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Jesse Monteagudo's Book Nook

An Arrow's Flight

By Mark Merlis

The Same Embrace

By Michael Lowenthal

A Few Doors West of Hope: The Life and Times of Dauntless Don Slater

By Joseph Hansen

An Arrow's Flight by Mark Merlis; St. Martin's Press; 384 pages; $24.95

RV1109-1.gif - 13.02 KMark Merlis's first novel, American Studies (1995), won critical acclaim and a Ferro-Grumley Award. In his second novel, An Arrow's Flight, Merlis takes the Trojan War, a source of inspiration for writers throughout history, and turns it into a fable about coming out, the gay ghetto, gays in the military, and AIDS.

An Arrow's Flight is the story of Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, also known as Neoptolemus. After Achilles goes off to war Pyrrhus/Neoptolemus decides to wander out on his own, and leaves his rustic island for life in the big city.

Once ensconced in the city's gay demimonde, this hunky young "hemidemigod" puts his body to work, as a nude go-go dancer and hustler. Merlis uses Pyrrhus life as a sex worker to critique our urban gay ghettos and its "meat market" mentality. He also contrasts Pyrrhus to his more conservative roommate Leucon who, like so many gays, is closeted at work and lives for the weekends where he furtively cruises the bars where Pyrrhus works.

All this might have gone on forever but for the fact that Destiny called. After a decade of ceaseless fighting, most of the first generation of Greek warriors (including Achilles) who fought at Troy are dead, with the notable exception of the crafty Odysseus.

Only one man, an oracle tells Odysseus, can capture Troy for the Greeks - Neoptolemus. With this in mind Odysseus sends Phoenix the eunuch, an Achilles family retainer, to the city to fetch Achilles's errant son. Though Pyrrhus is at first hesitant - who would want to abandon life as a gay boy toy in order to wage war from the closet - Phoenix eventually convinces him to fulfill his calling.

No sooner is Pyrrhus on board Odysseus's flag Penelope that he seduces a closeted young sailor - apparently "don't ask, don't tell" also applied to the Greek Navy.

Odysseus ignores this breach of military rule, since he wants young Pyrrhus to undergo a more significant seduction. According to the oracle (see above), for Pyrrhus to take Troy, he must do it with the bow of Philoctetes, who is now exiled in Lemnos. So off to Lemnos goes Pyrrhus, where he must lure Philoctetes into giving him his legendary bow.

Philoctetes was one of the first Greek soldiers sent to fight the War against Troy. On his way to war, Philoctetes was bit by a snake, leaving a wound that festered and never healed. His fellow soldiers, fearing contamination, exiled Philoctetes in Lemnos, a trendy gay resort and place of refuge for the likes of Philoctetes.

Merlis obviously intends Philoctetes's wound to be an AIDS metaphor, though how the effects of a snake bite could be sexually transmitted - as they do in the book - is beyond explanation. The encounter between Philoctetes and Pyrrhus on Lemnos, full of tension, suspicion and sexual attraction, reflects the links between two generations of gay men; one experienced and AIDS-stricken and the other eager and optimistic.

An Arrow's Flight is set in a world of its own, somewhere between the Hellenic past and the gay American present. Though some knowledge of Homer is useful, a reader does not have to be a classical scholar in order to enjoy this fascinating fable.

Throughout the centuries, the characters in The Iliad and The Odyssey have been re-interpreted to fit changing times and needs. Following this tradition, Merlis has taken a timeless tale and made it relevant to today's gay audiences. Like its historic model, An Arrow's Flight tells a wonderful story that instructs and inspires as well as it entertains.

The Same Embrace by Michael Lowenthal; Dutton; 304 pages; $23.95

RV1109-2.gif - 11.66 KMichael Lowenthal is a protégé of the late John Preston and editor of the anthologies Friends and Lovers, The Best of the Badboys, Gay Men at the Millenium and the Flesh and the Word series. In The Same Embrace Lowenthal, inspired by his own experiences as a young, gay Jew from New England, has written a fascinating first novel that explores issues of Judaism and homosexuality. Though Lowenthal is not the first writer to write about being a gay Jew in America, The Same Embrace gives it a twist that sets it apart from other books of that particular genre.

The Same Embrace is the story of Jacob and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who are both 24-year-old, identical twins, grandsons of Holocaust survivors, and second generation Jewish-Americans.

There their similarities end, for while Jacob came out as a gay activist, Jonathan retreated into Orthodox Judaism and a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Appalled by Jonathan's lifestyle choice, Jacob parents send Jacob, still mourning for a friend's AIDS-related to death, to Israel to fetch his twin.

Though Jacob fails to "rescue" Jonathan, he manages to bed Avi, another yeshiva student. Unfortunately Jonathan discovers his brother in flagrante delicto and sends him packing back to Boston.

The use of identical twins to explore different lives and choices is a time-honored device, and Lowenthal evidently uses it to explore the differences and similarities between an Orthodox Jewish and a gay lifestyle.

Unfortunately, The Same Embrace is told solely from Jacob's point of view, with Jonathan only appearing through his brother's eyes. There is so much we want to know about Jonathan Rosenbaum: Is he gay also? What made him decide to live in an Orthodox yeshiva? What does he really think about Jacob? But, alas, Lowenthal leaves all of these questions unanswered, to his book's detriment.

The Same Embrace is thus limited to Jacob Rosenbaum's impressions. However, within those limits, Lowenthal manages to bring up many issues that are relevant to the gay Jewish experience, including the Holocaust, AIDS, lesbian and gay activism, tradition and assimilation.

We see Jacob as he relates with his tradition-bound grandparents, his assimilated parents, his lesbian and gay friends, and his cute, gentile lover, Danny. If lesbian and gay Jews are "twice-blessed" we are also twice-burdened by often-conflicting traditions and divided loyalties. All of this is explored in Lowenthal's The Same Embrace.

A Few Doors West of Hope: The Life and Times of Dauntless Don Slater by Joseph Hansen; Homosexual Information Center, Box 8252, Universal City, CA 91618; 96 pages; $10.95.

dslater.jpg - 15.23 K Don Slater Don Slater (1923-1997) is one of the pioneers of the lesbian and gay movement. As a founder of ONE magazine (1951-65), Tangents (1965-70), and the Homosexual Information Center (HIC), Slater paved the way for the proliferation of gay publications that we enjoy today.

It was Slater who stood up to government censorship that led to the Supreme Court's historic ruling that ONE was not obscene. On a personal basis, Slater's long-term relationship with dancer Tony Reyes, which lasted from 1945 until Slater's death, makes him a role model for all of us.

rv11093.gif - 17.45 KWhen Slater died his heirs - Reyes and Slater's assistant William Glover - decided to preserve his name and legacy. Along with Joseph Hansen - mystery writer, ONE contributor and long-time friend of the family - Reyes and Slater plan to publish a collection of Slater's writings from ONE and Tangents.

Meanwhile, A Few Doors West of Hope, Hansen's biography of Slater, will remind younger generations of this pioneer's enduring work. Slater was a modest man, and his long life - with the possible exception of his lengthy feud with William "W. Dorr Legg" Lambert - is not an exciting one. But it was a productive life, and A Few Doors West of Hope does a good job reminding us of it.

© 1997-98 BEI