Race Point Light
What kind of person is Fair Shaw? Only partially like me, I should say at the beginning. Taller, darker, more handsome, certainly sexier, that long dolorous list of qualities that show we don’t measure up. I think he is more in control of his emotions than I am, less resentful, less angry, more charming. More athletic. Because, at seven, being athletic on the playground is about the biggest achievement there is, a failure there stayed with a boy—a man—all the rest of his life. A few other men seem to be able to achieve success at seven, savor it, and then move on, forgetting about it, never again thinking about dodgeball for the rest of their lives. But for those who fail, it is like a brand on the forehead. He can’t catch a ball.
So, I conceive of Fair Shaw as a better, more successful me, and I would guess that is about what other writers do who base a character on themselves. I made him like me—but better. Mainly what I wanted him to be was less confused. I remember being confused for whole years at a time when I was growing up, and while I understand that confusion in the hero of a novel has a certain charm, I get the sense that mainly writers ought to stay away from it. I sense that writers who are good at confusion also have a light touch at writing about emotions, and I don’t think I do.
What I was mainly confused about was sex—was it bad or good?—were my parents right or were my feelings right about it? And then, should I do what my parents wanted me to do—cut my hair, tuck my shirt in, get a belt—or do what I wanted to do, which was to look like the rough kids from school, or kiss him. What I was good at was being good at my studies, and nobody but the teacher thought that was very admirable. I was real confused about that. Now that I am an adult and have been an adult since John F. Kennedy was elected president, I am not confused, but I can remember.
I focus on the narrator’s feelings. The problem I had was to find a way to have the narrator start off the novel confused, start off not knowing, start off hurting, and then to show that he is gradually narrowing his focus. Instead of thinking that grownups were a little mysterious and talked about things the children didn’t understand, I came finally to see that I understood more than the grownups did. The trick was to focus. As long as I was unclear about what I wanted, as long as I was going to say that my ignorance was total, then I was going to remain ignorant. But when I was able to say, I need to find out about masturbation, then I can get that myself or I could just play around with it until I had the goods. If you focus, you can be less ignorant. If you ask the right people the right question—one question—you may be able to get the right answer, even if you’re just a kid.
Once I started paying attention to my own behavior—the behavior of my own body—and I put that together with what I overheard at school, I made more progress. I connected the sight of other boys’ naked bodies with what was happening to my penis, then with what I was hearing from the other boys. There were places I couldn’t go to get information on sex. I was embarrassed to go to the library. I had an afternoon job, which was downtown, near the State House and across the street from the largest public library in the city, and I knew I could go there, but the people who worked there knew me. It was part of my job to go to the library and get reports on government things, so everybody at the library knew me. I couldn’t go into that library and have somebody see me looking up “homosexual.” And there was nobody else at other places to ask. What I’d get back was, “What are you asking about that for?” I couldn’t ask a priest, and I didn’t know any doctors. I knew the lifeguard at a lake club outside of town whose tight hard body in even tighter swim trunks turned me on, and he gave me an unmistakable declaration, You’re a homosexual, without even saying the words.
I learned what homosexual meant from listening to kids and reading the newspaper and reading magazines. I could go downtown to the Capitol News Stand and see the magazines for homosexuals. Handsome guys with blond slicked-back hair and muscles in tight swimming suits. I learned I was a homosexual, too, and without giving away anything about me. So I was not only learning about what homosexuality was, I was learning how homosexuals acted. Like me. Secretively. I was still thinking that maybe my culture—what everybody called society—might be right about homosexuals, but they couldn’t be right about the other part of it, what they were doing to me. Every other sin or crime or failing in the world could be talked about except this one, and this one caused a scandal just reading about it in the library. I learned that they kept books on it locked up. My aunt wanted them to censor a British movie of Tom Jones because it had too much sex in it. My father bought the The Sexual Behavior in the Human Male when it came out, and he laughed at my aunt. At first I hadn’t known about political inclinations. Then I discovered my father was very conservative, and I found out later he was actually a libertarian. He didn’t think censorship was right in any case, and he didn’t feel any artist should face any control from the government. Later, I didn’t remember him saying anything about queers, but he was adamantly opposed to the censorship of Ulysses. He had great respect for the written word. He was a recovering alcoholic, and Mother said that, while you can’t inherit alcoholism, you can inherit the “tendencies.” And she thought I had them. I thought that whatever was happening was my fault. I came to understand that it wasn’t my fault, it was really that my family was fucked up with alcoholism and a bunch of other things, and while my dad was a good man and respected literature and didn’t think the government should be allowed to censor anything, still he lived in a world which simply didn’t know anything about homosexuality. Now if he had known something about it, he might have come down on the right side of all this. But he didn’t, and he didn’t, and so while we both loved seventeenth century lyric poetry, we never had a conversation about my being queer. Mother, on that subject, was a disaster. But it was decades before I was sure that my culture was wrong about homosexuality and that it was OK to be gay.
