Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review, Notes about Michael V. Smith's My Body is Yours: A Memoir

About Michael V. Smith:
Multifaceted gay Canadian writer, performance artist, and activist Michael V. Smith has published two fine novels, Cumberland and Progress, and the poetry collections What You Can’t Have, Body of Text, (with David Ellingsen) and his stirring and newest collection, Bad Ideas.

Cover image copyright 2015,
Arsenal Pulp Press
In his memoir My Body Is Yours, Michael V. Smith reflects on his turbulent childhood, coming out early, falling in love early, but also about becoming a sex addict, and crusing for sex in parks, all from the perspective of his mid-forties. But his perspective makes the account no less painful, from stories of his alcoholic father being in and out of work regularly, to Smith trying to hide who he was in his hometown, and gentler moments.There are moments of grace such as his description of walking home at dawn after a night in Stanley Park, finding solace in early morning bird song. 

Smith starts his story with his youth in Cornwall, our shared hometown. He recounts his splintered childhood, coping with his parents being unhappily married, largely due to his alcoholic father. Sporadically employed, his dad was a seismic, shifting and unpredictable force in his family's life. Mike realized he was gay in his adolescence, startlingly early by standards of the 1980’s. He finds requited love. Smith eventually takes his beau to prom, where their two female dates act as the boys’ beards. These kids were way ahead of their time, clearly. After a four-year relationship with his high-school sweetheart, who eventually realizes she is trans, Smith travels to San Francisco. He is, in his own words, urged on by an older gay friend as though they are characters in a queer indie film. Later, Smith lives in Toronto, Vancouver, and Kelowna, all the while cruising men online, on camera, but mainly in public parks.

Mike and I know each other from our hometown days, going as far back as grade seven at Central Public School (it's gone now, torn down about five years ago for a new school to go up in the same spot). He is two years older than me, and so I was two grades younger and mostly unnoticed, which is understandable. However, I got to know him better after Smith published his first novel, Cumberland. 

A debut as startling in its power as it is painful, Cumberland is set in a small town of the same name, a fictionalized Cornwall, Ontario. One protagonist in Cumberland, Ernest, is a laid-off mill worker discovering his queer sexual identity. The other hero, Aaron, a young boy, endures bullying and his own sexual awakening. My debut horror novel Town & Train also occurs in a fictionalized Cornwall. My stand-in, Brandon, is also enduring hard economic times, just as Cumberland is described as a "failing industrial town". Our descriptions of the hometown of our youth are unsurprising, given that in the wake of the Free Trade Agreement, many factories, such as Courtalds and Nestle, closed down in Cornwall in the 1990's to move operations to countries with cheaper overhead costs. Mike and I, although young, saw these closures happening in our mill-and-hockey town and obviously have carried this observation forward into our work.
Cover image copyright 2002,
Cormorant Books.
Town & Train also includes closeted queer characters such as the gay Constable Ritchie O'Donnell. My main protagonist Constable David Forester struggles to realize his bisexual identity. Mike and I also use some similar settings, including the landmark of the Domtar paper mill, physical descriptions of local areas such as the east end business district of Montreal Road and downtown's main intersection of Pitt and Second. But perhaps most importantly, we also depict the local gay cruising area. 

Around the time Cumberland came out from Cormorant Books, I was hammering away at revisions of Town & Train each morning before racing off to a wine retail job. Mike encouraged me to finish it and find a publisher instead of, he said, leaving the manuscript to waste away in a drawer. Impressed by Cumberland at the time, I asked Mike if I could include a cameo of one or two of his Cumberland characters in Town & Train. He generously agreed. So, if you look, you will find a familiar fellow cruising for men in the park in Town & Train.

Reading My Body Is Yours, I am struck by the harrowing, dangerous, and threatening situations Smith placed himself in, beginning with alcohol abuse. When he quit drinking, Smith rechanneled his addiction energy into staying up all night, cruising parks for sex. The lure of sex, the danger of being hurt, or worse, and the adrenaline-charged high he got from navigating darkened Stanley Park all became all too enticing.

I’m familiar with this hunt, at night, with men giving each other oblique signals in the park, a perpetual and fascinating dance of attraction and chase. Smith is, too. 

Smith includes "Prayer for Promiscuity", a piece about cruising in Stanley Park in his new poetry collection, Bad Ideas (Nightwood Editions, 2017). The poem hits the reader in the crotch, but also in the heart. Here's an excerpt.

Across Lost Lagoon, the apartment
complexes rise, pixelated

a horizon lonellier than childhood.
If we'd been children together, perhaps
we could have saved each other.

