One man has chosen to document his personal attempts to achieve the top of the homosexual heap.
Joel Derfner's "Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever (Broadway Books; $23.95) began, according to the author, as an attempt to, well, become the gayest person ever. The stories he relates, while not necessarily earning the title he is striving for, nevertheless represent a first-rate attempt, not to mention a wonderfully poignant and funny cross-section of the gay experience in the 21st century.
The book is broken into sections titled "On . . ." followed by some gay endeavor or another. Some of the sections are almost sweet in the innocence of their subject matter; "On Knitting" immediately leaps to mind. Others, however, are more graphic. "On Casual Sex" in particular has the potential to be offensive, or at least off-putting, to an unsuspecting reader.
These treatises bounce back and forth from tender and touching to wildly funny, sometimes in the space of a paragraph, or even a single sentence.
In my opinion, two particular sections taken together serve to encapsulate both the author's personal experience and the vast social chasm inherent to homosexuality.
On the one hand, we have "On Camp Camp." Camp Camp is an adult sleep away camp in Maine with a GLBT-friendly theme. The cabins are all named after famous homosexuals, and Derfner spends his nights in "Barney Frank." The activities tend toward traditional summer camp fare; the author discovered the existence of the camp through a friend's proud display of stained glass she had made the previous summer. Despite his various social phobias, he manages to connect with his fellow campers and have a gay old time.
At the other end of the spectrum is "On Exodus." Exodus is also a retreat of sorts, only for "ex-gays." Essentially, it is an evangelical Christian support system for people who for whatever reason want to free themselves from their homosexual inclinations. Derfner's experience here leaps around from a desire to understand the mindset involved in leaving behind "the lifestyle," shame with regards to his deception of people that he generally found to be perfectly nice, and anger at the idea that sexuality is something that can be changed in such a fashion.
At its (very large) heart, "Swish" is the story of one man's life as illustrated by his experiences. We learn many valuable lessons about the trials and triumphs inherent to "the lifestyle."
The basic honesty displayed in these pages results in wild humor, tenderness, joy and sadness. Joel Derfner certainly acknowledges that his attempt to assume a seat at the top of Mount Homolympus fell a bit short, but his readers are the richer for it. The Maine EdgeReview:
I have never, to the best of my knowledge, dated Joel Derfner, but after reading "Swish," I could have sworn I had. And it was one of those pressure-free dates where I didn't have to worry about what I was wearing or remember to clip my nose hairs or figure out the check. I didn't even have to make conversation. Derfner handled everything, and the evening was over before I knew it.
The book's subtitle is "My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever," which makes the whole business sound far more systematic than it is. Derfner only takes up knitting because "my boyfriend just broke up with me and I need something to do with my hands other than Google him obsessively." He has sex with lots of guys because, well, sex is fun (except for group sex, which features too many elbows). And he attends a conference of ex-gays because he can't believe a group of human beings could be so dumb. Except that he is taken aback by the kindness he encounters there and, after a complicated dance of seduction and betrayal, ends up offering a silent prayer of his own for two conferees he has befriended. All of Derfner's well-crafted essays follow this same trajectory from flirtation to haunted engagement. Like most humorists, he trails a painful history -- a seriously ill mother, an absent father, blighted hopes of a singing career -- and he has come to the unsurprising conclusion that "everybody alive is a lost and disastrous mess."
Which may be true, but how many are so amusingly lost and disastrous? David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs are his obvious inspirations, but Derfner has his own way of braiding high and low. He can make antic hay with an ex-gay ministry musical that turns "They Call the Wind Maria" into "They Call My Sin Desire." But he can also toss off words like "chthonic" and "ouroboros" with aplomb (he is, as he will remind you more than once, Harvard summa cum laude). And he can begin a footnote in the following breezy fashion: "I recently started studying Middle Egyptian in earnest."
He is also extremely intelligent on the correct way to make a cocktail, which is "to fill the glass to overflowing with spirits and then wave the mixer somewhere vaguely near the rim." Derfner has a similar habit of capping off his spirited reportage by waving vague epiphanies at us: little bows of pathos that speak to the sentimental strain in gay bravado. If that's not your cup of tea, then tread with care. And if you think narcissism is what's wrong with the world today, then, for pity's sake, stay away. Derfner rarely leaves the shelter of his own cranium, but at least it's fairly roomy there. You might even want to put up your feet and stay a while. Salon.com
Advance Praise for Swish:
"Derfner writes what we all feel but aren't brave enough to say. Swish is the best book about gay sexuality I've ever read."
"Reading Swish is like having a marathon phone call with your gay best friend-assuming your friend is hilarious, brilliant, and completely honest. Which he probably isn't, so you should read this book."
-Marc Acito, author of Attack of the Theater People
Praise for Gay Haiku:
"Just the author's foreword in this little pink book is the funniest three pages I've read in ages."
"A world of hilarious juxtapositions, melancholy reflections, and stingingly smart observations."
-In Los Angeles
"Go out and buy five copies; it will never be returned if you lend it to friends."