Note: This video has been cross-posted with the generous permission of The Qu, a multi-media website for queer artists to showcase their work to an audience of like minded people. You can find the original post here, and find them on Facebook here.
by: Ben Kramer
I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, the first installment in Ethan Mordden’s Buddy Cycle, serves as a collection of vignettes built on the author’s assertion that “all gay life is stories – that all these stories are about love somehow or other.” Detailing escapades in life and love within a group of friends, indeed, the surrogate family so often formed in gay urban centers, Mordden paints a vivid picture of daily gay life in pre-AIDS Manhattan.
While the author’s focus on a definitively white upper-middle class homosexual experience might preclude it from any assessments seeking blanket diversity, his characters are not without dimension or conflict. Mordden thoughtfully examines the sacred and profane sociologies of his world with a satisfying dose of appreciative scrutiny, tempered with wry nostalgia. He invites us to become voyeurs to the faggot world of parties and promiscuity, bars and banter, and it is here, once past the stalwart queer defenses of bitchitude and camp, that Mordden exposes a complex depth and the tenderest of vulnerabilities.
The cast of colorful characters give this collection its heart: the narrator Buddy, acerbic Dennis Savage, ingenuous Little Kiwi, aging pre-Stonewall drag queen Miss Titania, cabaret impresario cum fag hag Claudia AKA Miss Glama de Ponselle, the damnably handsome soap actor Roger Ryder, amongst others. Functionally, they serve as voices or at times exhibitions for Mordden’s theories on gay culture. Endlessly quotable, “I’ve a Feeling…” provides such specialized analyses as Circuit Theory (an id/ego/superego paradigm that characterizes one’s approach to club culture), and the 3 Infatuations (dangling-carrot ideals of gay romance). The roles and relationships of beauty, family, and money receive examination as well.
What struck me in reading “I’ve a Feeling…” was the reoccurring theme of masks. As mentioned above, there exists a tendency for queers to combat feelings of inadequacy via humor and bile. As we labor to sculpt our own unique facades, we choose to conceal the more painful shadows of our former selves. Time and time again in this book, we meet characters living behind masks, and the narrative is at its most compelling when these masks are challenged or removed, even if only for a moment.
Miss Titania, veteran drag queen, imparts somewhat bitterly the necessary choice all queens must make between love and beauty. She has chosen beauty, sacrificing her claim to love. Her painted face has become a mask, a shield to defend the ancient queen from loneliness and bittersweet nostaligia. As she waxes fondly on her glory days as circuit royalty, she inadvertently exposes a wistful sadness for what once was, and what can never be again.
The mask theme is echoed as well in the guileless Little Kiwi, fresh from the Midwest, who uses Wacko the Puppet (a hand-stuffed envelope) to deflect with weak jokes the onslaught of prurient advances and wordily realities offered by Manhattan living. He vigilantly maintains his cornfed innocence until one weekend, his first at the Pines of Fire Island, when Wacko is lost at sea and the tiniest crack begins to form in his porcelain visage. As Bud gently explains to Little Kiwi their culture of promiscuity, it seems a tipping point in the young man’s resistance, and he spends the rest of the weekend despondent, yet ultimately accepting the reality of his new world.
The parable of Roger Ryder paints a nihilistic portrayal of clone culture, by definition a masquerade. Here, Mordden echoes Miss Titania’s condemnation that one must choose between beauty and love. Ostensibly, Mordden suggests that beauty becomes burdensome in the wake of cultural expectations, yea, it seeks out and destroys legitimate love as a threat to its self-perpetuating mythos. It is a dark accusation that we, as gay men, must consider: does our cultural emphasis on beauty preclude us from ultimate emotional satisfaction?
“I’ve a Feeling…” is a rich text, brimming with provocative assertions and compelling characters, complete with a referential canon of movies, musicals, celebrities, and high culture. Though written 25 years ago during a vastly different chapter in our culture’s history, I found it incredibly applicable and relatable today. As Mordden says, “all gay life is stories,” and this book celebrates these tales. Told with a balance of warmth and wit, sadness and scrutiny, the tales found in these pages celebrate the petty minutia of life as well as its transformative emotional journeys. Mordden offers a thoughtful perspective on these people; his family, his brothers, his community, and it is a worthy and life-affirming text.
Ben Kramer is a comedian, queer performer and drag superhero. Kramer studied with Chicago’s Second City Conservatory and should have won last year’s Windy City Gay Idol. When he’s not making Lady Gregory’s a better place to dine at, Ben is curing cancer with his tears. (Note: this bio was written by his editor, who hopes Ben doesn’t kill him for this.)