In this way, Smith deftly juxtaposes childhood innocence with the hardened experience of a man looking for casual sex in the park.

Reading a friend's memoir is not for the faint of heart. For me, learning that Mike imperilled himself so much, and so often, through barebacking or other careless constant sex with strangers, sometimes with multiple strangers simultaneously, is jarring. The idea knocks me sideways. His obsession matured, blossomed, and he expanded his area of risk, including online chat rooms, webcams, and random hook-ups under the highway bridge outside of town, in strangers’ cars, or even, in one chilling instance, a failed rendez-vous in a mechanic’s garage where Smith was nearly locked in with a troubled and musclebound stranger.

Smith’s successful memoir is, at turns, heart-wrenching, funny, sad, dramatic, and heartbreakingly confessional. It does, however, possess a single hitch—the narrative thread often back-steps in chronology. In one instance, Smith describes living in Vancouver. The next, he recalls his escapades a few years earlier in Toronto. The reader hears about Smith discovering a queer community in Vancouver and then Smith travels back to his days in Toronto dressing up in drag and making a drunken sexual spectacle of himself at a nightclub. Then the reader learns of Smith’s days as Cookie La Whore, the drag persona he adopted to host soirees at the Dufferin. Here, he and writer Billeh Nickerson admirably shored up the disparate parts of the queer artistic community, from rock bands to artists of all stripes. There’s merit here; the story is writ large and dramatic, and justifiably so. In a sense, this is Smith's Torch Song Trilogy, and the story breaks your heart. The order, though, could have benefitted from refining.

Coincidentally, on my first trip to Vancouver back in 2000, a university friend insisted on taking me to the Dufferin, or the “Duff”. And I did not recognize Mike. However, I saw his drag show and quite liked it. I've always liked a good drag show, when done with aplomb and skill. Besides, Mike is a very pretty, lithe woman, and man.

My Body is Yours often reads like a John Rechy novel. Rechy was famous for City of Night, his 1963 debut novel about a hustler finding his way in the underground sexual life of the glittering big American cities in the 1950s. The novel was compared to Genet and Jack Kerouac. Unfortunately, his critics pegged Rechy as as a hustler who wrote a book instead of a writer who happened to be a hustler. Rechy wrote several more books after City of Night, a fact which his detractors seemed to have failed to notice. But I digress.

Cover Image Copyright 2017,
Nightwood Editions.
I feel the need to contextualize how Smith feels in his skin, since the memoir is about his body. While Smith had agonized over body issues, he is comfortable with himself now. Myself, I have come to terms with being bi, although much later than in my teens, rather in my twenties and thirties. So I sometimes see Smith as an accelerated version of myself. He, too, is a skinny-boy-turned-skinny-man from a small town. Of course, he was far skinner than me. He was, in fact, skinnier than anyone around him growing up, as he mentions in the memoir. This is an accurate, not self-effacing observation. As a result, some men in the park would feel Mike’s meagre bicep and then simply move on. 

Of course, we also have in common the fact that he’s a writer. And a lover of men. He is, of course, much farther along the Kinsey Scale, his needle pointed squarely at the men side. I’m more toward the middle.

But as Mike recalls, or fails to recall, how he had sex with multiple partners in one night or how he prowled the parks four nights a week, I remind myself—I’m not reading about John Rechy or Jack Kerouac or Norman Mailer sinking themselves into depravity. Rather, I'm reading about someone I know. Someone I quite adore. It breaks my heart to hear what Mike did to himself through his obsessive compulsive disorder behaviour and addictions. 

I do, though, find solace in the fact that he came through it all intact. The world would be far less good and fabulous without Mike in it, as a writer, a person and an influence. I just want to hug him and say I’m grateful he came through the fire of his addictions.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Have Copies of Debut Horror Novel... Will Travel!

Exuberance! Definition: Noun. ex•u•ber•ance;\ig-ˈzü-b(ə-)rən(t)s\ 
The feeling a first-time novelist gets when they receive copies of their book from the publisher that remains constant.

Thanks to my publisher Lethe Press, now I’m geared up with copies of Town & Train for this weekend’s Limestone Genre Expo.  But I'll be, er, driving instead of taking the train...

(Of course, if I sell one copy, I’ll be ecstatic. Attending Limestone is an excuse to meet all sorts of fine folks and like-minded souls and have a blast.)

Attending the Third Limestone Genre Expo

Anyone in and around the Kingston, Ontario area this weekend? 

I’m once again very happy to be part of the June 3-4  Limestone Genre Expo, a fun conference for speculative fiction readers and creators. 

