By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I am at the Gay & Lesbian Center in Hollywood for a reading because I grew up with the featured author, John Rowell, in the small Southern city that he writes about. I want to hear of places and people I know. I want to know, too, if I am in the book.
For Rowell, who now lives in New York, his first book, The Music of Your Life, is more than just a literary coming out. He told his parents that he’s gay not long before handing them the volume of seven short stories. The first story, from which the book gets its title, weaves a semiautobiographical account of Rowell as an out-of-place 10-year-old in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where we were both raised. As I settle into my chair, I know the hometownies could be in for a rough rhetorical ride in Rowell’s account.
To be sure, Fayetteville has odd charms and notables. Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run there as a minor-leaguer. The Putt Putt miniature-golf chain began within its environs. And a doctor/soldier named Jeffrey McDonald murdered his family there. (McDonald’s slain daughters had taken ballet from my mother.)
The city’s two-block red-light district — Hay Street — is known worldwide among vets once stationed at the nearby base. (It’s now been replaced by a museum.) The Army connection also brought in restaurants with Vietnamese, Japanese and German dishes.
But to the 10-year-old in Rowell’s story, the place was all South. And this brilliant boy who liked Doris Day and The Lawrence Welk Show— and who hummed show tunes while stranded in right field during P.E. — was a perpetual playground target.
I don’t have to imagineer this playground. I used to get to it by trundling uphill through the woods behind my house. As Rowell reads, in a theater-trained, warmly embracing voice, I experience both his crafted words, which fairly burst with unrequited longing, and the accompanying stir of my recollection. At times, I lose knowing contact with my third-row seat; it’s all I can do to let his words paint the scene rather than my memories.
I have to tell myself that I would never have been one of the bullies who beat the protagonist. I hope, too, that I was not like Eric, who kept his distance rather than lose newfound favor with the jocks. But I well remember that, even in college, I could still pull out a faggot joke as needed, just to show I was cool. And years ago, it threw me to first learn that close high school friends are gay.
I’m not in the book, but hearing John read, I feel guilt at my own acquiescence within that Southern town, with its knee-jerk ostracism. How much of that intolerant soil is rooted to that place or even rooted within me? And how different is the heart of Los Angeles, a place where the next evening, a Dodgers fan will shoot to death a Giants fan after trading insults?
That same week, I’m driving my two daughters and their friend to karate. Out of the blue, my 10-year-old asks her friend: “What do you think about gay people?”
Her friend doesn’t know what Rebekah means by “gay.” Rebekah explains it’s when boys like boys and girls like girls, and that people in some places think that gay people should be killed.
Her friend says being gay sounds “crazy” and that no one should be killed, but maybe they should get “brain surgery or something like that.”
I’m not sure where this is going, though I notice my fingers tensing around the steering wheel. Then I understand that Rebekah is testing her friend — or training her. “It doesn’t make any difference if people happen to like someone of the same gender,” she says assertively. “I have all kinds of people as my friends.”
This now makes perfect sense to Rebekah’s schoolmate. The discussion veers to technical issues, such as the use of “fertilizer” to help a woman have a child with no man involved. Six-year-old Hannah gets so bored by the discussion of “gray people,” as she later explains, that she concentrates instead on drawing rainbows in her notebook.
Yes, I think, these are children of Los Angeles, a different place after all from my Fayetteville of years ago.
John Rowell will be reading fromThe Music of Your Life on Thursday, September 25, 7 p.m., at Dutton’s Bookstore, 11975 San Vincente Blvd., Brentwood.
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