Race Point Light
This novel begins in Provincetown, out on the end of Cape Cod, and ends in Provincetown sixty years later. It has one narrator, who sticks with the task all the way through the novel, and it has one subject—the narrator’s life—and one focus, the narrator’s life as a gay man. It begins when the narrator is about two, and it ends when the narrator is about sixty-five. Along the way, he deals with ignorant teachers, the hostility of other students, marriage, alcoholism, divorce, the LGBTQ community in the time of AIDS, the deaths of many of his friends, and the questions of gay kids. His life is like most lives. It has the standard crises and traumas and the standard successes—his children, some aspects of his marriage to a woman, his marriage to a man, the survival of some of his friends. Life, for him, is incredibly rich. As he grows older and receives experience and education, he comes to understand that very very little of his life has been wasted. At the end, he feels that all of his experience has brought him to this moment, have prepared him for it, and have enabled him to make the best of it.
While writing Ceremonies, I occasionally wanted to extend my attention on a character beyond the limits set by the requirements of the novel I was writing. I think the reader knows the direction Mickey’s life is going to take when he walks out into the cold that November night in 1984, Robbie on his arm. But some times, in similiar situations, I have wanted to take the character and ask more of her. Take Marybeth, for example. Her world is much newer than Mickey’s, and so at the end of her episode, with the word gold, we know less of her world than of Mickey’s. I would like to have had more time—and space—to devote to her life. Would a commune really be the long-term solution to the issues raised by the novel? If not, what would an enormously well-educated and sophisticated and experienced woman propose in its place? It may be that she has the answer to the future that seems to elude many of the others.
I was drawn to the idea of writing a book, perhaps of the same length as Ceremonies, and structured by close attention to the activities and feelings of one person and also to the effect of governments at various levels on the people. I wanted this book focused on a single person, where I was not limited by a period of time like that between July 7, 1984 and election night, November 6, 1984, even with flashbacks. Having lived through the forties and fifties and sixties, I was aware that there have been very few books written about LGBTQ men who have lived through those decades. The books that have been written have been essentially coming out narratives. The significant social change that happened during that period were the Stonewall Riots and their consequences. Before the riots, there was no option other than heterosexual marriage for LGBTQ people. After the riots, there was gay activism. And there were people who went from a heterosexual marriage to gay activism. This was, in fact, what I did.
But the way that shift was explained was off-putting for some people. A guy was in a marriage to a woman because there was no other option, and then the Stonewall Riots gave him another option, so he decided to be honest about himself and come out. It’s the be honest about himself and come out that I resist. Many of us who were married were entirely honest about ourselves all the way through our marriages. And there were many reasons for getting-married-though-gay. There might have been some people who were so frightened of being gay that they fled into the protection of a straight marriage. But all the people I knew who got married knew full well that they had same-sex desire and felt no particular fear or disgust at it, but, if they also knew they could achieve erections in other-sex sex, this provided them a solution whose only other option was a lifetime without any intimate contact. And when they decided to get a divorce, it was not a case of their now being willing to be honest with themselves, it was a case of the culture having given them an option which was not available when they had first gotten married to a woman.
If I go to any large gathering of LGBTQ persons, I can see that there are many people who have been married. Particularly older LGBTQ persons. When I was young, I was told by psychologists and psychiatrists that their goal was to “cure” me. If this was not stated clearly, it was implicitly assumed. From my marriage in 1965 to 1969, the dominant message that was being given to LGBTQ persons was to get married. As my mother said, “Find a lovely girl and settle down.”
And I did that. And I lived with the lovely girl for eighteen and a half years, and there was no time during those years when I ever lied to myself or, for that matter, to anyone else.
The other thing I learned from my own life was that I never quit anything and then started something new. I had a life, and it went on and on, through my education at various levels, through my service in the Army, graduate school, marriage to a woman, teaching in the Midwest, teaching in New England, writing in Boston, marriage to a guy. There was no way to take part of that life, one segment of that life, and make it the whole of the plot of a novel. At least until our culture has developed LGBTQ literature enough so that we have many many novels which present the whole of LGBTQ people’s lives to read from, we need to focus on the fact that gay people have whole lives, from childhood to great age, and coming out is not the only segment of that life nor the most important. What I did at twelve affected me at 29 and 50 and now at 79. The difference between another kind of novel—where the writer focuses on the years of the breakup of his marriage to a woman, and then tells of the narrator’s younger years in flashback—is that what I wanted to write was a novel in which the writer had not already chosen which segment of the narrator’s life was the most important. Was it his heterosexual period? His homosexual period? The shift between the two? Is it even possible to write about a life which has two segments? I have children, who are beautiful and talented and hard working, and I have spoken to both of them in the last 48 hours, and it is impossible now to say that I used to be straight, and that now I am gay. There are many hundreds of thousands of people who are one thing and then do the major thing identified with the other. I have said in Race Point Light that our whole intellectual structure around sexuality has not fit our lived reality since, at least, Kinsey’s The Sexual Behavior of the Human Male in 1949. We keep learning, for example, that there are more than two genders, and yet we still keep talking of gay and straight. It is enough to make you think you should write a book.
