Plain and Normal. – book reviews
James Wilcox * Little, Brown * $24
If you are one of those people who love a good comic novel, you are doubtless familiar with the work of James Wilcox. Ever since he published Modern Baptists back in 1983, he has turned out a string of little gems so fine that he has become the acknowledged master of the form.
Well, good news. While Wilcox himself has been gay all along, he’s just come out of the closet, literaturewise. His new novel, Plain and Normal, features as its hero a repressed 40-something gay man who has never had sex with a man before. His condition is portrayed in such a rueful and hilarious way that Plain and No Normal instantly becomes a classic on the subject.
Our hero’s name is S. Lloyd Norris, and he is an executive with a company that manufactures labels. He lives in Yonkers, N.Y., with his ex-wife, Pearl Fay, whom he married after she became pregnant by a second-string linebacker back in Tula Springs, La., where they–and just about everybody in Wilcox’s novels–are all front. Pearl Fay, by the way, is thrilled about Lloyd’s coming out and keeps trying to get him to join Queer Nation.
With his antenna out at last, Lloyd finds the possibility of sex–maybe even love–everywhere. There’s Mr. Lewis, the temp at work who wears an earring. There’s the Beak, the handsome older man with the big nose who works in the same building. There’s even Walter, his secretary’s fiance, who often wears a shawl…
It’s tempting to call Plain and Normal a comedy of manners, but that implies that it is about a recognizable world, and it isn’t; Wilcox is not satirizing gay New York or office politics. He’s totally off in his own little universe. It can be a very mean place. Relatives are manipulative, coworkers are vicious, and friends are always ready to teach each other a lesson. But thanks to the author’s compassion, there is also a gentleness there, and everyone is welcome, no matter how pathetic they may seem. Oh, and one more thing–welcome to the tribe, Mr. Wilcox.
Speaking of the tribe, one of our crown princesses, so to speak, the eminent lesbian novelist Sarah Schulman, has a new book out, titled Shimmer, which I started reading out of duty but soon found myself eager to return to. It’s like a wonderful old ’40s movie come to life, only this time with all the sex, racism, etc., right, on the surface. It’s beautifully written, prodigiously researched, and, I was about to say, “very well-acted,” which I guess is another way of saying it has great characters.
The setting is a vividly re-created New York in the late 1940s. World War II is over, and McCarthyism is just beginning. The cast includes a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who gets a job at a newspaper, a wealthy WASP gossip columnist, and a black playwright. Like her friend Tony Kushner–who gives Schulman an enthusiastic quote on the book jacket–the author has a gift for finding those places in people’s lives where the personal and the political meet. And like Kushner, she knows how to put everything in a thought-provoking historical setting. The results in Shimmer are dazzling.
Plunket is the author of My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie.
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