Last week I bought and watched Margin Call, directed by J. C. Chandor and starring Kevin Spacey and Too Big to Fail, from HBO, directed by Curtis Hanson and starring William Hurt. I started watching a Showtime series, Billions, going back to S1:01, starring Paul Giametti and Damian Lewis. The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay and starring Christian Bale and Steve Carrel, opened in the Loewe’s Boston Common cinema at the beginning of last month, and two days ago, C and I went into town in the snow to see it.
All these movies have an intrinsic interest. Some of them are very good movies—The Big Short is nominated for five Oscars—Best Picture, Actor in a Supporting Role, Directing, Film Editing, and Adapted Screenplay—but they are also interesting because they are about the same subject, some aspect of the financial meltdown in 2008, and they each illuminate parts of that event—the federal government’s role, the major banks, a fictional version of the financial meltdown—and they have different emphases. Together, along with a book or two, I begin to understand what happened in 2008.
When I was in the middle of Race Point Light, I was thinking about the book that became Adam in the Morning. It was going to be in some way about the Stonewall riots. David Carter had recently come out with his book on the history of the riots—this was the second history on the riots (Martin Duberman wrote the first)—and the question was, what aspect of the riots would my novel address? It could be about the street kids, women, the mafia, the cops, any of the various racial groups or gender groups that were known to be in the riots. Most of the action of the novel could be the riots themselves, the fighting, or it could be that most of the novel takes place off-site, in places in the West Village or in some gay man’s apartment. The demographic a person chose to focus on—women, kids, grown men, transgender street kids, or some other—was going to dictate to some degree the ideas the book focussed on. Some of the older rioters were into political action and therefore wanted meetings with the mayor, the city council, or Congress, while some of the street kids wanted to hurt the cops and make them bleed. And there were plenty who wanted to do both.
From the beginning of thinking about Adam in the Morning, I was interested in the fact that the gay world we live in today, characterized by the binaries gay and straight, men and women, and concepts like coming out, is not descriptive of the world of the earlier twentieth century or of earlier periods when it is probable that people moved more easily across the line dividing those binaries and that the binaries themselves didn’t get defined permanently until the late sixties and the political action that we know of as the Stonewall riots. It is also probable that a gay person in the world of E. M. Forster’s Maurice, for example, didn’t have a conception of coming out. David Carter’s book suggests that, at least up to the period of the riots, a man into men could have sex with a woman and that the whole range of human activity was open to a same-sex person as long as he screwed men quietly. After the Stonewall riots, the world solidified, and straight men knew what things were appropriate to them, and gay people knew what things were appropriate to them. But at that point, around those five days of the riots, things were still in a flux. A recurring thread that runs through Adam in the Morning is the constant reiteration by all the major characters of fundamental questions. What is a man? What is a gay man? Do gay men have sex with women? Am I limited by my gay identity? Do gay men have families?
At that point in my life, I had not wanted to write a novel about fighting, and I didn’t want to write a novel about coming out (I had done that, in my earlier two novels), so all of my characters were already out before Adam in the Morning opens, and they are all comfortable with being gay. Nobody has to come to terms. When Bo Ravich stumbles into the riots the first night, he joins the fighting because he knows that, of all the people who are enemies of gay people, cops are the most immediate threat. Bo soon gets his partner Andrew, and then Joseph joins the fighting too, and Billy, Bo’s brother, comes, and then finally Gus joins them in fighting the cops. What they talk about afterward is this: Something huge is happening. What is it, and how is it going to affect us? Does this mean that things are getting better for us, or worse? How? How can we affect events?
When I was writing Adam in the Morning, I needed characters. I read very closely what David Carter had to say about the rioters. When he brings up, for the first time, the place called “Alternate U,” where many of the rioters first met one another, he introduces a man named John O’Brien, who had grown up in Spanish Harlem and had always been drawn to leftist causes, but was thrown out of the Young Socialist Alliance and the Marxist Socialist Workers Party for being gay. Carter describes him: “…his very masculine demeanor—including a very muscular physique—did not fit the gay stereotype.” He is describing an actual historical person who was at the Stonewall riots. At Alternate U, O’Brien met another young gay man named Bill Katzenberg and another man named Marty Robinson, “who had no shyness about being gay,” and who was a “lithe and handsome young carpenter from Brooklyn.” Carter says about him, “When his prominent parents had offered him a trip to Europe if he would renounce his homosexuality, he had not thought twice before turning them down.” These men, O’Brien, Katzenberg, and Robinson, figure prominently in Carter’s history. Adam in the Morning ended up with fictional men like them—a carpenter, a man whose parents had offered him a trip to Europe if he would give up being gay, and men who came to the gay community with a history of activity in leftist and progressive causes, and, as well, two transgender characters. But I should emphasize that I could have read Carter’s history and come up with a set of principal characters who did drag all the time and who had no political history, and who came to politics on Christopher Street in front of the Stonewall Inn. There were lots of different kinds of people there.
The title of Adam in the Morning, from a Walt Whitman poem, refers to the first man, Adam, who is in the morning of his life, striding out, and who will almost immediately need to figure out who he is and what he means and what he can do. Fundamental questions. My characters experiment as they try to develop answers. What is a gay man?
The point here is that I could have written a different novel, one that would also be about the Stonewall riots, but one that would have at its center a small group of heroic street kids, all under eighteen. See here and here. Or one about a small group of men in their thirties who had established careers in publishing and finance who felt deeply threatened by the gangs of gay youth on the street. Any of these novels would be a legitimate take on the riots and tell most of the story of the riots while concentrating on also telling the story of what it was like, for example, to be homeless and transgender and a hustler on the streets of the West Village in 1969, subject to the abuse of the cops and johns, and having nobody older whom you could trust or learn from or go to for nurturing.
We have David Carter’s book, and Martin Duberman’s book, and Adam in the Morning, and we have two movies, and if we encourage writers and publishers, more books on Stonewall will be published, and if we buy tickets to movies, more producers and directors will make more movies on Stonewall, and as a consequence we—LGBTQ people—will know more about our past and consequently about our lives and our selves and be able to think more deeply about who we are.
The books and movies about the financial meltdown in 2008—all different, all about the same subject—show us that this is so.
David Carter. Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St Martins Griffin, 2004.
Dwight Cathcart. Adam in the Morning. Boston: Adriana Books, 2010.
Martin Duberman. Stonewall. New York: A Dutton Book, 1993.