On Saturday at 4pm, I weigh in on On Driving the Reader Mad: Psychological Horror with Nancy Kilpatrick, M. H. Callway, Una Verdandi, Evan May, Suzanne Church and the inestimable Sean Moreland. Moderatred by the fabulous Sandra Kasturi. 

On Sunday at 11am, I discuss, Oh! The Horror!, with luminaries Nancy Kilpatrick, Sean Moreland, Karen Dales, Caroline Fréchette, Sandra Kasturi, Matt Moore, and Karen Dales. Moderated by Kim McDougall.

Check out more about Limestone here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Why Chris Cornell's Death Affects Me

I realize that the death of Chris Cornell hits me hard because it signals another victim of fame and the grunge movement. 

Understand that grunge music was, for my generation, an entry point into university and adventure and exploring one's self. Pearl Jam's album "Ten", in particular, was the album du jour in fall 1992, and an ideal traveling soundtrack for a 19-year-old going from home to elsewhere by bus or train for the first time. Eddie Vedder's baritone chants and the melodic guitar riffs and anthem album were terrific companions for a new adventure.

Nirvana and Soundgarden were the accompanying heavy grunge music for me. Keep in mind that the grunge sound, with its heavy emphasis on electric guitar and wailing lyrics, were new at the time. Many people my age accepted ownership of this sound as part of the soundtrack for our lives. Sure, we wore plaid and white T-shirts and denim and danced as though we were having some sort of body surfing wish fulfillment, but the music, we felt, was unique to our age group.

Chris Cornell's suicide by hanging is partiucularly haunting as he joins a line of West Coast lead singers and writers to succumb to alcohol and drug addiction, as well as depression, since the heyday of the Seattle Sound in the early-to-late-1990's. Here's the list I came up with that I am sure media will be covering soon enough.

- First there was Mother Love Bone lead singer Andrew Wood who was a heroin addict. He was, in a way, my generation's very own legitimate Jim Morrison, an early casualty of rising fame and drug addiction. Wood tried to get clean before Mother Love Bone's album came out. Sadly, he died in 1990 of a heroin overdose, days before "Apple" was released. Mother Love Bone only put out that sole album. Chris Cornell formed the band Temple of the Dog and the album of the same title as an epitaph for Wood.

- Kurt Cobain, the famous lead singer for Nirvana, another Seattle-based band, died in 1994 under suspicious circumstances.

- Seattle band Alice in Chains founder and lead singer Layne Staley died from drug-related complications in 2002.

- Scott Weiland, lead singer of San Diego band, Stone Temple Pilots, died of an accidental drug-and-alcohol overdose in 2015. Critics often accused STP, as they were called back then, of mimicking Eddie Vedder's rock anthem vocalist style with Pearl Jam. After three albums, though, STP proved their worth as a grunge rock band all their own. They often made a trippier and more oblique style than Pearl Jam, punctuated by severe bass guitar.

So when you learn that the frontman have died in tragic circumstances from nearly all the Seattle bands producing grunge music, whose influence you still feel 25 years later, it's an affecting realization. 

I am deeply saddened by the news of Cornell's death, yet still as thankful as ever for the music Cornell made during his lifetime. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Chris Cornell's Passing

Musician Chris Cornell was immensely gifted. His suicide has given me pause.

Cornell, friend and mentor to newcomer Eddie Vedder, helped launch Eddie's career back in '91. Between founding the band Soundgarden in '84 and making possible the birth of Pearl Jam in '90, Cornell was a seminal force during the birth of the Seattle Sound or grunge movement. He also founded and fronted the band theTemple of the Dog in 1990 as a tribute to friend Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone's founder, as well as and Malfunkshun's) who died of a heroine overdose.
Cornell's vocals elevated grunge music, with its heavy crunching guitar riffs, and made this music into something utterly new at the time.
On the holiday weekend, I put on a YouTube playlist to educate my nine-year-old boy. I started with "Hunger Strike" (the stunning, mournful duet with Vedder dedicated to Andrew Wood), followed by "Fell on Black Days", and a startling cover of "Nothing Compares to You". Alice in Chain's "Would?" also crept into the mix.
Cornell's vocals are still haunting.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Worried, with cancer after family and friend's marriage falling apart

Just so damn worried in that Kerouac exisential sense about best friends not talking to each other anymore and a friend's marriage imploding despite his outward denials and cancer taking my mother-in-law and Lori-Jean Hodge with that sweet otherworldly voice and my sister also with inoperable cancer.

