My Big Fat
The Best of
Michael Thomas Ford
Michael Thomas Ford
(Alyson)Ford is a legend in the American gay world. Before the age of thirty, he had published several books, won two Lambda awards, and had released an audio tape drawn from the most succesful of his writings, My Queer Life. This volume consists of forty or so essays culled from earlier books, along with seven new essays.He tells of growing up gay (or in his words, "queer") in a fundamentalist family, being young and gay in a religious college, and finally moving to New York, getting his own apartment and coming out to the world. There are essays on the writer's life, on gay life, on sex life, on one-night stands, on moving on in age (thirty!)He is acutely aware of the failings of the gay world, as well as the straight world in general. One of his most controversial essays, rejected by several editors, has to do with his coming down with a fatal disease, cancer preferred. Then, "once a pistol is secured, which can be readily accomplished by giving any third grader in New York $25," he would work to "take out key people, those who deserve to die because they just don't get it." For instance? "Certain world leaders who will go unnamed and Catholic figureheads who may or may not be Cardinal John O'Connor."
§ § §One of my writing teachers said that we should never buy books that parade the author's name on the cover, especially when it appears in larger type than the title of the book. Ford's name appears here in 96-point type --- blood-red to boot --- while the words, My Big Fat Queer Life look to be around 24-point. My teacher explained "when they start adulating the author over his writings you know it's time to bail out."
The truth be known, no matter what his reputation, Ford shows little of the essential verbal timing required of a good humorist. He is so prolix that one suspects that for him the word is not to be used as a tool but as a bludgeon. For instance, there is an essay about murdering the likes of Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan, "My Contract on America." What could have been funny or at least morbidly charming comes closer to being mean-spirited.
If Ford had played it straight, the fantasy could have taken on the power of dead-on rage. One thinks of the writings of Zola, or Stokley Carmichael, or Malcolm X, or Claude Brown. It takes a Mencken or Chandler (or nowadays, a Kingsolver) to put out an essay about murder that will make us laugh.
Ford admits that he hates writing, and it shows. A writer has to be enamored of the process and the words that sometimes appear, magically, on the page. Much of what he has published is obviously something dashed off to meet a deadline. His style might be described as Early Gay Wooden.
For instance, instead of saying "crazy," a perfectly workable word, he comes up with the awkward "not the most mentally well people." And the irascable Fowler would have a field day with sentences like, "The point is that Gretchen, like myself, doesn't understand the concept of fun when it's applied to normal people (i.e. people who aren't philosophy professors or writers)."
Those of us who love words and good writing must despair when a popular author besmirches them and his subject, especially when the subject is us. Furthermore, those who care greatly for what revolutionary gays have created over the last half-century want Ford to succeed: we need funny writers in our straitened world. But we find that we have to turn the page when he struggles to make fun without being funny, when he creates phrases that are not worthy of him (nor of us). This is his take on what the world believes of writing and writers:
Most think that we spring from our beds each morning and leap to the keyboard to get down all the fresh ideas that have been birthed in the subconscious while we sleep. They envision us spending joyous days at the computer creating marvelous new worlds and turning out witty phrases left and right until, breathing from the act of creation and weak from forgetting to eat, we repair to the kitchen for a light snack of leftover sushi befoe settling down to watch something stimulating on PBS.
What Ford dearly needs is a good editor. We recall that "The Wasteland" only came to life once Ezra Pound cut it down by a factor of three. And let us not forget the genius of editor Maxwell Perkins who, in effect, rewrote You Can't Go Home Again and made it great thereby.
Despite Ford's necessity to shoot himself in the foot, he's not without a certain talent. At times, when he disciplines himself, when he doesn't have to show off, doesn't strain at the bit, his essays can be rewarding. His very last --- possibly the best in the book --- treats of the fond memories of some of the older gays, remembering homosexual life "back in the old days," a life underground, a life that was secret, in the closet, off the radar screen, somewhat dangerous for those who participated in it.
"Those days are far from ancient history, and they were certainly far from perfect, but in many ways they may have belonged to the time of the Brothers Grimm."
In this era of political correctness, avalanches of ribbons and causes, and debates over what's right for our community, the past has become something of a fairy-tale. Increasingly, our gay pride festivities are more about lobbying and planning than they are about partying and letting loose, more dogged sign-waving than celebration.
§ § §
It so happened that when I picked up Ford's book, I had at the same time been rereading Andrew Holleran. The Beauty of Men tells of 50-year-old Lark, a man who spends twelve years tending to his paralysed mother, getting her out of the nursing home, whispering to her, holding her hand, cleaning up her diapers --- all the while he is immersed in a futile love for a one-night stander by the name of Becker, a man who will not have him and so, naturally, drives him nuts. Lark is filled with the kind of love which is a sickness, not unlike his mother's sickness, one that destroys slowly --- very, very slowly.
All the while, the main character is mulling, and doing so with considerable power, on aging, AIDS, beauty, lust, futile love, being terminally lonely, living with the dying, dying with the living, and last of all, death. It is a powerful playing off of a paralysed figure, the one who gave him life, against the paralysed world of gay love in that dim and dusty and hot country town in Florida where he has reluctantly settled.
In addition, I had just finished Holleran's Dancer from the Dance, which tells of the gay world in New York where people literally dance themselves to death. He speaks of a Manhattan bar known as the Twelfth Floor:
They were all good dancers in that place. It was a serious crowd --- the kind of crowd who one night burned down a discotheque in the Bronx because the music had been bad. As Sutherland murmured one night when he began to look around for an emergency exit (we all would have been snuffed out in a minute had that place caught on fire, as was the case with nearly every place we went, from baths to bars to discotheques): "If there were a fire in this place, darling, no one would be a hero." We stayed until closing anyway, because the music was superb, dancing beside those messenger boys so drugged they danced by themselves in front of mirrors (with their eyes closed), and when we finally emerged, it was in time to see the sun come up from the empty sidewalks of Times Square, which at that hour was as empty, as clean, as ghostly as the oceans of the moon.
Holleran was the first to capture the fire and light of our world, a world in which we came out in order to burn ourselves alive, zonked on whatever there was we could get our hands on, less interested in world-change than in sheer, animal pleasure, fucking our brains in and into our bodies in such a way that we knew there would be no old age, or perhaps even tomorrow, as long as we could rage on the dance-floor, flush with our noise and our youth and our contained madness, crushing poppers with our dancing shoes, going nuts in a nut-house filled with music so loud it hurt but could never submerge the unrestrained firing of the souls, the deafening, suicidal, sheer bestial pleasure of it all.
And at the end, in the dead (and silent) dawn, we spilled out into "the real world" that was "as empty, as clean, as ghostly as the oceans of the moon."--- Ignacio Schwartz