The conflict between queer and straight, which seemed to dominate my life, was also illustrated almost everywhere else. One of the images from my childhood was of my great-uncle’s place outside of Charleston, on the Ashley River, it had been a plantation a long time ago and had an avenue of live oak trees leading to a large white frame house with black shutters. It called up a host of daydreams and fantasies of the pre-Civil War South with images of masters and slaves. It also called up ideas of John Locke’s original charge from Charles II of England which resulted in Locke’s writing Two Treatises of Government, which eventually, one hundred years later, influenced Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, with its words, All men are created equal. The sharp conflict between slaves and created equal, which was buried deep in the national psyche, was also buried deep in my psyche. I was aware of it, and I struggled with it—the idea of slaves being inextricably linked with the idea of my own family, who had been slave-owners in the pre-Civil War South, and the need to be equal, as I grew up and grew older, being equally inextricably linked with my being gay. The site of this struggle was my own brain, where I struggled for mastery between the images that my family represented—slavery—and the concepts my education and my reading and my own thoughts presented me with, which were freedom and equality. This mental conflict is a thread running through Race Point Light from Fair Shaw’s childhood into his forties, when he at last so decisively rejects his family that he was also able to decisively reject their baggage too.
The conflict between what the nation had actually experienced, and what the brain produced as the result of DNA, suggested a direction my novel would take. Between Shaw’s family and his sexuality, it was inevitable that Shaw would submit to his sexuality. “Family” does not control at the level at which sexuality controls. Family controls at the level of inheritance, training, tradition. Sexuality controls at the level of the genes, and it is no wonder that the arc of the moral universe, as Dr King says, bends toward justice. In the long run, the genes and all that they control, are going to win out. The genes are going to demand what they demand. Mankind will be free. And all that gets in the way of the genes will be discarded. The actions that make man unfree will be abandoned. This does not mean that we, by the end, will become creatures only of our genes, automatons, acting without thinking and without volition. But it does mean that the freedom our genes demand must be unfettered.
When I came to address the question of how to put the novel together, I thought I wanted to resist the tendency to make coming out the goal of the narrator’s life. The reader would get anxious or impatient if “coming out” were the goal. Particularly if “coming out” were tardy or slow-in-coming. So I started Race Point Light in Provincetown, with four or five pages on Fair Shaw as a gay man with his partner, late in his life. In this beginning, Fair Shaw talks about the sea and the shore and AIDS and their connection with memory. He mentions their host for the weekend, whose condo walls are covered with framed snapshots of beautiful men lying on the beaches of Provincetown.
I proposed to follow this opening with small snapshots of the narrator’s own memory—short paragraphs of beautiful men from his childhood and youth and young adulthood. These had no connection to one another, but they introduced the idea of the sea and the shore and the erotic memory and, I hoped, showed where the novel was going to go, even if it didn’t tell how it was going to get there. The novel was going to start where it started—on the beach in Provincetown—and then at the end of the novel arrive where it had begun, on the beach at Provincetown. And the point of the novel was not to answer the question, What happens next? but to ask the question, What happens to get him from the beach in Provincetown through 60 years finally to the beach again in Provincetown? The question of the novel was, then, How did he get here?
Since I was so late dealing with my birth family, since I was so hesitant to bring about a final rupture with them, and since a final rupture with them was so necessary to confronting any of the other issues in front of me, and since I couldn’t respect myself as a gay man as long as I respected them, it seemed as if I couldn’t proceed without breaking up my birth family. I resisted for years. In Race Point Light, it happens at the same time, very late in the novel, as Fair Shaw is visiting the hospital of a man who has AIDS. Something snaps in him and the connection is broken. The break is so savage and so absolute—it happened over a payphone while Shaw was standing on the sidewalk outside the hospital—that there is no way it can be reconnected. Shaw knows it can only be restarted, completely, from the beginning. And that was not going to happen.
I hoped to encourage the reader to understand that I knew where I was going, that there was no suspense in this tale except insofar as how was a suspenseful question.
