My nephew Sebastian, one day when we were talking about books, told me that one of the books that blew him away when he was in high school was Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. Later, when I expressed an interest in reading it, he backtracked somewhat, saying that it was a long time ago, and that he may have been overly impressed because it was one of the first books he encountered that talked forthrightly about gay characters. I think Sebastian is a little afraid of recommending books to me, because I think he believes I have some intellectual standard he might fail to meet; what is funny is that the reverse is also true: I feel a little vulnerable when expressing likes in books or music to him, because I think he has a certain level of cool that I admire, a level from which I don’t want to fall too far short. Sebastian was one of those kids who first couldn’t, and then wouldn’t, hide the fact that he was gay. He has now just turned 40, so you may guess what conditions were like for a kid like him in the rural schools he attended when he was younger. Worse I suppose, he was forced at one point to transfer to a new school when his father, my brother Liam, moved from a suburban area to a rural one. It is odd, when I think of it, to talk about a kid being gay, because being gay, I assume, means being sexually attracted to one’s own sex, yet gay kids are ‘gay’ before they are really attracted to anyone sexually. All boys can be enormously drawn to other men or boys who are gifted at sports, or exceptionally kind, or who offer some attribute that a boy finds attractive. It can be close friendship, hero-worship, whatever; yet with boys like Sebastian and me, it is not really the same as other boys and we know it, whether or not others recognize our difference. In my case, I think people generally did not notice; in poor Sebastian’s case, nearly everyone did.
Liam is the most tolerant man I have ever known, and in many ways, Sebastian was very lucky to have him for a father. Liam told me he thought Sebastian was gay when the latter was five years old, and I (who had admittedly seen little of the boy, having lived in California all his life, while Liam and Sebastian lived in New York) was surprised because I had noticed nothing unusual in the few times I had met Sebastian. On the other hand, since Sebastian grew up in a situation where he was universally acknowledged as gay, he not only suffered cruelties from his peers, but also had to deal with his father’s circle, who may have felt they were just being matter-of-fact or even accepting, but who actually provided a barrage of hurtful remarks and acts. I heard once of one of Liam’s friends giving Sebastian a bra wrapped as a gift, which seems to me to be an act of shocking cruelty, not to mention the obtuseness of believing that because a boy is gay means he wants to be, or to dress like, a girl. Sebastian told me recently that his best friend during school days was eventually forbidden to associate with him, because it might give rise to rumors.
I have no idea how a parent should deal with his child in this situation. Liam was always someone Sebastian could talk to honestly, I believe. When is an action cruel or bullying and when is it an acknowledgement of visible fact? When someone is different from the majority, whether by ethnicity, orientation, handicap, or otherwise, does one – or should one - pretend not to notice? Do you offer to assist the handicapped child when something is difficult? May you mention it when a person of his ethnicity has acted badly to a person who might be the only member of that ethnic group in your circle? Can you talk about weight to the fattest kid in the school?
People do talk about misbehavior, which occurs in all groups of people, so is it not equally insensitive to avoid mention of this when the listener is a member of the same group as the offender? People talk about weight all the time; must they keep quiet on the topic, when a listener is fat? If you would offer to assist anyone having difficulty completing a task, do you behave differently if the difficulty results from a physical handicap? I recall those angry first days during the rise of militant feminism, when to extend a courtesy such as holding a door so it would not fly shut in the next person’s face, a courtesy I would extend to anyone, was to be greeted by such a such a burst of outrage by some women as would leave my eyebrows singed and my hair curled for a week.
I am now halfway through The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and I am finding it so far to be a wonderful depiction of a phenomenon that occurred to me in my younger days, as it occurs for many: the encounter with a small group of people who seem so bright and witty and clever and so just plain cool that one feels thrilled to be admitted to their company, proud to be associated. One feels as if one has been admitted to the Algonquin Round Table, or the Merry Pranksters, or the Knights of the Round Table or the Lost Generation. Whatever group represents one’s measure of the right people, it is this very group which has accepted you as one of their own. Jack Kerouac meeting Neal Cassady and his beat friends; Andy Warhol’s circle, a regular at Club 54; all these are noted examples of this on the grand scale. In the film Boys Don’t Cry, the single moment that most entranced me was that moment when Hillary Swank is accepted by the young men who do not realize she is a girl and is invited to take a dangerous ride, an invitation that would never be extended to a girl. The look of absolute delight on Ms Swank’s face was so eloquent, the stunned look of someone not only invited unexpectedly to the prom, but invited by the team captain, that I feel she earned her many awards right in that single moment. This kind of group is simultaneously an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group; there is an element of outlawry, of pushing the envelope, of understanding how foolish or oppressive the rules are. It is, in some way, like answering ‘yes’ to Jimi Hendrix’s question, “Are you experienced?”
