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My Queer War Hardcover – April 27, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (April 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374217483
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374217488
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #888,362 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

JAMES LORD's books include A Giacometti Portrait, first published in 1965, and Giacometti: A Biography (FSG, 1985), which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His most recent work is Mythic Giacometti (FSG, 2003).

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


It all began beside the war-torn sea. In Atlantic City. Truly a queer setting—out of place for an epic adventure, let alone a good venue for making a young man ready to perform the daredevil feats of wartime avaiators. Yet this second-rate, overbuilt resort had been dreamed up like the locus of a psychedelic fantasy by the U.S. Army Air Force for the basic training of would-be fliers into the wild blue yonder. All the Xanadu pleasure domes left vacant by wartime retrenchment were thought well suited for billeting transient thousands of glassy-eyed rookies. Of the derelict hotels having survived the Great Depression, not to mention the Panic of ’93, the flakiest was the Chelsea, a dilapidated pile of enthralling ugliness set at the seedy end of the celebrated boardwalk.

Along those damp and treacherous planks that dreary November afternoon slouched a sullen troop of soldiers. I was one of them: a college dropout, single, aged nineteen, and white, number 12183139, brown of hair and eye, with a straight nose, sensuous mouth, slightly protuberant chin, average of height, weight, build, unremarkable, in short, in every outward aspect.

Which was wholly to the good. Being unremarkable in that ragtag rabble of GIs, all attired exactly alike, I ran no risk of betraying my lurid, shaming, guilty secret. Never mind that by a blatant lie I’d already betrayed civic decency by putting on the U.S. Army’s uniform. But I could chalk that up to poetic license. Writing was already my good excuse for almost anything that needed excusing. Much did.

How it happened that I had become a private in Flight B of the 989th TSS was a poor joke, a joke, indeed, so furiously unfunny that it dwelt by itself as an existential black hole. Anyway, I marched laboriously against the icy winds beneath the oncoming dusk toward our billet in the Hotel Chelsea. Only eleven days in uniform then, I’d dropped out of college just three weeks before under the flimsiest of pretenses. Pretense, indeed, promised to be permanent military apparel, within which I could feast upon discontent, a disguise, moreover, expected to fool everyone but which, of course, made me misfortune’s fool.

The lobby of the Chelsea smelled of old age, sewage, and soldiers’ sweat. A slovenly sergeant materialized from the staircase and ordered us to get our asses into a room, any room on the floors above and double up snap on the spot with anybody willing, two rooks to a room, two cots, two footlockers, and no shit.

Such an unprecedented option offered a hint of potential companionship on the spur of the moment. The army experience, after all, advertised its facility for creating buddies, the happenstance of warfare famous for forging bonds between men, having, in fact, made heroes of soldiers embracing each other in foxholes while the gentle rain of shrapnel burst above them in the vivid air.

Across the smelly crowd in the hotel lobby I’d already spotted a good-looking GI lost in the middle distance, and I thought, Why not? He was wonderfully fair, features almost too fine, a Botticelli of angelic allure, tall and slender. He was apparently unaccompanied as yet by any makeshift pals, so I kept close behind on the cramped upstairs climb. When he lurched under the ungainly duffel bag into a room on the malodorous third floor, I was at his heels before a rival could crowd in.

Hopping aside from the thudding fall of his duffel bag, he flung himself across the cot beside the window. I took the place by the door and waited, companionably leaving to him the prerogative of greetings. My wait while I waited extended ever so slowly beyond titillating anticipation as he lay like a heap of oblivion, absent eyes fixed on nothing. I breathed in and breathed out for what it was worth, and evidently it wasn’t worth much, because the roommate of my optimistic expectation soon seemed, in reality, as much like thin air as thin air itself.

Eventually, however, he hawked and spit out, “This dump eats shit.”

An observation, if you like, well taken, and in accent native to the outlying reaches of New York City. Thus angelic Botticelli immediately matured into a Caravaggio boy of the streets. No overture to conversation, of course. But there I was, and I was there and had to say so. Timidly standing, tentatively taking steps in the direction of camaraderie, I held down my hand and said, “Hi. Name’s Jim Lord. Guess we’d better get acquainted.”

He squinted, shifted, scowled, steely about the gray eyes, ignoring the presumptuous hand, then at last, however, snarled, “Teves. Joe Teves.”

“Okay,” I said, swallowing the shame of hostility.

