In which I review Faggots, Larry Kramer’s 1978 satire of the raucous and debauched 1970s gay scene in New York City.
What it’s about: New York City, the late 1970s. 39 year-old screenwriter Fred Lemish is unhappily in love with Dinky Adams, a handsome architect who is unwilling to commit to a monogamous relationship. Dinky answers an advertisement for a paid companion placed by the wealthy businessman Irving Slough, who takes him to Europe. Fred consoles himself with casual sex at the Everhard Baths and daily gym sessions, and tries to convince tycoon Abe Bronstein to finance his script for a gay love story. Meanwhile, Abe’s son Richard (“Boo Boo”), a closeted gay man, plots to stage his own kidnapping to extort money from Abe, assisted by his 15 year-old nephew Wyatt, a well-known hustler. Timmy Purvis, a handsome 16 year-old, arrives in New York and is spotted by talent scouts for a low-budget porn agency. He is brought to an orgy and has sex with several men, including his hero Duncan “Winnie” Heinz, famous as the “Winston Man” cigarette model. On the same night, Dinky returns from Europe, and reconciles with Fred. All the characters converge at the Everhard Baths, where Timmy is picked up by Randy Dildough, an entertainment mogul who promises to make him the next James Dean. A fire starts in which seven “brothers” die, including drag queen Patty and her newlywed partner Juanito. Later that evening, the police raid a leather bar nicknamed The Pits during an S&M sex show, where Timmy has been hung from the ceiling and whipped. Fred and Dinky spend the night together, though Dinky is unable to get aroused by vanilla sex. Fred wakes up alone and ransacks Dinky’s apartment, finding his collection of fetish-wear, and letters from Dinky’s clients. He debates whether to give Dinky up, but resolves to try and join in with his interest in S&M. The characters meet at the drug-fuelled opening of a new nightclub, The Toilet Bowl. Abe brings his first wife Ephra, who discovers her lesbian attraction to the model Nancellen Richtofen. A heavily drugged Boo-Boo also attends, and has sex with his nephew Wyatt. Winnie Heinz, high on angel dust, falls to his death after imagining he can fly. Fred witnesses Dinky performing in an S&M show, and returns home in disgust, posting a vindictive break-up letter on Dinky’s front door. All the characters flock to Fire Island for Memorial Day Weekend, the start of the summer party season. Hans throws a lavish party in honour of Timmy, who has become the new Winston Man. Randy is seduced by Dordogna, a fashion designer who is attracted to gay men, while Ephra gives into her lesbian desires with Nancellen. The characters converge at a Nazi-themed sex show at which Dinky takes part in a fisting show. Abe finds Boo-Boo who has hidden himself in a coffin, and they fight each other in front of a cheering crowd, who assume it is another sex show. Dinky reappears and asks Fred to have sex with him. Fred refuses, making the painful decision to leave Dinky behind and “go out into the world and try to live with a bit of pride“. The novel ends with a vision of Fred’s friends sitting on the beach watching the sunrise and murmuring “I Love You” to each other. Fred silently bids them farewell and wishes himself a happy 40th birthday.
Why it’s a classic: Published in 1978 to a storm of controversy, Faggots was one of the most infamous novels of its time, a giant glitter-smeared Fuck You to the gay community it satirised so ruthlessly. In the ten years since the Stonewall Riots, which gave birth to the modern gay rights movement, New York had become a Mecca for thousands of gay men (or as Kramer puts it, less attractively, “the Faggot Capital of the World“), who were finally enjoying a period of visibility and relative freedom. Kramer hurled a hand grenade onto the dance floor, portraying the gay scene as Dante portrayed the Circles of Hell, a neverending carousel of soulless hook-ups, drug addiction, violent and abusive sex, and gay men as mindless hedonists teetering on the brink of self-destruction.
Intriguingly, Faggots was released in the same year as two very novels about the gay scene – Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance, which portrayed the same milieu of gay New York but with a gentler, melancholic tone, and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a joyful and life-affirming chronicle about gay and straight characters who find their spiritual home in San Francisco. Whereas Holleran’s and Maupin’s books were immediately praised, Faggots became one of the most reviled books of the year. Mainstream American media largely ignored it, or dismissed it as further confirmation of homosexuality as a sick perversion. The gay community were horrified by what they saw as a cynical attack on their newly-won freedoms and a gross misrepresentation of gay men as lonely and self-destructive. Kramer was labelled a self-loathing Puritan and a traitor to his own kind. It still became a bestseller and achieved a tawdry kind of notoriety, as readers speculated who were the real-life models for Kramer’s merciless caricatures.
