Madder Music, Stronger Wine
Dean Goodman (as Douglas Dean), Pleasure Readers/Phenix Publishers, 1969
Short-story collections appear to have been a rarity in gay adult publishing. I asked William Maltese, the prolific author of a wide range of largely gay-oriented fiction starting in the 1970s and continuing to the present, for his thoughts and he concurred. He added, “Frankly, I found it just as easy to write a whole novel as a bunch of short stories” and “avoided doing the latter whenever I could.”
I suspect the scarcity reflected the fact that there were few literary magazines, the premiere format for short-form fiction, open to gay-related short stories that fell outside the “problem” category, and still fewer publishing imprints looking for an entire book’s worth of them. The bottom-line reason seems to be that they’re a harder sell than novels: Though they allow writers to explore devices like second-person narration, they’re less likely to hook readers with characters developed over hundreds of pages and, if readers really love the characters, sequels. “Short stories,” wrote literary science-fiction author J.G. Ballard (Crash, 1973), “are loose change in the treasury of fiction.” Put another way, feature films are novels, and long-form dramatic television series from The Fugitive (1963-1967) to Game of Thrones (2011-2019) are epic novels — lengthy examinations of people, places, mores and times — while short-story collections are snapshots. Madder Music, Stronger Wine comprises eight vignettes of gay life before the Stonewall Uprising propelled the gay-rights movement into mainstream public consciousness and showed LGBTQIA people far from cities with significant gay and/or counterculture communities (whose members were sometimes — though not always — allies) that they were not alone.
Dean Goodman, who wrote pseudonymously as Douglas Dean, was born in Heppner, Oregon, in 1920. Foremost a radio and stage actor, he was recognized as talented while still in high school and by 1938 was performing radio plays at the Seattle station KOMO; he later acted onstage with the Seattle Repertory Theater. Goodman studied in Hollywood under venerable Russian-born acting teaching Maria Ouspenskaya, perhaps best known to movie buffs for playing the elderly gypsy woman who solemnly eulogizes Lon Chaney Jr.’s unhappy lycanthrope in The Wolfman (1941), intoning, “The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end.” I’m sure I’m not the first to point out that this could just as easily be a eulogy for a gay man marginalized by the time and place into which he was born. In the 1940s, Dean was briefly married to Maria Riva, the only child of Hollywood legend Marlene Dietrich. And alongside such top-tier gay adult writer as Richard Amory, Dirk Vanden, Peter Tuesday Hughes, Phil Andros and Larry Townsend — all frustrated by the poor way they were compensated by largely straight publishers — floated the idea of founding a gay-owned adult publishing company. Sadly, it never got off the ground. He died in 2006 after a stellar career treaching drama at San Francisco State College, performing with the Actors Workshop, the American Conservatory Theatre and the Berkeley Repertory, appearing in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) and writing plays, novels and a memoir, Maria, Marlene, and Me: Intimate Recollections of a Life in Theatre and Film (Shadbolt Press, 1993).
Not surprisingly, his Madder Music, Stronger Wine is a striking collection of stories whose highlights include:
In “Madder Music,” a married man arranges an anonymous, out-of-town liaison with a local hustler through a politely jaded hotel clerk; the young man who turns up at the door turns out to be his estranged son. Suffice it to say the ensuing conversation is surpassingly awkward. Its titular partner, “Stronger Wine,” revolves around the Birthday Club. The members have all been friends since college and get together regularly, but birthdays are always special events. Pete, a.k.a. Petulia, who calls everyone by a feminized name — Carla for Carl, Loretta for rich host Larry , and Dinetta for Dino, which Dino loathes — apparently in equal parts because he still lives at home with his mother and 40-year-old spinster sister and in part because it isn’t even a real name. But mostly they hang out and gossip about stereotypically ‘70s gay things like Joan Crawford’s risqué reputation or the obvious (cue the eye roll) chemistry between Richard Burton’s Arthur and Robert Goulet’s Lancelot in Broadway’s Camelot — Goulet was a gay icon throughout the ‘60s. Dino’s 28th birthday party, however, turns out to be something else. Thrown by the wealthy and dissolute Larry, it begins with everyone stripping to their birthday suits and features naked waiters and go-go boys, followed by an S&M show that turns ugly.
“Love Lies Bleeding” is the name of both a drama-queen of a flower — it droops in languid clusters, and in Victorian floral symbolism stood for unrequited love — and the title of Elton John’s song on the same subject, back when he was pretending to be straight. Luisa comes home to find her husband in flagrante — and that’s not the half of it. “To come home and find your husband in bed with another woman is bad enough...,” she says. “[T]o come home and find your husband in bed with another man is a shock, to say the least. But to come home and find your husband in bed not only with just a man, but with a Negro man ... that is indescribable. And do not tell me, do not tell me that I’m prejudiced.” Right, she’s not racist and anyway, she’s also seeing a man who is not her husband. This is some Edward Albee-level mess — oh, and Luisa used to be Louis before sexual-reassignment surgery, so it’s officially a beyond-Albee mess. And yes, it’s all just jaded foreplay ... very Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962), kicked up a notch.
There are five other stories, but I’ll end with “Roll Me Over,” which uses the device of having the protagonist — an embarrassed young professor visiting a VD clinic and imagining scandalous headlines that embody his worst fears of being outed: POPULAR YOUNG PROF OBSERVED AT CITY VD CLINIC. Interestingly, it predates the similar boldface/capped headlines of Sonny Barker’s Vampire’s Kiss (1970): ATTORNEY CREATES COURTROOM UPROAR: Attempts to Try Case Wearing Balenciaga Gown. Both funny, yes, but in an oddly sophisticated way that foregrounds the day-to-day fear of violence and isolation that gay men tamped down daily so they could live their lives.
Madder Music, Stronger Wine is an impressive collection: psychologically complex and sharply attuned to the nuances of gay life in America during the early years of the gay-rights movement, when everything was possible but nothing was guaranteed.
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