This kind of “in” group doesn’t last; it doesn’t have any official standing (although if any of the exploits thereof become famous or infamous – as, for instance the Manson Family became - people spend quantities of time and prose discussing who was, and who wasn’t, a member). But in miniscule such groups are everywhere, they form and disperse like waves upon the sea. They begin with two or three people liking each other, pushing each other to ever greater measures of whatever it is that forms the group’s core activities – drugs, surfing, acting, writing, drinking, obscure sports, conversation, painting, travelling – a few like-minded souls are caught up in the adventure, and then the group disperses because of personal animosities which arise, or marriages, or perceived betrayals, or the need to earn a living, or times changing, or addiction or boredom, or the determined entrance into the group of someone who turns out to first to dominate it then subtly to destroy the spontaneity. These groups are like summer romances, but among more people and on a larger scale. Often these groups are no longer really in existence by the time most people are aware of them. I recall the “Death of Hip” being celebrated in the Haight Ashbury in, I believe, 1967 (googling this does no good, all you get are references to the death of hip-hop, which, I guess, proves how very utterly the hippy phenomenon is over and how very long ago it became so) before many soon-to-be so-called hippies had even stopped cutting their hair or run away from home.
So far, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is perfectly describing the experience of the narrator discovering and entering into one such inside group. I can see how thrilling the book would be to the high school-age Sebastian reading of such a group of friends, the like of which he might one day find. I remember how thrilling I found it when I encountered such groups, and to be accepted into one was almost like falling in love. There is a feeling of being with the absolutely coolest group of people possible; a complete indifference to the opinions of anyone other than your fellow initiates; something like a family feeling exists amongst the group; a feeling that these are my people.
When I discovered that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a skillful rendering of this in-group phenomenon, I recommended to Sebastian that he try reading James Kirkwood’s Good Times/Bad Times. I was swept away by this book when I read it years ago, because when I read it I found it perfectly depicted a related phenomenon; the two-man friendship that is something like the equivalent of these in/out groups. When I was in college, there was a boy with whom I formed a friendship different from any other friendships I have ever experienced. This was with Tony Doyle, the boy with whom I later wound up spending a week in the D. C. Jail, an experience about which I have written some time back on the MySpace version of this blog. I have never been able to satisfy myself as to what was the nature of my connection to Tony. I can be entirely honest with myself and admit it if the connection was sexual, but I am sure it was not. There were a number of other boys I was violently attracted to at the time; Tony was not one of those. Knowing Tony was like finding religion: every word he said entranced me, everything he did seemed to be the most admirable deed possible. I think I would actually have risked death to win his admiration and attention. I don’t think this worked in reverse; one of Tony’s more fascinating qualities was his ability to find whomever he was with immensely interesting. It seemed like he found something amazing in everyone, and expressed that amazement to anyone who would listen. Then the person in question would actually become more interesting as a result. Tony was catalytic; he found leaden personalities and transformed them into something resembling gold. He may well have done this with me, was I leaden? He made me feel interesting, at least.
Tony is far too complex a subject for me to cover when the day outside is bright with sunshine and beckoning me to come plant and weed and prune. And the several times I have fallen in amongst the sorts of in/outlaw groups in my past is likewise more than I have time for right now. And the odd thing is that my original intent here was to write a little bit about a guy named Harlan I used to hang with in my surfing days, of whom I was reminded by something I read in the Chabon book a few hours ago. It is easy to see why I never accomplish anything: my mind seems to flit from one thing to another without making any lasting stops at any of the many points it visits. This is pretty much how I get things done (or don’t get things done). I go out to plant tomatoes, notice that the peonies need tying up, go to get some string, find a bat drowned in the pan of oil I drained from my rototiller (which is still sitting where I left it in the middle of the yard a week ago), look for a utensil to extricate said bat from its oily deathtrap in the search for which I notice that my gas can for the lawnmower gas is empty, throw the can in the car to go get it filled, pass a grocery on the way to the station which reminds me I need to buy some olive oil for cooking, stop and in the store find a great bargain on some paperbacks, buy several and come home to sit on the deck and sample them. And for the next week the bat molders, the garage door remains open, the tomatoes wither, the peonies sprawl, the mower awaits its refueling and the rototiller remains in the middle of the yard and none of my bills get paid, which is a side issue that never seems to quite pierce my consciousness. It is not that I don’t do anything: I do a thousand things a day, I just never finish anything. I have at least a half dozen books lying open to the page where I left off. The latest of these is The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But I left that to write about Harlan.
As you see.