So he must have known. Known without knowledge, without understanding, yet with the sly menace of the male of the species. God knows beasts can be beautiful. And beauty can bedevil the best of precautions. Still, how, but how, could I have betrayed the lonely and loathsome self of that ghastly thunderclap of awareness in the grim dusk of October adolescence? The streak of pain vibrated also in the stagnant confine of that catastrophic hotel, the very vibration being surely what I’d come there for. For which, indeed, I’d volunteered to forsake Kierkegaard and Kafka, offering to the future an aptitude for matters of guilt.

My roommate, needless to say, never became my friend, much less a buddy, barely an acquaintance. Good looks went bad in a hurry. Botticelli, Caravaggio all mutated almost overnight into Hieronymus Bosch. As we became ensnared in reciprocal contempt, such words as were spitefully breathed back and forth had only to do with mops, washrags, and the danger of dirt. He promptly found a flock of pals with whom to chew the fat, numbers like himself from the wrong side of the Harlem River, none of whom even offered me a cigarette. Anyway, I didn’t smoke. How gladly, however, I’d have nursed a clandestine bottle of Four Roses.

At my hateful college I used to carry a pint around the campus in a paper bag. This earned a scolding from the dean and worsened the sniffiness of classmates whose scrutiny I’d hoped to divert from inner affliction and focus upon the outer distinction of one who dared to live with a difference. This was no good, and rather worse than that, so I consequently hated the college and everyone in it with a passion almost equal to the loathing I’d felt for myself ever since that terrible twilight. Walking back to the prep school dorm after my piano lesson, with Beethoven’s Rondo resonant still, along the cement sidewalk strewn with dead leaves, I suddenly saw like an appalling sunburst, fatal and final, that what I really wanted to do with the good-looking boys whose best pal I longed to be was not just horsing around in the locker room but doing freely with them in bed after lights out everything I had always till then been compelled to do in solitude with myself. In short, the creature I’d suddenly seen was that abnormal, that abominable thing called a homosexual, a loathsome mistake of nature, a cultural criminal whom any feeling person would naturally put in prison. So I vowed I’d never, ever succumb to the vile desires roused by those football-playing jocks and their curly-haired cheerleaders.

You might think that to wake up gay is no big deal. If you’re straight, you certainly would. But be the spoiled son of a creationist family, whether in Memphis, Montevideo, or Madras, and your wake-up dream is a nightmare of hopeless craving to get into the pants of a pretty sailor, and you’re doomed to a lifetime of disgusting torment. Mind you, I’m talking about a Massachusetts prep school in ’38. Nowadays everything’s supposed to be okay; congressmen and ambassadors boast of boyfriends. And yet . . . parents in Dallas, Dijon, or Dar es Salaam hardly hope that their kids will grow up to live in sin with same-sex partners and maybe—even day after tomorrow—would disown them if they did.

It was all very well to hate college and despise those alluring fraternity brothers in their varsity sweaters. But how the hell was I going to get out of there? The fix—and its suppositious remedy—were of a character to confound the authors of Either/Or, The Castle, and then some. I sat down at my university desk in the windy, irrational recklessness of that October 1942 and wrote to my parents a letter that I thought both purposeful and tricky, leaving at the same time, I felt, no loophole for the trick to be turned on me, suggesting, intimating that maybe—maybe!—it might be worthwhile to ponder the possibility that I might volunteer for the army, in the uncertain interim leave college so as to peacefully think things over. And wasn’t I already a writer, after all, my senior thesis at prep school having, indeed, been a biography of Beethoven? Oh, yes, I was already a writer, needing to learn how words can make fools of those who set out to toy with them. Meaning’s not meant to be the plaything of understanding. The trick was promptly and fatefully turned, while I’d thought myself an ingenuous young fellow out of some story by Thomas Mann, a Tonio Kröger-to-be.

Mom and Dad wrote by return mail, approving and praising my manly decision and idealistic self-sacrifice at this time of peril for our homeland. So I had unwittingly made ready...

Customer Reviews

An excellent account of a gay soldier's odyssey through World War II.
Too much emphasis on too many clever words and artful expressions that overrode the intimacy of the story itself.
I made it through 20% of the book on my kindle and just had to put it down and chaulk it up to experience.
Kenneth J. Mcguire

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Jon Hunt on May 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is evident in the first few pages of "My Queer War" that this autobiographical story by James Lord is going to be terrific and that said, it never, ever disappoints. The vagaries of war, compounded by the uncertainty of a homosexual serving in the ranks of the United States armed forces make for a fine book, indeed.