Pretty quickly I understood that Race Point Light would be made up of six “parts,” and that each part would be located in a specific place. Columbia, South Carolina, the US Army in Yakima, Washington (as well as Columbia, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee), Ann Arbor, Michigan, the University of Maine in Orono, Maine, and then the last two in Boston, Massachusetts. These were roughly the five “places” of my life stretched out to six. I could easily see that each of these “parts” could focus on periods of my life—my childhood, my military service and education, my young adulthood, my heterosexual marriage, my alcoholism, and my experience of the AIDS epidemic and of gay activism. To counter the deadening effect of one-thing-after-another, I wanted to surprise the reader at each new “part.” The reader would turn the page and would not find what he or she expected. For example, instead of the hedonism which might have been expected after the narrator’s coming out, the reader found himself reading about an AA meeting and AIDS. This happens in big and small ways all the way through the book. Fair Shaw has gotten his doctorate at the end of Part 2, and the reader’s attention then is given over to the seeming collapse of western culture at the beginning of Part 3. This was not merely a narrative device. It had come to seem to me that we are constantly surprised by our lives, and that it is the narrative that says nothing changes that is the real “fictional” device.
I was careful with smaller units, too. I was very careful about the order in which I dealt with the material in Part 1. In developing the character of Fair Shaw, I knew that I had to confront his family’s alcoholism, all the members of his family who were alcoholics, his family’s history in South Carolina, his class, his education, his gender expression, his sexuality, among other things. In confronting these issues, I had to decide how to present them to the reader, when to present them to the reader, the order in which they are presented. I made lists, rearranged the lists, experimented with text, cut, pasted, threw stuff away, and a lot more, and then came up with what the text is now. My goal was always to make a very good novel about a gay man who was going through his teenage years in the nineteen-fifties which then affected all his later life. In other words, my goal was to make a very good novel about a gay man who, from his earliest childhood to the very verge of old age knows he has to fight back.
Fair Shaw spent much of his early life in an academic setting, either in school or teaching. Eventually he left the academic world for the freedom of Boston during AIDS. He took with him a lot of what he had learned over the years. For example, when he was writing, and when he was starting a new chapter, he might think of the way Shakespeare started King Lear:
Enter Kent, Gloucester, and Edmund
Kent: I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.
Gloucester: It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the dukes he values most, for equalities are so weighed that curiosity in neither can make choice of either’s moiety.
Kent: Is not this your son, my lord?
Gloucester: His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to it. [1,1,1-11]
Thus begins King Lear, one of the great plays in any language, with a jocular exchange between gentlemen about a boy conceived out of wedlock. But he shows the novice writer something important. The way to get into the first great scene of the play—the division of the kingdom—he has two characters of secondary importance enter and set the scene, talking about something else entirely, apparently merely to accustom the audience to the scene and to them and to what is about to happen. To know that a play can be begun this way is invaluable. And the nonsense about the parentage of Edmund is, it turns out, not nonsense. For Kent and Gloucester are talking about parentage and parenting and love between a father and his sons, and those are the subjects of the play, except it is the king and his daughters.
As for my subject, I learned nothing, or little, during school except how good it felt. In the 1950s and 1960s, the academic world was hardly more enlightened than the rest of our culture on issues around homosexuality. And when it came time for Fair Shaw to leave teaching, the homophobia of his fellow teachers was a significant part of his reason for leaving.
The difficulty with much of this is that there was much about the nineteen-fifties which was hidden. It was the Cold War, and much of what was shaping the culture during the period was led by the CIA and other governmental bodies who were manipulating society to their own ends. This is not to say that all secret government activities during the Cold War were wrong and corrupted our society. What I do know is that secret government activity by the CIA which sought to manipulate society’s expression of gender or society’s attitude toward sexuality and sought to prevent homosexuality from being accepted into mainstream American society was wrong, anti-American, un-Constitutional, and bad for America.
The CIA worked through a dummy organization called The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). With CIA money it made an impression on American culture after the war. A mechanism for spreading money around the culture, it awarded prizes and fellowships, founded organizations, all to support the organizations and writers and artists, dancers, actors, who were willing to support the goals of the CCF, which were supporting high culture—T. S. Eliot, not Allen Ginsburg—and were supporting a certain kind of literature. The college I started in, in Tennessee, published the Sewanee Review, one of the literary journals given money by the CCF and consequently by the CIA. And it was evidently a school devoted to the concept of high culture. “High culture” meant the kind of visual art that was fashionable in New York immediately after the war. It meant Jackson Pollack and Adolph Gottlieb and the abstract expressionists, among other things. In literary terms, it meant the kinds of work published in the little magazines—Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Poetry, Partisan Review, Hudson Review, Journal of the History of Ideas, and Daedalus, all of which got money from the CCF and consequently from the CIA. The amounts of money were small. The CCF agreed to buy, for example, one thousand copies of an issue of the Sewanee Review—that is, to pay the Review a stipend in the amount of the cost of one thousand copies of the Review. Since it was a quarterly, the CCF agreed to pay this stipend four times a year. George Kennan, architect of the American post war foreign policy, was also “the architect of the policy of harnessing culture to the political imperatives of the Cold War.” (Saunders, p. 246) To put this into perspective, the Sewanee Review only sold about 2500 copies per issue, and the CIA purchase only increased this figure by 1000. Even 3500 copies of the Sewanee Review is a minuscule number when compared to the press run of The New Yorker, for example, even in 1957. Yet, these little magazines, most of them, led the field. They set the standards for the rest of the literary magazines. They were well edited and set a very high bar for high quality literature. And their relatively few copies went to the most important 2500 addresses in the humanities in America. All the top libraries, most of the top people in the universities, publishing, and book sales. The fact that they were taking money from the CIA in order to encourage bigotry against LGBTQ American citizens was not disclosed.
