Arts » Books

Mopping Maupin

by Tim Pfaff
Sunday Mar 11, 2018

I was well into Joseph Cassara's "The House of Impossible Beauties" (Ecco/Harper Collins) before I could identify what reading it reminded me of: Armistead Maupin's early "Tales of the City." Don't get me wrong, Cassara is the vastly superior writer, and "House" is 50 miles deeper than "Tales," which by comparison is more of a daily-newspaper cartoon. But like "Tales," "House" has a distinctive gallop, a stride, not a word too many nor a word too few, every character indelible from the first stroke of the artist's pen.

Back when I was scarfing down Armie's columns in the Muni cars they plunged into rapt passenger silence weekday mornings, we were living where the story was set, looking out the scratched windows after a sentence that made us laugh or cry to see the city Maupin vividly evoked with a minimum of descriptors. No such sentimentality colored my reading of "Impossible Beauties," which is more 1980s and 90s Nuevo York, Rican and trans.

But Cassara's voice, so pitch-perfect that you don't think of it as authorial because you're living a story not reading one, recreates that scene as if it too had been an alternative home, despite the fact that Cassara's too young to have participated. The writing is direct, fluid and so sure of itself that it drops Spanish, including slang, untranslated and unitalicized in both narrative and dialogue, smack into the middle of its hard-working English sentences so deftly it's a snap to suss out the meanings. You just get it, which makes you feel intimately part of the scene, not an eavesdropper. It's prose-on-the-page ventriloquism at its most involving.

"House" bustles with incident, telling you just the things you want to know about this ad-hoc family of a half-dozen central characters. Their lives are all about finding self-respect, creating real family, and getting as close to love as circumstances allow. Such are the book's themes.

Cassara's nearly picaresque tales are chock-full of the business of doing drag (occasionally "mopping" luxury clothes from Saks), becoming gay and being trans in all its stages, becoming savvy prostitutes (skills honed about not getting injured or killed by johns) and being out with their emotions and extravagantly expressive with their speech. It's unbridled recklessness with a point.

It's also stick-to-the-ribs window-shopping into a microworld. Drawn on the haven created by a historical New York "house mother," Angie Xtravaganza (a down-at-the-heels but real-life Anna Madrigal), the so-named "House" of the title is a ramshackle flat. It's a teeming haven to a revolving door of characters, snared into its safety in ways that ultimately make them fledge or flee.

Cassara makes you one of the girls. The public events are the "balls," drag cotillions that radically redefined the quaint notion of coming out. "Paris Is Burning" smolders in the background of this novel, about which there's nothing remotely derivative.

Where "Tales" winked at gay sexual shenanigans, "House" dives deep into the cruising (some of it terrifying, some of it belly-laugh funny), the fabric, the frocks, the soliciting, the dangers, the drugs, the sordidness offset by the transitory enchantments of the urban rooftop - and the onset and devastation of AIDS.

Almost exactly at the halfway point, the note of defiant merriment sours into dark tragedy. In a climate in which gay boys are already dropping like flies, a coked-out Venus, disobediently florid even among her fellow floridians, gets strangled turning a desperate, unlucky trick.

Juanito finally gets a trip back to "the Island" to see his runaway Papi and ends up getting whipped with a belt by the old man seething over his son's effeminacy and, we later learn, routinely fucked by his old man. Juanito and his all-but-forbidden boyfriend Daniel strike out on their own, to the sounds of this from Cassara:

"Ain't nothing had nothing on them. They were louder than love. Louder than love because damn, love ain't no low drumbeat. Love was so loud, they couldn't even hear it. Only see it, like light - flashing forward and giving not a single fuck for what stood in its way. There they were, he and his man, hand in hand, so loud you could only see them in a flash."

It's Milton in a post-lapsarian Eden under the scourge of new plagues. While there's a love duet as long as the one in "Tristan," the downward trajectory from there is vertiginous, savage, and excruciatingly ineluctable. What love survives is yours for the characters.

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