This aspect of war is rarely related and that it is done so here, by a supremely able raconteur, is telling. Lord writes with a whimsical, extensive narrative and what might appear at first to be only a collection of sexual vignettes, "My Queer War" easily blossoms into a full-throated account of Mr. Lord, a self-described pain-in the-(miltary's)ass, as he is assigned and reassigned to intelligence posts across western Europe. Along the way he has his romantic encounters, which he depicts with absolute necessary color.

One of the finest chapters in the book involves his friendly relationship with an English housewife and her twin boys. It is about as good as this book gets, which I mean in the best possible way. That Pvt. Lord weasels his way into meeting Picasso and Gertrude Stein is icing on the written cake.

"My Queer War" succeeds on every level and it does give one pause to think about the state of affairs in the American military regarding homosexuality today. James Lord may have not been the finest or bravest soldier ever to serve, but his contributions to the war, brought home by his remarkable book, are breathtaking. It would have been nice to have met him.
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28 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Kenneth J. Mcguire on August 16, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I was very disturbed upon ordering this book because of the many good reviews. I found the complete opposite to be true of the favorable reviews. Here is a sample paragraph showing the wordiness of the author:

" The alternative raison d"ete of Reno, gambling, also existed outside of our purview. I was humdrum indifferent to losing my parents" admittedly unearned money for the sake of tawdry tautological thrills, albeit deaf and dumb and blindly imprudent when, if ever, risk lay like fata morgana upon the emotional horizon".

This is just one example of the many long winded paragraphs throughout this book.

I love great literature, but I felt that this author was trying way too hard to impress the reader with his extensive vocabulary. I made it through 20% of the book on my kindle and just had to put it down and chaulk it up to experience. I definitely would not recommend this book to anyone.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By J. Faulk on September 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover
My experience of James Lord's writing comes from his "Plausible Portraits" (2003) and "Six Exceptional Women" (1994): his writing is clean, transparent, gentlemanly. Since the "My Queer War" product page has the Look Inside feature, I could read Chapter 1 and the Epilogue: the writing style is absolutely unrecognizable as Lord's; the text seems to be a "first novel" expressed in the narrator's immature voice, like that of Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye."

Lord probably kept a journal (as he did in later years) during his Army service. He may even have tried fictionizing the material during his prolonged attempts to write novels. It took him a long time to realize that nonfiction was his forte, and therein when he wrote about notable people, he was very revelatory about himself, so the three volumes could be described as his Memoirs. But to call "My Queer War" volume 4 of his Memoirs is really jarring: it is, I repeat, an autobiographical, lurid novel.

James Lord died at 86 of a heart attack on August 23, 2009, having just completed (the first draft?, ask I) of "My Queer War" (says The NY Times obit). FS&G announced publication for June 2010, but then advanced the date to April 27, 2010. To what extent Lord's adopted son/companion or the publisher may have manipulated the project, we do not know. In any case, it's strange that Lord should have implemented such a book at the end of his life: he didn't need the money, and the thing certainly doesn't add to his reputation. Still, this "novel" may appeal to gays, and to other readers who can accept that it is not just turgidly written, but a character-monologue like that of Salinger's Caulfield.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Richard A. Jenkins on August 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Lord's book recreates the world of a naive and timid young man, protected from worldly experience by modest privilege as he comes to terms with his sexuality and the realities of the world during WWII. Lord comes across as a low key character who tends to fly under others' radar, barely concealing his ineptitude in many of life's basic tasks. In many ways, this allows other people and events to take the foreground and give his story more depth. It's clear that Lord had a relatively easy war and suffered real guilt when his brother died in the heavy combat of the Pacific War. Instead, Lord spent his time stateside or in mopping-up operations in Europe. This enabled him to explore Paris, have encounters with the famous and often enjoy the privileged life of rear echelon military intelligence. Lord provides a narrative of experiences I'd only heard about in small pieces. It becomes clear that being gay during the war led to certain vulnerabilities, although there also was an underground of fellow soldiers who could provide some support, protection and, occasionally, career advancement. From all of this, Lord emerges as someone different from the shy boy who begins the story. Unfortunately for the reader, the book is leaden in places with wordy, verbose descriptions and fairly archaic slang. Lord died before its publication, so one can only speculate as to whether the result is a "hands off" approach from an editor or literary executor, or really the book Lord wanted. With better editing, this easily could have been a five star book.
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