Thursday, February 25, 2021

Musing on Zak Salih's Let's Get Back to the Party

I’m really excited about a novel that’s just come out that I fear is getting lost in the cracks. The book is Let’s Get Back to the Party, by Zak Salih. It’s the story of two almost friends, Omar and Sebastian, as their lives intersect but never quite cross in a meaningful way. Instead, they wind up bonding with two somewhat inappropriate people, Omar with the a student from the high school LGBTQ group that he mentors, and Sebastian with an older, Andrew Holleran-esque writer.

Initially when I started reading this book, I was calling it When Needy Met Cheaty, thinking I was diving into a story about two lovers, one who hopes to be monogamous and the other is anything but. There’s something about the use/user relationship in the story that I recognized from my past.

And then you say, who’s Andrew Holleran? And so I must detail to the earlier wave of fiction written by gay men in the 1980s and early 1990s. The author your probably know is Edmund White, while just about everybody will be a blur to most readers. When authors and critics talk about windows and mirrors, it felt like this early wave was marketed pretty predominantly as mirrors.

The author who crossed to the mainstream first seemed to be Armistead Maupin, but he did so by surrounding his gay protagonist with folks of all sorts of sexual identities. I remember going to college in the late 1970s and seeing Tales of the City in way more dorm rooms than I expected. College is going to be great. That’s back when folks had books in dorm rooms, I guess. Other folks did it by positioning for the literati, like Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room is Empty, David Leavitt’s Family Dancing, and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library. Hollinghurst eventually won the Booker Prize, but that was in the 2000s, which I consider post-whatever I’m talking about.

To be upfront, this was a pretty White movement, though I also read the works of Larry Duplechan (Blackbird) and Jaime Manrique (a large bibliography, but my favorite was Latin Moon in Manhattan). And I had to pinch myself to believe that I read Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy in 1996. It’s been so great that Black gay men (and women and trans and nonbinary folks) are getting the chance to tell their stories now. In the past year I’ve read Real Life by Brandon Taylor, Memorial from Bryan Washington, and I’m still working on Robert Jones Jr’s The Prophets, and also enjoyed the memoir How We Fight for Our Lives from Saeed Jones. I should also mention here that Dennis Staples, who had a great pre-COVID event for This Town Sleeps, has his paperback release on March 16, a great book for folks who are interested in gay Indigenous writers.

The second part of the 1980s, no surprise, featured a lot of novels about men living and dying with AIDS, and the disease took a toll on a number of writers, whether they were writing about it or not. I remember being blown away by David Feinberg’s Eighty-Sixed, which was the first novel I read that tackled the subject with no blinders. I believe I drove down to Unabridged in Chicago to see a Feinberg appearance. I remember going with my friends to a reading of The Boys on the Rock, by John Fox, which I think was at the old A Different Light in, well, whatever that neighborhood was. Chelsea? Fox also died of AIDS complications.

Nowadays, the hottest part of the G genre in LGBTQIA fiction appears to be romance (not that non-romance books aren't sometimes romantic), and based on a bookseller session I recently attended (or at least who was participating in the chat), the market seems to have a strong audience that presents female, and in a large number of cases, the books are written by them as well. In a world dominated by #ownvoices, this seems to be an accepted exception. I don’t quite understand it, but it’s not a new trend. I recall the 1990s novel The God in Flight from Laura Argiri and on the non-romance side, both Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers and Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists made a great impact on me. Everybody knows Simon’s story was the best! Currently #2 on the paperback bestseller list is Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, which is now outselling her more recent Circe. 

I admit that I attended said virtual event to hear from Paul Rudnick. I still have my hardcover copy of I’ll Take It (not quite of the genre) but I think my favorite book of his continues to be If You Ask Me, the first book of collected columns by Libby Gelman-Waxner (even less so). And I should also note that ten years ago when Stephen McCauley appeared at Boswell, his audience was 90% women. McCauley will actually be our conversation partner for another upcoming event on April 6 with Michael Lowenthal, a fellow greater Bostonian. Lowenthal wrote two novels that I was particularly taken by – The Same Embrace, about two brothers, one gay, the other an Orthodox Jew, and Avoidance, a powerful but very uncomfortable book set at a summer camp. Lowenthal’s new collection is Sex with Strangers, which features a story based on his work as an assistant to John Preston as he was dying of AIDS complications. I read a number of Preston anthologies during this period, as well as Franny, Queen of Provincetown. McCauley’s latest is My Ex-Life and it’s a delight.

But, to quote a recent novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party. We’re cohosting the Zak Salih with Outwords, the LGBTQ bookstore in Milwaukee, with Larry Wheelock joining me for the conversation. The Outwords men’s book club is reading the book and I’m hoping we’ll be able to have a session where Salih answers some spoiler questions. Seems too early in the book’s life to subject the whole audience to that, but we’ve sometimes done this for paperback events, so maybe you’ll want to finish Oona Out of Order before you join us for the March 10 event with Margarita Montimore.

There’s a special place in my heart for novels about frenemies, and I think Let’s Get Back to the Party is one. Each participant has potential to be a friend, lover, or competitor for affections. So messy. Salih’s novel is “a moving, eloquent, and often funny novel that resonates long after its end,” to quote from myself. I read this book when it was sent to me as an advance copy and I’m planning to read it again this weekend in preparation for my talk. This book will take its place among some of my favorite books of the genre, many of which have been traveling along with me for 30+ years. And if you don’t want to try it because you want a mirror or window into one author’s vision of contemporary gay life in Washington DC, read it because you like Sally Rooney. I think it’s a fair comparison.

And because you need more convincing, here are a few pull quotes. From BookPage, Let's Get Back to the Party is "a gorgeously written meditation on being a gay man in America now." O Magazine called it "a stirring ode to the many faces of queerness." And there are blurbs from two writers whose books I enjoy, Louis Bayard and John Glynn. More here

And just to throw out more names, I've seen a number of folks compare Salih's novel to the works of Garth Greenwell. Larry Wheelock and I speak to Zak Salih about Let's Get Back to the Party on Wednesday, March 3, 7 pm Central Time. Register here. You can also buy it from Outwords here.

By the way, I still want to read that book called When Needy Met Cheaty.

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