So I moved to San Francisco to get into Kevin Killian’s pants. Literarily, not literally; although I’m not going to rule out any possibilities. I just think it’s important to note early on here that the sepiment between going to bed with someone’s book and going to bed with someone’s flesh is not always discernible. (Strange the metonymy through which we refer to the author’s opera as a “body” of work.) Let’s face it, Felice Picano has given me more than a few erections and I’ve never even met him. (Hell, I’ve even come with E. L. Doctorow, though I was later filled with regret.) In this age of phone sex, cybersex, latex, j. o. parties and voyeurism, when we can have complex relationships with men we’ve never even touched, how can we distinguish between our lovers and our writers?
San Francisco was my first steady boyfriend; I flitted in and out of his arms like the birds that (almost unnaturally) adored the saint for whom the city is named. I could not commit. I longed to be near him, but at the same time I maintained a safe distance: Petaluma, Santa Rosa, San Jose. I lived around the rim of the bay, not in the center. (Not that San Francisco is geographically the center of the bay, the city is really just another portion of the rim. Inexactness of metaphor. “Rim,” the word so carefully poorly chosen. I remember once a restaurant that advertised “Pacific Rim Cuisine” and I thought, “how long is that going to last?” Admit it, portions of the city’s charm are its basest acts. As San Franciscans, we rim the bay.) But I digress. San Francisco is the spiritual center, and like a child afraid of Santa Claus (another saint whose magnetism has a subtext of perverse sexuality) I hung just close enough to catch its seductive gaze (or gays); just far enough out of its grasp to avoid being caressed by it.
To complicate my feelings, AIDS began to inhabit San Francisco in the early 1980s, only a few years after I had discovered this sanctuary that allowed the safe expression of my sexual desires. The city seemed to be dying; I distanced myself emotionally, physically, spiritually. Well this seems rather simple, but I am attempting to explain in a short amount of space how I kept myself removed from San Francisco while I lived within shouting distance of it; then, I spent two years in Iowa, during which time I could only think of San Francisco. This brief summary conflates the subtle shifts that occurred in my life and therefore in my attitudes, but I can explain some of that elsewhere. But of this I am sure: if I hadn’t quite left my heart in San Francisco, at some point during my time in Iowa my heart eloped to San Francisco; and where the heart goes, the rest of the body (eventually) follows. I would rent movies like “So I Married an Axe Murderer” and “A View To a Kill” so that I could drink in the local photography. These movies were like porno for my displaced longing.
I must also note that the type of literature I was reading at that time had changed as well. In Iowa, I discovered that I was a Californian (an identity I had never owned before) and I thrust myself (yes, yes, yes) into the literature of my identity. Further, I was much more keenly aware of myself as a gay man (living in California, I had always been surrounded by gay men; but suddenly, I was once again the differenced participant, the outsider) and so I also thrust myself (more literally) into the literature of gay men. This is how it happens, then, that I picked up Kevin Killian (his books) and read and re-read work that I had passed on the street a hundred or so times before.
To further extend the importance of Kevin Killian to my situation at that moment, I should also note that on one of my return trips to California (before I had been completely parolled from Iowa) I re-met Kevin Killian the person at a reading at Minna Street gallery. Since I had been reading his work in Avec and in Men On Men, I felt more inclined to speak with him than I perhaps would have otherwise; and since I spoke with him, I was therefore inclined to read more of his writing than I had previously. This is the way it works for me, familiarity breeds familiarity (unless of course, I find someone a complete turn-off, either as a person or as a writer. I could list some of those people here, but my internal bitch seems to be momentarily asleep).