The difficulty with writing about all this is having to accept the fact that most people in America in the 1950s didn’t know they were being manipulated by the government and therefore didn’t see the government as the enemy. Fair Shaw’s maternal family simply took what the government said as the truth, and Fair Shaw’s college professors had simply taken on good faith what the editors who ran the literary journal published by the university said about sexuality. The effect of this on a particular student like Fair Shaw, who was gay, was incalculable and, in fact, were not calculated until fifty years later, with the publication of books like Frances Stoner Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA in the World of Arts and Letters. New York: New Press, 2001. As I have written, much literature has been lost to us because of these “Cold War intellectuals.”
The inability of a gay man to marry his lover was only one of the major disabilities experienced by LGBTQ persons in this period. Another was the danger of the sodomy laws, which made it a crime for men to have sex with one another. The desire of a young guy who wanted to write but was thwarted by Stories with a homosexual theme are not accepted was another. And in the case of my narrator, Fair Shaw, it is not certain which of these three disabilities imposed by the Government of the United States of America was the more damaging to LGBTQ persons.
In considering the kind of art that is Race Point Light, it is important to remember that, during the time of Race Point Light, that is, during the time period 1945-2005, modernist literature had already been established in America for twenty years. The whole satchel full of modernist innovations introduced by William Faulkner and William Carlos Williams and others, and by the little magazines. By the time Race Point Light was written, all the big anti-censorship court cases had already been decided in our favor. People were accustomed to reading big novels by William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and others, in which all the rules of composition were broken and which addressed giant social and political themes. There was nothing about either Ceremonies or Race Point Light that made them technically difficult for the reader. That bar had already been set with James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake. But Race Point Light is different in that it takes a markedly different approach to the question of what is an LGBTQ life. As I have said, the tradition in US publishing has been to see LGBTQ lives as consisting of two events—falling in love and coming out. It is only very recently that the publishing industry—some small segment of it—has come to see that on all the questions about LGBTQ life, there need be no “other side” provided. The writer does not have to present gay life as a subject to be argued over. The lives of gay people can be presented on their own terms, and it is expected that readers will accept them.
Fiction is a temporal art—a reader experiences fiction one word at a time, one word after another—and the natural subject of fiction is an object moving through time. This is the plot. But this temporal quality of fiction, which is derived from the artist’s medium, is limiting, and sometimes a writer wants to create something that gives the effect of a piece of sculpture rather than a piece fiction made of words, put down on a page one after another. What might structure a lengthy piece of fiction is an image, say, of the ocean at Race Point, the moon, the stars, the various perspectives, the various objects in sight, the various things we can see—beginning with the wall of snapshots in our host’s condo all of men’s sexy bodies—and feel. He’s thinking of the dead at this moment. It is possible that the one-bit-at-a-time process is actually the one-detail-at-a-time on a wall of canvas, and that we are meant to remember every detail at the conclusion of the process. As you prepare to close the book, what you have is less The End, than the artist’s-name-and-the-year: Dwight Cathcart, 2007, signaling that the work of pictorial art is done. It is probably true that Race Point Light is less like War and Peace than it is like Guernica.
This is the eighth 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.
Daniel D’Addario. “The Straight Canon is Very Gay.” http://www.salon.com/the-straight-canon-is-very-gay.
Daniel D’Addario. “Where’s the Buzzed-About Gay Novel.” http://www.salon.com/2013/07/31/wheres_the_buzzed_about_gay_novel?
Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, Clyde Martin. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 1949.
Frances Stoner Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA in the World of Arts and Letters. New York: New Press, 2001.
William Shakespeare. King Lear. New York: A Signet Classic, published by A New American Library, 1963.