I structured Race Point Light around my own life, but it’s a novel. It is, first, not all of my life. I focussed on the principal character, the narrator, as he is a gay man in a culture that hates gay people. My narrator is an academic, but I cut out all of his life except those parts of his life that affected his sexuality. That still left plenty of material for me to use in this book, but having cut so much material, it is hard to call it a memoir or an autobiography. There are several sexual scenes in the novel that never happened, and several that did, and several characters who don’t exist in life. There are also a number of people who had major parts to play in my life but who don’t appear in Race Point Light. I don’t have the same configuration of siblings the narrator does in Race Point Light, nor do I have siblings with the same gender as the narrator. The point here is that this novel really is a novel and tells the reader nothing he can count on that could turn it into autobiography. And what it is, is a novel about something near the whole of a gay man’s life who lived from about 1940 and 2004. It has climaxes—the end of his education, for example, his decision to marry, his failure to get tenure at the University of Michigan, his quitting his next job at the University of Maine, then a climax at a viewing of The Quilt, and, finally, a walk the length of Commercial Street, in Provincetown, Cape Cod—and I think it keeps you reading, but it’s a sad 200 pages that end the book. It’s the time of AIDS, and there are many deaths.
When I wrote this book and started trying to publish it, I began to get the response from publishers that I should break it up, publish it in two volumes, to make it easier for the publishers to make their money back. Selling two 300-page volumes at $25.00 each was more advantageous to a publisher than selling a 600-page volume at $25.00 each. My book was a serious gay novel with little sex, much suffering, and the publishers didn’t think it would sell many copies. They thought they had a better chance of making their money on it if it were in two volumes. However, splitting it up broke up the central goal I had established for it—one narrative about a gay man who married a woman and then, later, married a man and whose life made a coherent whole. The natural place to split it into two books was at the end of Part 4, where Andy dies, which would have left me with two volumes, the first of which presented the narrator in a heterosexual life and the second a gay life. The split would have emphasized the narrative many of us tell ourselves about our lives: We are straight and then we are gay, when we start being honest with ourselves. I was not going to give in to that, even at the possibility of losing a publishing contract. In my book, the narrator was honest with himself all the way through.
The task was to make the parts of the book that didn’t have to do with coming out as interesting as the more familiar parts that did have to do with coming out.
To do so, I altered my source material in a number of ways.
I cut back the size of my family, reducing the size of my mother’s family down to one aunt and almost eliminating my father’s family. Later in the book, I completely eliminated the narrator’s lover’s family. I wanted the finished book to focus strongly on what it felt like at family gatherings to be a gay kid amid all these heterosexuals. Then I allowed the one aunt to have only two children, not the four or five children each of my aunts and uncles actually had, who merely confused and caused the basic plot to be out of focus. This clarified the structure of the novel and kept the reader’s attention on the basic conflict—gay kid among all these heterosexuals. I didn’t need to repeat over and over the fact that it was difficult to grow up gay among all these heterosexuals—each time with a different family. Now this time with the narrator’s mother’s second sister’s family. They all functioned the same, so I cut them out.
Although many members of my family thought I was working on a novel about my family, Race Point Light was never about my family. It was about a gay man growing up in a conservative, religious homophobic family and then leaving that family and going away and creating distance from them in another culture, and then learning how to cope. I kept doing this. I moved to Michigan from my native South Carolina, seeking another way to live, then I moved to Maine, each time looking for a place that enabled my social, sexual, and intellectual needs to be addressed. This search is fairly closely followed in Race Point Light. On the other hand, I kept my children largely out of the narrative that made up Race Point Light. I didn’t want to create a portrait of either one of them that then was fixed and beyond their control to change as they grew older. They were their lives. Finally, there was my husband. While I could not have written Race Point Light, or Winter Rain, or Adam in the Morning, without his support and did write them with his support, the portrait of him in Race Point Light is a partial one, suggestive rather than definitive.
