that has become popular and the angsty reading that I remember from the 90s.
PS. I'm currently reading Lee K. Abbott's short story collection "All Things All At Once" - VERY good.
wow thanks i didn't know anything about him i love to read and i was wondering about some old gay books. i have some books stores around me mom and pop type they have all kinds of old books ill have to see if they have any of his work.

oh cool blog btw!
Hi Bill,

Just wanted to let you know that Harry Abraham died last night in case you didn't know. I don't know the arrangements.

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