A lot of other posts seem irrelevant by comparison. Still editing my second novel and waiting to hear how a short-story collection is being appraised by a publisher. But I'm not posting about that, because that's the in-between part of my days of worrying and movig on through daily life.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review of Doctor Sleep: Stephen King's Worthy Sequel to The Shining

I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, the very late sequel (about 36 years later) to his influential 1977 novel The Shining. The Shining was predicated on hero Jack Torrance's flaws, as a father and a human being. Jack was haunted not only by ghosts at the Overlook Hotel, but by alcoholism, a bad temper, and deep doubts about his parenting. Doctor Sleep is about the son Danny, now a grown man, spiralling into alcholism and aimlessness. That said, Doctor Sleep is richly rewarding. It’s not quite the same as The Shining, but if you’ve read The ShiningDoctor Sleep is a worthy sequel. 

Moreover, Doctor Sleep is very good in many places. King writes revealingly and genuinely about a middle-aged protagonist grappling with alcoholism, trying to change his life for the better, but also contending with dark forces with help from the younger generation. I understand that alcoholics attending rehab like the book because it speaks to their own struggles.

The hook for Doctor Sleep is that little Danny Torrance, from the first novel, is now middle-aged now, an alcoholic like his father Jack. Dan drinks, though, to numb himself from seeing horrifying ghosts and apparitions. Unlike ol’ Dad, who succumbed both to alcoholism and to the influences of ghosts at the Overlook, Daniel endures an experience that grants him an epiphany. He realizes he must stop drinking. Reintroducing readers to Daniel Torrance, King writes adeptly about a hero grappling with alcoholism and white-knuckle sobriety, not to mention about some truly horrific situations.

As in his 1975 Salem’s Lot, a modernized Dracula in small-town America, King’s hero relives a scene that motives them through their long journey. (In Salem's, the young Ben Mears witnesses a man who hung himself in the abandoned Marsten House.) Dan, in Doctor Sleep, wakes one morning in bed with a barroom pickup, several hundred dollars poorer, and having hit rock bottom. He realizes he must confront his alcoholism.

After this all-time low, Dan imbibes alone under a bridge. Realizing how far he has fallen from anything resembling a stable life, he decides to sober up. Dan also realizes he needs help, an alcoholic’s toughest realization. He moves to the small town of Frazier, and tries to start over. King in showing Dan's long nights and agonizy over resisting the temptation of having just one drink, King taps into serious oil, here. Every toss and turn that Dan feels the reader also feels. Dan is at his wits’ end. Doctor Sleep is not so much as a descent as the Shining; it’s the character’s attempt to ascend his addiction. 

The story moves forward several years. Daniel holds down his day job at a palliative care unit. Here he earns the moniker that is the book’s title. Daniel has a knack for seeing patients off for their final moments. When the house cat, Gabe (Gabriel, here, in heavy-handed symbolism), sits overnight on a particular patient’s bed, this is the signal for Dan's co-workers to call Doctor Sleep. King succeeds, in several touching scenes, in showing Dan help people in their last moments of life. Such scenes made me teary-eyed.

The Shining sequel also introduces Abra, a younger character who shines. She sees ghosts and other otherworldly entities like 12-year-old Danny Torrance could see such things in The Shining. But she's far more powerful than he ever was. There’s a supernatural band of Recreational Vehicle (RV) drivers tracking down Abra, sort of soul-draining energy monsters. King portrays some cruel and scary characters here while also revealing their human sides, if that makes any sense.

Forgive the drift into vagueness. No spoilers, here. 

Doctor Sleep is, in turns, a little bloated, from Dan's internal monologues to touchstones of American life to brand names. Dan argues with himself in his head. This internal argument has long been King's favourite means of characterization and internal interplay. The author doesn’t steep his story in Americana—he deep fries it. His continues to profess his love of the interstate highway system. This was a noticeable detail from his 1984 fantasy novel, The Talisman, co-authored with Peter Straub. In Doctor Sleep, King also drops many brandnames, mentioning WalMart and the EarthCruiser recreational vehicle a little often. Admittedly, the antagonist drives an RV but to repeatedly name this make and model, along with the make and model of a car of a protagonist, gets conspicuous. That said, King likes touchstones that Americans see on a daily basis, whether familiar brands or famliar businesses.

But Doctor Sleep have the same visceral impact as The Shining

Well, no, because the novel is not weighted on a father’s tragic flaws. Rather, it is weighted on the son feeling doomed to become his father. Doctor Sleep is, oddly enough, a brave horror story. Dan struggles with his drinking and his temper like his father Jack did. Unlike, Jack, though, Daniel stares down his alcoholism and tries to connect with other human beings, even getting to know the younger generation. 

And, of course, this being a King novel, King shows that he still has the chops for truly terrifying and heroic moments along the way. Doctor Sleep hits hard in places, landing emotional and horrifying blows.