All writers cherish "rejection" stories that end up success stories in publishing. What writer, ignored or mugged by critics, doesn't remind himself that posterity is quite often more easily satisfied than the surly book reviewer? Look at "Wuthering Heights," "Moby Dick," and . . . and . . .
A fine success story is happening now, but because it occurs within an arbitrarily constricted circle, it brings both pleasure and regret--and arouses questions about what is currently permitted to qualify as "serious literature," what is banished, and why.
In the early 1930s, a young man sat down to write a novel he must have known had little chance of being published. It was on "a very sensitive subject," a euphemism for homosexuality. Fortunately there was at the time a publisher specializing in "sensitive" books, and Richard Meeker's "Better Angel" was issued by the Greenberg Press in 1933. It soon disappeared.
In 1987, Sasha Alyson, publisher of no longer necessarily "sensitive" gay books, reissued the novel (it is available in paperback from Alyson Publications for $6.95). It received wide attention and formidable reviews in the gay press, and it sold well. Too bad the author was dead, was the general lament.
At A Different Light Bookstore in Los Angeles, an elegant old gentleman asked for "Better Angel." Approving his choice of the "quite popular and well written" novel, the clerk assured the customer: "You'll like it." "I'm sure I shall," said the dignified gentleman. "I wrote it."
Richard Meeker--almost 90 years old--was actually Forman Brown, recipient of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in the Turnabout Theater.
Cut to Cambridge, Mass. An order is placed at the Harvard Coop for 150 copies of "Better Angel." Why? Sleuthing by correspondence, Brown was put in touch with Robert Kiely, respected professor of contemporary writing. Kiely wrote Brown that he was teaching a course at Harvard on the literature of the 20th Century. Fourteen books were required reading: Conrad's "Lord Jim," Morrison's "Beloved," Chopin's "The Awakening," Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," Joyce's "Ulysses," Nabokov's "Pale Fire," Lawrence's "Lady Chatterly's Lover," Ford's "The Good Soldier," Kingston's "A Woman Warrior," Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia," Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Toomer's "Cane," Beckett's "Three Novels."
And Meeker/Brown's "Better Angel."
Kiely explained that he had learned of the book from a student's thesis on the gay American novel. He found "Better Angel" "in the popular tradition of American success stories: part romance, part dogged determination to be oneself"--not only a novel of "literary merit" but "a fine evocation of the time . . . an upbeat narrative of growing up gay." In his course, he was teaching "the 'monuments' along with lesser-known works, to give a more nearly complete picture of the 20th- Century experience and art."
During the recent American Booksellers Assn. convention, Brown received a standing ovation from several hundred in attendance at a gay-awards publishing banquet. The reissued book has gone into a second printing, with an epilogue by Brown. Sales continue to be "steady," and reaction in the gay press is glowing.
I approached this book expecting a lovable artifact, convinced that Kiely's inclusion of it in his course was the sort of thing every college teacher does slyly--adds one or two unknown writers to his required list to show his independence and demonstrate the breadth of his knowledgeability. (I often mention Aphra Behn in my literature class at USC.)
I was wrong. Long before gay liberation, "Better Angel" resounds movingly with "the anarchic note of pride in difference." At the book's opening, Kurt is a sensitive boy often taunted by school bullies. He would rather play piano and read than toss a baseball. Close to his mother and a stranger to his father, he wants to be the princess in a play he writes. Set in the past, the novel thus allows today's reader to look anew at a "gay stereotype"--a present sacrilege--to find in that forbidden, but quite healthy, figure the spirit of endurance and courage. Boldly presenting themselves to a hostile world, stereotypes most often grow into figures of strength.
And so does Kurt, as he moves from Michigan to New York to Europe, back to the United States, encountering Chloe--a girl he longs to love--and Derry and David, young men with whom he experiences romantic entanglements despite the harsh strictures of the time. A homosexual act in some states was punishable with life imprisonment, and 15-year sentences and commitment to psychiatric asylums were not rare for "accosting."
Still, Kurt is often inspired to write "a page of jottings, ecstatic or sad, but always pregnant with promise of future joy." He comes to lament: "We go around . . . ashamed of a thing we've no reason to be ashamed of." Not blind to the world he's living in, he "must go on with the evasions, the hypocrisy, the compromises that he despised."
Reappearing today, when general indifference is growing even as deaths from AIDS mount among gay men, and gay bigotry is expressed freely, "Better Angel" reminds of a time when hope was possible--the "promise of future joy"--simply because the full reality of prejudice had not yet been entirely exposed, not yet bitterly tested.
Thoroughly modern in its voice--despite words such as invert , which are nonetheless true to its time--Brown's book is not only a very good novel about coming out, as it has been called; it is a very good novel, without qualifier, a book that contains excellent writing, sophisticated humor, universal insights. "The whole problem of life is to get enough moments crowded into it so the places between won't be so deadly." That is a sentence any writer would be proud of. And how's this for description: " . . . patches of graying snow thatched the earth outside; and a gray sky, tarnished with gold from a sun gone down behind the grove of oaks opposite, gave to the light a pale, cold, honey-colored translucence."
Kurt's mother, who encourages his "difference"--"Everybody who amounts to anything is different, all those generals, great men"--marvelously dismisses the importance of her ex-lover: "It's all silly now, for he's still a good friend of your father's and getting bald and fat."
And when the adult Kurt faces a young boy he knows will become gay, "the sense of destiny . . . of all such boys everywhere" sweeps over him, "their heritage of . . . concealing the truth. . . . Would such a one be better off . . . never to recognize his inversion . . . to live lonely and apart. . . ? No. No. . . . Whatever advancing years might bring, knowledge was necessary."
Sadly, the present success of "Better Angel" is constricted because it will be kept in a new "closet"--available only in gay bookstores and on a few "Alternative Lifestyle" shelves in others--separate but not quite equal. Thus some of today's best writing--and yesterday's, like Brown's--is kept in a "literary ghetto" that would have banished Gide, Proust, Genet from world literature. No prestigious awards possible, no Paris Review interviews, no discussions in serious literary volumes. Banished. (Prof. Kiely's course is a thrilling exception.)
What a success story this would be if Forman Brown's "Better Angel," which cut across old barriers, would slice away new ones to be read simply as the fine novel that it is. Then Brown's 90th birthday in a few months would provide doubled reason for celebration.