What happened next is even more interesting, and nearly unparalleled in the history of satire. Within three years of its publication, New York was in the grip of the AIDS epidemic. The dire predictions in Faggots about the devastation caused by a life of hedonism had come true, in the most horrific way. To his immense credit, Kramer didn’t say “I told you so” (well, not very often) and flew into action, setting up the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to support AIDS patients, and calling out the Reagan administration for its shameful failure to respond to the epidemic. Something of the articulate rage of Faggots found its way into The Normal Heart, his 1985 play set in the early days of the epidemic. In theatre, Kramer found the right medium for his scrappy, combative social commentary, and – finally – an audience who were open and receptive to his vision. Both works now exist as social documents – bookends from either side of a public health crisis that created huge suffering, but in which a generation of gay men, like Fred, came painfully of age: “You taught me things I needed to know: Try to stop being naive. Try to grow up. Try to make a commitment to adulthood.”
Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet fashioned from leather studs and a gleaming cock ring. Reading Faggots is an extraordinary, if often wearying experience. From the incendiary first line, “There are 3,556,596 faggots in the New York City area“, you know you’re in the hands of a writer who pulls no punches. Kramer’s intelligence and energy crackles through the pages like the jabs of a cattle prod – no detail of clothing or decor or setting is too minute to be unchronicled, references to Stendhal and Proust and Samuel Johnson pop up in descriptions of leather bars and club nights, and he’s raucously funny, dropping one-liners like his characters pop pills. “There he is,” he says of an orgy participant, “pierced against the wall by a gigantic black cock like some invoice impaled on a white man’s desk.” Later, “[E]veryone was looking at everyone else… much like you rummaged through the loose tomatoes at the Safeway to locate the one you liked the best.”
While reading Kramer, I was often reminded of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar – the same pitiless God’s-eye view, the same preening narrative ego, the same merciless dissection of his characters’ frailty and stupidity. As fun as it is to take in such bitchy insights, his characters are uninteresting by comparison, and tend to blend into each other. I think this is deliberate on Kramer’s part – he wants us to feel the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the gay scene, the interchangeability of sexual partners, the reducing of the body to a series of orifices and ejaculations, the boredom of a generation who’ve experienced everything and drift into extreme sex just for the novelty of it. Unfortunately for his readers, Kramer’s treatise on boredom and repetition is often boring and repetitive, even with the salacious fun of all those sexual circus adventures.
In the book’s final few pages, Fred’s friend Josie laments, “Summer after summer. Another repetition of a repetition. Weekends without number. All the same thing. Starting up all over again. Do I have the courage to leave it? …. To do what? … Why leave it? Why stay? … Toward what end?” It’s a lovely piece of writing, which sends a shiver up the spine of any contemporary reader – we know, unlike Josie (or even Kramer himself at that stage), the horrible end that this world unknowingly hurtled into. But after slogging through 360 exclamatory pages, these realisations feel both overboiled and underwhelming. I should have felt happier about Fred’s twelfth-hour resolution to grow up, but I didn’t, mainly because for much of the book he’d been a blathering idiot whom I was glad to be rid of. “Your journey now begins,” Fred says to himself. “Your work is now cut out for you.” But this isn’t really Fred – it’s Kramer, the novel’s sole repository of wisdom, addressing his readers, emboldening them to find “courage not to be a faggot just like all the others.”
So does Faggots have anything useful to teach us? Some of Kramer’s insights feel a bit dated and unduly harsh. An interest in S&M doesn’t necessarily stem from a broken childhood or repeated sexual rejection, not every gay man is enthralled by piss and fisting, and the jury is still out on whether monogamy works for relationships of any persuasion. In other ways, he’s still frightening relevant. His view of gay men as abandoned children, putting a glossy spin on the world to mask feelings of alienation, is consistent with the theories of contemporary gay psychologists like Alan Downs, author of The Velvet Rage. Fred’s final resolution, “to be my own Mom and Pop“, is (sadly) as true for gay men now as it was 40 years ago.
Leaving aside its social messaging, Faggots endures as a startling, often eye-watering example of the power of well-written satire, and a sometimes entertaining tour of the Hell we make for ourselves on earth. I’ll miss Larry Kramer, who died just last month, at the magisterial age of 84. We owe him a lot.
Quotable Quote: [E]very faggot, though I shall not use this word, considers his homosexuality as very special to him, in the sense of sacrosanct, like a pain which he has lived with a very long time. Thus it becomes a sacred pain, and one which is difficult to challenge on the one hand, or to share with another faggot on the other, whose comprehension of exactly the same pain would seem to make him the obvious choice of sharer, helpmate, lover, but which, in fact, makes him just the opposite: makes him a combatant in the same arena, fighting to see who is the victor over the same spoils—these spoils being the same Pandora’s Box of pain.”