King of Angelsby Perry Brass.
We all have our literary heroes. I have several: Edmund White, Christopher Bram, Felice Picano, Andrew Holleran and Perry Brass are authors for whom I will stop whatever I am doing when I hear they have new books out. Not only do I get good stories but I get lots to think about and for me, this puts them a rung above the others. I love a book that forces me to consider who I am and my purpose in life. Thinking is perhaps what makes us different than other species but stop and think about how many LGBT writers have caused you to think about yourself and about what they have written.
Simply by virtue of the fact that Brass's subtitle contained two words that I love identity and genesis let me know that even before I opened the covers of King of Angels, it was going to be a very special read. It is set at a time that I lived through, in the South and is about a boy who has Jewish blood which I do. The time is 1963 and the Civil Rights movement is just catching on. At the same time, gay men of the world were coming forward and looking for both acknowledgement and acceptance. Benjamin Rothberg lives in one of the suburbs of Savannah, GA, and is twelve years old. His home is the Isle of Hope and he lives with his mother, Caroline, a beautiful Southern White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) and his father, a dark Sephardic Jewish salesman. Benjy is not exactly sure who he is: if he is a Christian or a Jew; if he is real; or only a boy who is pretending to be. He goes to a Catholic school, Holy Nativity Military Academy, strictly yet compassionately run by monks. Here he finds his closest friends. You must understand that it is not strange for a Jewish boy to attend Catholic school in the South, especially during this era when public schools were being segregated and education was on a stop-go continuum.
Benjy also meets one very special boy, Arthur Gomez, who steals his heart. Benjy is a boy who can change to fit the mood and at the same time keep his own unique features and if you have ever lived in the South, you know why this is sometimes necessary. He is forced to shift from Jewish to gentile, from being intelligent and precocious to acting like a normal regular boy. While he is quite probably gay, he must act as if he loves girls.
Many of you may not know but the Jews played a very important role in the desegregation of the South. Racial explosions were quite common then and racial consciousness was something everyone was aware of. At the same time, gay men were climbing onto the battle of Civil Rights and demanding acceptance. This was a time when both Jews and gays were not totally open with whom they were and I realize that this is somewhat contradictory to some of what I have already written. But we live as a series of as a series of contradictions and we change with he mood.
Oy so much of this book rang true for me and so much of it I also experienced. I have always wanted to write about it but Perry Brass has beaten me to it and has done so in eloquent and beautiful prose. This is not a short book but I sat down to read and did not stop until I all devoured all 360 glorious pages. I laughed and I cried but most of all I thought and I remembered how it was growing up in one of the most turbulent periods of American history when communities tried to come together. I think we forget sometimes America is a melting pot of many different groups . . . Will we ever see a day when we can all sit together and eat from the same pot? I don t know and I doubt any of us do but we can all hope that there will be a day like that. Accepting ourselves is part of it all and Perry Brass helps us with that in his brilliant new book. Now back to read it all over again. --Reviews by Amos Lassen (reviewsbyamoslassen.com), March 26, 2012.
Perry Brass belongs to that rarified group of writers including myself and Leslea Newman who have been nominated for 5 or more Lambda Literary Awards and never received one. That all 3 of us work in different literary forms and genres is a given. We write prose, poetry, drama, non-fiction, even children s books. Literary judges, unable to look beyond the page in front of them, don t know what to make of us. Up till now, Brass has written science fiction, religious fiction, erotica, you name it. With King of Angels, however, Brass has finally written a more or less acceptable piece of literature although it is actually more than that and the book is a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award and who knows what other honors may fall upon it.
Why? Because it's a growing up and coming out story. Brass spins several variations on the theme that makes it increasingly, excitingly, odd. The little boy protagonist is growing up in the South. His mother is a Gentile, gentle, Southern, almost sophisticated woman. But his father is a Northener and a Jew, handsome and somewhat suspect, whose sources of income are unclear, uncertain, and eventually even criminally prosecutable.
This makes Benjy a most interesting misfit, even amid the small, ingrown Jewish community in his town. To make it even more complex, his father places Benjy in a Catholic Academy for his middle years, saying it s the only superior school around. So Benjy is a complete outsider, even more so than the one beautiful and doomed Puerto Rican scholarship boy in his class. His most natural mentors are grown Christian religious teachers, and or his father and his father s best friend Andy. But the teacher is questioning his faith, and the adult friend is even more suspect than Dad and probably a betrayer too.
Benjy goes through all of the expected tropes of growing up, becoming a man, finding himself academically, physically, sexually; he does so with curiosity, panache, and a refreshing sense of his own self esteem. Along the way as tragedy occurs and near-tragedies mount up, Benjy also develops a strong sense of self preservation, along with a slow-growing conviction as every adult fails him that he can only rely upon himself.
The reader is quite entertained by all of this: not only with all the contradictions and mix-ups natural to such an individual, but also by the way Brass delineates several small, often opposite, families and societies that Benjy falls into and out of. The Catholic kids are for the most part put upon, hassled, and controlled to within an inch of their lives, but then strangely free in many other respects. So it s no wonder that they act out in bullying, aggression, and other boy-on-boy mishaps. But the Jewish kids Benjy hangs out with are portrayed as spoiled and smug and they utterly lack independence. His one wiser older friend who refuses to conform ends up in and out of institutions. By the way, each child is wonderfully characterized, even the girls Benjy is expected to romance are well (and humorously) individualized.
That would be enough to make King of Angels a good book. But lurking beneath this veneer, Brass uses his novel to ask a variety of questions about how children see the world for themselves and eventually how they make various choices despite parents, despite teachers, despite society, despite religious teaching, and despite each other. That has been for decades how almost all LGBT kids grew up in America, and I applaud Brass for making his Benjy such a little mensch. King of Angels is a sobering, truthful, yet subversive text and Perry Brass most accomplished work. --Felice PIcano in Out in Print (Outinprint.com, May, 2013)
About the Author
With his partner Hugh, he started Belhue Press in 1991. Perry Brass's work often deals with that intersection of sexuality, spirituality and personal politics that came directly and openly out of his involvement with the radical gay politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This intersection was deemed impossible by many academics and even gay activists of the early years of the movement, who could accept one but none of the other elements that now make up the large and diverse lgbt movement. Among many other activities, he is currently a coordinator of the Rainbow Book Fair, the first and largest LGBT book fair in the U.S.