OK

Well, this is what they call the rubber match, the one that fixes my opinion of a writer's output. I didn't like American Studies for all the reasons I detailed in my tribute to F. O Matthiessen. On the other hand, I LOVED An Arrow's Flight as you read in sfbob's diary about it, although I was disturbed by a couple of false notes in it. So as a result of that, I bought his third novel, Man About Town (2003). I read it over the past week, and, well, it made an empty sound in the mind of this observer. The sound is fuller now that I've thought about it some.

So follow me below the great orange divider doodle as I try to decide whether it's the book or whether it's me.

I reread the two diaries I referred to above, and I remembered what we said about Leucos, the everyman character in An Arrow's Flight who took Neoptolemus (as Pyrrhus) as his roommate and was disappointed at the end of the book. We said we would have liked to have read more about him. The main character in American Studies is the 1950s version of Leucos, and Joel Lingeman, the main character of Man About Town is the 1988-2002 version of Leucos, only Leucos is nicer than either of them, at least as I see them.

At his own website, Mark Merlis summarizes Man About Town thus:

Joel, a middle-aged nebbish who works for Congress, is dumped by his lover of fifteen years and hurled back into the world, where he must deal with demons who were supposed to be dead but were only sleeping.  The book has a lot of watch-the-sausage-being-made congressional stuff, a complicated interracial romance, and a sort of detective story: a hunt for a man whom Joel glimpsed once as a boy and who, Joel imagines, holds the key to everything. This is the first of my books to be set in the present day and told from the point of view of a man not unlike me, except a little crazier.  At one point it even had a lot of autobiographical material, the usual growing-up-gay shtick, most of which has wound up on the cutting-room floor.  While a lot of writers—maybe gay writers especially—are at their best when drawing on their own experience, I find that my past is an empty well.  I think I write more believably when I tell a bunch of lies about some people who never existed.
Okay. I'm glad he said "nebbish" because that means that only some of the plot elements, which we'll get to in a while, are autobiographical.

But yes. Dumped by his love of fifteen years and hurled back into the world. For Joel, who works for one of the non-partisan agencies advising Congress and is an expert on Medicare, this is a huge life-changing problem, especially since every so often the ex-lover, Sam, appears in the book. Um, fifteen years, life changing. Yes, I suppose that if I had been dumped after fifteen years I would have had to do much the same rebuilding I had to do after forty-one. And lots and lots of hints that one of them should have figured they should have called it quits before the fifteen years were up.

But here's the problem. All the gay content of the first hundred pages of the book treats this with the same seriousness loss by death should in my book be treated. We actually meet someone, a legislative staffer, Andrew, whose partner died suddenly of a heart attack, on about page 106, or so, and he's (at least in my view) trivialized because he's still very very close to his dead partner's parents. Yes, but no. And months later, at the end of the book, Andrew is still celibate because he hasn't found the right guy to have sex with for the first time after his partner's death. So sorry, Mark. That's not exactly the way that works for everybody, or at least it's not how it worked for me.

The interesting part of the book is how and where Joel meets Andrew. And this, as we learned in a previous diary, IS autobiographical with emendations, because Merlis was a health policy analyst in Washington for three decades. As sfbob told us, he was instrumental in the development of the Ryan White Act. The bill they're working on in the book is the opposite of this. One of your basic homophobic Republican senators (who OBVIOUSLY Joel runs into at a gay bar/restaurant at one point in the book) wants to amend the Medicare bill to deny benefits to anyone who at some later date contracts HIV in the name of taking responsibility. We see that the Republicans don't care that there's no cost benefit from the bill, and we see that some Democrats in power (i.e. the chairman of the Senate subcommittee responsible for Medicare) are afraid not to go along with it. In the last meeting we see concerning the bill, Joel gives a brief history of Medicare in our terms:

"People had rights. The whole idea of Medicare was that everybody earned it, everybody paid in all their lives and they had a right to it when they needed it." Joel needed a job. It was absolutely time to shut up. "It's the only thing that made us one country. Medicare and Social Security. It said that we were all in this together. And this bill, it . . . it says we weren't. We weren't after all."
And that pretty much makes up for the two spectacularly silly plots he ends the book with. The secondary plot involves Joel's growing involvement with a very attractive black retail worker who has a habit of searching other people's wallets and taking money out of them (and Joel had been warned by one of his friends). The bigger one involved Joel's search, aided by a private detective, for a model who appeared in a Sam's of Santa Fe ad in a magazine called Man About Town in 1964 (if you're my age and you remember, actually Parr's of Arizona in the back of magazines like Esquire) and at the end of the book Joel finds him, thirty years older than he was in the picture. I wasn't suspending disbelief very well for either plot.

So it's not really the work of art, especially since Merlis writes very very very well, and wittily at points. It's me. You might enjoy the book a lot more than I did.

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MON
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And our cupboard is bare again! Take a look at the last list diary I did for LGBT Literature, and if any of the books jump out at you and say "diary me!, please Kosmail Texdude50 or Dave in Northridge to sign up. We love reading other people's diaries about books!

7:01 AM PT: Thanks, Ojibwa!

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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