Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Literary Voices: an appreciation of Mark Merlis and William M Hoffman

Have you ever read a novel only to have the effect of it come back to you like a boomerang that knocks you in the back of the head until the tears spring out?

Such is the case with Mark Merlis' An Arrow's Flight. When I read it almost 20 years ago, I thought it was smart and brilliant. Since the author's death on August 15, I decided to reread it and find copies of his other three novels.

William Johnson wrote this remembrance for Lambda Literary Review. "Merlis’ writing cannily explored the emotional and sexual lives of gay men, in all of their messy, nuanced, and wondrous splendor."

In writing for The Advocate, author Christopher Bram wrote, "His books share a family resemblance: fine literary texture, a keen sense of gay history, a moral complexity worthy of Henry James, and strong sexuality."

 The Washington Post obituary covered his life, and includes this quote:

“I am, of course, a gay man whose... novels are swarming with gay characters,” he once told an interviewer with the website EchoNYC.  “And I have allowed myself to be marketed as a practitioner of a genre called gay fiction. But this is a commercial category, not an artistic one. I write, like anybody else, about how it is to be human.”

Mark Merlis
An Arrow's Flight is probably one of the greatest gay literary works of the latter 20th Century, at least in English. That may be a superlative, but the combination of mythological story and contemporary gay and AIDS themes make it superior with its delicate blend of old and contemporary storytelling.

The novel received a Lambda Literary Award in 1998 and was voted one of the best gay novels of all time by Publishing Triangle. So I guess I'm in good company with the superlatives.

Rereading An Arrow's Flight so long after its publication, and after the passing of the author, makes the joy of re-reading it bittersweet. While there are many novels that cover AIDS and gay relationships in a matter-of-fact way, Merlis blended the mythological story with a touching and surprisingly realistic query about what it is to be man, a lover, a true hero, and how to find your ultimate destiny, the gods be damned. Even more, he presciently understood the idea of those who survived "the war" (Trojan and AIDS) and how their experiences would soon be forgotten or ignored.

I’ve often admitted privately that An Arrow’s Flight was quite an inspiration for my third novel, Cyclizen. While I had several passages already written since the early 1990s, when I realized that the whole idea of a bike messenger tribe dying off along with the waning impact of AIDS activists, it paralleled the mythological story of the centaurs.   

So in a way, that novel is pretty much either a rip-off or an homage to An Arrow's Flight. I decided to embed the mythology a little bit more, to the point that I think it eluded most readers. It's certainly by no means as great a work as Merlis’. I'm not being modest, just truthful.

While I dabbled around aimlessly with romantic roman a clef references and some touching remembrances of a few actual people, I think the superiority of Merlis’ work is that he never wasted a sentence. Every inner thought of the characters furthered the story. Even the descriptions further the character-building and their own inner questions.

It’s always sad to lose a vital voice in art and literature in particular. I only got to meet Merlis a few times, the last meeting being in Philadelphia before a reading in 2014 at Giovanni's Room. Merlis and his husband Bob Ashe were at a restaurant my old friend author/teacher John Weir entered, and we had a nice time enjoying brunch together.

Of course we ended up talking shop. Merlis complained about publishers who don’t support an author after a book's release. Finding copies recently became a sort of scavenger hunt for me, and if you shop around, you'll find that the price of his books has gone up due to their scarcity.

Play's the Thing
I also wanted to touch on the playwright William M. Hoffman. I had wanted to write something about him when he died in April, but I could not find the clippings from the production of As Is that I directed in, of all places, a Jersey City church in 1989.

While I had begun to be more closely involved with ACT UP, had met author-playwright Larry Kramer, and admired the more feisty and dramatic aspect of his play The Normal Heart, it had recently run in New York City, and trying to do a small community theatre version seemed redundant. The producer wanted to bring 'the other AIDS play' to a smaller audience.

So in a small church near my home at the time, I corralled half a dozen actors from a previous production (my own 1988 work, Under the River) to do a play in that church about a guy man who dies of AIDS. The pastor was quite a progressive fellow.

This is the same church that allowed me to let director Robert Hilferty shoot an interview of operatic singer Diamanda Galas, who stood atop an altar lip-synching one of her own songs, "Let's Not Chat About Despair."  This became part of the documentary, Positive. Here's a clip on YouTube.


These are experiences that are missing from a lot of younger authors' works; having survived the war versus thinking about it or reading about it, having endured and lost.
Merlis’ use of The Trojan War as a metaphor for the war against AIDS, and then the actual tragedy of dying of AIDS in Hoffman's play, are two different ways of dealing with and exploring a difficult theme.

Feature about my production of 'As Is'
I am once again working on that in an upcoming novel. It’s difficult to delve back into those days to try to assume what it was like before people started getting sick and dying.
I covered a little bit of that in my last novel Message of Love, where two college boyfriends face the loss of a friend as the specter of AIDS approaches, not yet up to pandemic levels.

What I’m seeing in a lot of new books is a kind of fantasy forgetfulness as well as in media films that don’t deal with it. Since the common thinking now is that people can just take Truvada and be able to bareback safely, it furthers the forgetting of the AIDS years. 

The pandemic is by no means over. But it's pretty clear that it's been hidden from the media and arts spotlight, what with so many other daily horrors from the deranged current administration attacking transgender military personel, immigrants, women and children.

Part of the storytelling process –unless you’re going to write about something that happened last year, or in the future, or an imaginary worl– is that you have to remember the past. You also have to stay in it to research and write about it. Or you can recreate it as Merlis did so beautifully with the mythological story of Philoctetes and Pyrrhus.

Memory is subjective, so why not tell a story the way you want to, even if it’s just your perspective? Somehow, if it’s well-written, it’s going to get to the truth. At least that’s hope.

My recent mission allowed me to find used hardback copies of all four of Merlis’ novels (three of them from local bookstores!). I look forward to reading the next three. I only wish the few times that I’ve gotten to chat with Mark that we had done more than talk shop about publishing and low royalties, and about the actual art of writing.

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