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This is one of those interesting coincidences. I really intended to do something about our pre-Stonewall writers, since I became acquainted with James Barr in my research for the Harry Hay Conference at CUNY in September.  My local library doesn't own Barr's book Quatrefoil, and I had a lot of other material to work on. Unfortunately, the last three weeks, starting just before Thanksgiving, were not easy for me because I had what I know now was a difficult patient to deal with, and I was going to go to the library last Wednesday, 12/5, to see which Gore Vidal books they had (I was looking for The City and the Pillar). But there were significant reasons why Wednesday couldn't work (like the patient dying) and that just had to wait.

I needed to go to my local library on Friday on my way to the mortuary to return the books Jim had out and to let them know that he wouldn't need the book he had on hold. But I was up early (4:38 AM for the past four days, actually) which meant I was on time for Diana in Nova's "Books that Changed My Life" diary. Since Diana has had problems recruiting Kossacks to contribute (surely each of you who is reading this can name a book that had a greater impact on you than most of the other things you've read -- Kosmail Diana if you want to write about said book and she'll gladly put you on the schedule) she was running an open forum on our guilty pleasures in reading. I immediately thought of Blue Heaven, the writer and producer Joe Keenan's first book, and of Keenan in general. Lo and behold, my local branch had a copy! So I'm delighted to tell you about Keenan and about this book that has cheered me up a lot over the past couple of days.

Here's the comment I made in Diana's diary:

I suppose mine is Joe Keenan (8+ / 0-)

Yes, the man who wrote Frasier and produced Desperate Housewives. Keenan has written a number of books about the "business" (as it's called out here): Blue Heaven (1988), Putting On the Ritz (1991), and My Lucky Star (2006). The main characters are the same in each book: Philip Cavanaugh, a struggling writer with minor talent, his writing partner Claire Simmons, and Gilbert Selwyn, Cavanaugh's first boyfriend who still has a Svengali-like hold over him. Read-out-loud funny, they are, as you'd expect from the properties Keenan has been involved with.

Read-out-loud funny, yes. If you remember Frasier well, you'll remember that each segment had a silent movie card-type slide with script on it as a lead in. The one I remember most was a mistaken-identity who's in which room farce featuring a character named Guy (imdb is useless if it's a long-running show and the character only appears in one episode), and the second slide asked "Is Guy's last name Feydeau?" If you get this, you know that you're working with a writing staff with exquisitely honed comedic sensibilities.

It is, in fact, Blue Heaven that encouraged the creators of Cheers to ask Keenan if he could create a sitcom for them.  The one he created didn't work, but it got him a job on Frasier as executive story editor for the second season. By the time the series ended in 2004, he was its executive producer.

But to the book. It's tangentially about the business insofar as some of the protagonists are involved with the theater.  Philip Cavanaugh (pretty much the author's alter ego) is our narrator. He lets us know that he really REALLY didn't want to play the part he played in the story, at least in the attempted swindle, and, to demonstrate, he explains how he was reeled in. It seems that he was asked to explain exactly how it was that his friend Gilbert was getting married to an actual woman, and Gilbert's explanation of why, since the woman was someone no one in their circle liked, is a marvel of, well, greed. It seems that Gilbert needed an actual woman to take to a wedding of a member of the Mafiosi family Gilbert's mother most recently married into.  Both he and his fiancee Moira were overwhelmed by the opulence of the gifts, and they figured that they could split the proceeds when after six months they quietly divorced. Did I mention that the hook for Philip was a computer from Gilbert's share of the spoils?

That's the simple part.  The complicated part has to do with the fact that Gilbert has to pass as a heterosexual, because, as we know from the Sopranos, gay and Mafia-involved don't go together that well.

My task wasn't made any easier by Gilbert's insistence that his conversion to heterosexuality was exclusive and permanent. I told him that to say this was to place more of a strain on the credulity of his friends that was either desirable or necessary.  There's a limit to what people will believe, and while small transformations of one sort or another are common, complete overnight transformations are not. You'll believe that the lion will lie down with the lamb. You may even accept that they liked it so well they're considering a permanent arrangement. But if you're told the lamb now gets up every morning and kills a zebra for breakfast, you know you're being teased.
Delicious writing, no?

Then, naturally, complications ensue especially when Claire, Philip's writing partner, understands the scheme and asks Philip if he's on drugs. She finally signs on to it to make sure Moira doesn't swindle Philip. There's intrigue, and it gets complicated (and I don't want to do a plot summary), but there's just one more section I have to share with you.  Everyone is at a party at the Cellinis (the Mafiosi family Gilbert's mother married into) and Tony Cellini introduces Philip and Claire to his godson and nephew Leo, seventeen, a senior in high school and crazy about musicals, especially those by Stephen Sondheim (James McCourt would call this "code").  So this happens when Philip is left alone with Leo:

 For the first time that evening I forgot that I was surrounded by thugs and cutthroats. My thoughts were suddenly full of Leo. Or, rather, Leo and me . . .the shows we might see; the discussions we might have over quiet dinners; the experiences of mine he could benefit from, the lessons, many and varied, I could teach him as he was taking those first brave steps toward maturity, self-acceptance, and --
  Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
  What on earth was I thinking of? How could I allow myself to dream of an illicit romance with this Mafia Child? Why, it was madness just to be standing here discussing Pacific Overtures with him!
  "Oh and don't you love the way in 'Please, Hello' he takes the same metric scheme as the Major General's song in Pirates of Penzance then complicates it with the interior rhymes? It's my favorite lyric in the show."
  "Mine is 'A Bowler Hat'."
  "Oh, isn't that great?"
  In his enthusiasm, he clapped a hand on each of my shoulders and stared directly into my eyes. The stare lengthened.
  How to escape?
Pacific Overtures! Probably Sondheim's most obscure musical. Since Jim and I had seen A Little Night Music three times we went to see Pacific Overtures the week it opened. It was in January 1976 and it was cold. Mine is "A Bowler Hat" too. There's a video of the song in the tip jar. It's not a linear song, exactly.

So there are many things in the book that are not what they seem (all on Moira's side) and there are many things that are more than what they seem, and you can tell what Frasier was going to be like from it. One more block quote, however. Philip and Gilbert have a complicated relationship, and they are walking in Central Park, in an area called the Ramble, a well-known cruising area. But it's winter.

On this afternoon, though, the place couldn't have looked less carnal. A fresh snow had fallen overnight, the sun shone brightly, and even the few cruisers strolling about, glancing over their shoulders at you, had a quaint Currier and Ives sort of quality.
Currier and Ives. In that context. Wonderful!

Keenan's books are fun. And Philip, Gilbert and Claire live happily enough ever after to appear in two more books.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Dec 11, 2012 at 05:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Remembering LGBT History.

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