The same was true of other areas of the narrator’s life. What is important in some periods of his life disappear and let other issues take their place in later periods. It is also true that he deals with the conflicts of his life in a different way than he dealt with them earlier.
Race Point Light is the same kind of novel as Ceremonies. It is deeply political, its analyses include an analysis of the national political scene, including the national parties, and it includes state and local commentary, its major characters are conflicted over political issues—all of them having to do with the LGBTQ community—that arise out of national and state and local political struggles. From almost the first scene in the garden in Columbia, the principal LGBTQ narrator is aware of national politics and its effect on him. In a major way, the novel is political—independent of political parties or elections—in that the narrator is aware of his community and his place in it and his need to resolve its conflicts. The principal character in Race Point Light, even though he describes himself as a loner and “alone,” is still a person who gathers people around him and seeks to create a community or to better the one he has. His whole method is that of a political leader, and while he experiences deeply personal pain at significant times in his life, still his tendency is not to seek out a therapist but to seek out or to make himself available to people. He seeks to find a way to live in which he is respected, and to endeavor to earn the respect of his community, and he resists for years the need to rebel. His work is for the polis and for the betterment of the polis.
When Fair Shaw and Tim visit The Quilt when it is brought to Boston, the two men try to sort out what Shaw will put on Tim’s quilt when it comes time. They toy with various expressions as they walk around the arena floor, looking at the quilts of the dead. Finally, Tim says, “I have it. Put on my quilt, He worked to bring about the collapse of Western Culture.” This ends the first part of the final 225-page-section of the book dealing with Boston and AIDS. Since the time spent on the arena floor has been spent examining the failures of American culture during the AIDS epidemic, I think Tim’s suggestion is correct, and it is certainly consistent with Shaw’s ideas in the rest of the book. The culture needed a radical restructuring in the wake of AIDS and the failures of the Reagan and the Bush administrations. Eventually, it got it, in the Presidency of Barack Obama.
This is exactly the point of contention between my goal for Race Point Light and those “Cold War intellectuals” who said that politics did not belong in literature. Plague has always been a subject for art. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston held an exhibition on World AIDS Day called Art’s Lament, in which paintings from the Middle Ages were united with contemporary paintings and photographs prompted by the AIDS crisis to form the subject of the exhibition. A small figurine eight inches high of a grieving woman became a political object when it is understood that it was a virus that killed, not God’s will. Our political tools become willpower, money for research, expert scientists, rather than prayer. And the solution to the crisis lies in some sort of collective action. In our time an artist of any kind cannot write or draw or compose or dance his or her art prompted by AIDS without being political. In a larger sense, we cannot create art out of the lives of LGBTQ persons without creating political art, just because our lives have been made political by churches, religions, political parties, educators, and “Cold War intellectuals,” and by the fact that our lives were already political when we arrived on the scene, and if we are going to create art out of life, it will be political art. Ours is a democratic age, and the response of the reader to a work of political art is to be moved to act. The reader may choose not to read or see or attend the performance of a particular work of art, but we must be clear. He or she is limiting himself or herself to a partial vision. Choosing not to accept the reality of political art is like choosing not to write about ambitious people, or about sex-driven people, or about particularly talented sculptors, or about people who write books. It is a refusal to read about us and about our lives.
I have always liked the question, How is it for you there? when trying to explain what any of my novels are about. How is it for you there? there, where you are in Bangor, Maine, on July 7, 1984, or in any of the places Fair Shaw lives during the last decades of the twentieth century, or at 2:00 am on the morning of June 28, 1969 on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. I wanted, within the parameters of my subject, to give everything that could answer the question, How is it for you there? I wanted to establish where the narrator is—where on Earth—and then where he is in his life, how old he is, whether his marriage is a good one, to a man or a woman, where his happiness comes from, and, as important, all the sources that produce his anxiety and stress and anger and his love. This is particularly important in Race Point Light, where Fair Shaw experiences anxiety, for example, from different sources, and it is necessary to sort them out to know what is seriously threatening and what is mere cultural noise, and, consequently, how seriously the narrator’s attacks on his culture are to be received.
I suppose my reader may sometimes be overwhelmed by how much I give him or her, and be tempted to throw the book across the sands with the exclamation, “What the fuck!” but all the information I give the reader is, I believe, essential to arriving at an answer to the question, How is it for you there? which is another way of saying, This is what this novel is about.
This is the seventh in a series of blog posts about reading and writing and about my books and, of course, about the LGBTQ community, who are riding on planet Earth along with everyone else as it falls through space.