“The dead of winter,” is a phrase that unfortunately has become cliché. In Iowa, winter was for me the season of the dead. Reading Kevin Killian’s Shy and Bedrooms Have Windows kept the dead away from me—the apparitions who came to me at night, just as they have visited so many queer men these past two decades. “There were nights when he felt the recent dead getting into bed, climbing over him as if they had just come from the shower.” (Allen Barnett). “Each ghost has a hunger brought to me for his own fulfilling” (Aaron Shurin). My dictionary says that hell is a netherworld where the dead continue to exist. Iowa hell. Where could I hide from the shades of my past? Only by replacing my story with someone else’s could I escape, as if trading one soul for another. I bartered with my own memory—stories, people, boyflesh—Kevin Killian’s books replaced my dead with significant fictional others.
We can intellectualize the hell out of any writing; I know, I’ve done it. But the truth is that what really matters is how we respond to the work in the body. “Ladies voices give pleasure” (Stein). “I dilate you with tremendous breath, I buoy you up” (Whitman). “Why do we have to exhume all this paraphernalia when we could just walk forthrightly into a dark closet and read something.” (Steve Benson). In the bed, in the dead, in the closet that was Iowa, I took Kevin Killian into my body. Hot. My body giggled. My body wept. My body came. Doesn’t the queer writer know the flush in his cheek from reading something true about himself. Doesn’t the lesbian poet know the delight her tongue feels repeating words that have secret meanings, cow, jelly, belly. Pull back the covers and set your body free. Live.
As a queer spectator, I would be lying to say that I ignore a writer’s erotic appeal. Once, when I was reviewing a book by Peter Gizzi, I opened with Frank O’Hara’s famous dictum from his essay on personism: “As for measure, and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.” I chose this quote because it described Gizzi’s common sense approach to the line and because the poetry was informed by an obvious connection to O’Hara and to the New York school. But I was also aware that my attention was first drawn to Gizzi’s poetry because of the picture of him on the back of the book, a portrait of the artist as trade: rough, brooding, and (was this just me?) sexually available. “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” (Oscar Wilde). Yes, I judged Kevin Killian’s books by their covers.
The binding of Kevin Killian’s first published novel, Shy, looks suspiciously similar to those anthologies from Boyd MacDonald’s Straight to Hell: True Homosexual Encounters: Lust, Meat, Cream… Shy? Is this a trick? Speaking of “tricks,” the cover is a photo of a shirtless young man, hand on hip, bare feet crossed at the ankle, leaning against the refrigerator in a bare apartment and gazing out the window. We view him from behind—his vulnerable naked shoulders, his full, firm ass. He is available. The space between him and the window is filled by a pink bookmark with rough edges, on which is printed “Shy” and “a novel by Kevin Killian.” The title draws us into the space between the young man and the window like a come on. Trick. “Deceiving to the eye,” says Sandy Dennis in “Come Back to the Five and Dime…” Trick.
As Shy opens, Kevin Killian, a supplemental character in his own novel, shuts the refrigerator door to extinguish what light there is in his flat; he moves toward the window to see who’s moving into the apartment downstairs. Is Kevin Killian that same boy gazing out the window on the cover of the book? Throughout the novel, Kevin Killian the character is eavesdropping, spying through windows, mining the other characters for information; using them for sex. In turn, the other characters overhear Kevin Killian pounding on his typewriter into the night, ostensibly writing a book about Mark McAndrew, a “dead boy.” Alas (and fortunately), that book does not get written. Instead, the characters in the novel are transformed into… well… characters in a novel. Trading the dead for the living, trading the real for the fictive. Sleight of hand performed by Kevin Killian, secret hero of his own novel. Trick.
In his second novel, Bedrooms Have Windows, Kevin Killian is once again a character, though this time more prominently featured by Kevin Killian the author. Bedrooms is the story of Kevin Killian’s friendship with George Grey, the affable, sexy boy who teaches Kevin Killian how to be a writer. Again, from the front cover on, Kevin Killian leads us on a voyeuristic journey, peering through windows. That the novel is often categorized as “memoirs” is both accurate and inaccurate. Although Kevin Killian mines his life for material, the rubric “memoirs” is reductive, disallowing the transformative work that makes a novel from facts. As if autobiography is not a way of fictionalizing.
The history of queer literature in the modern era, after all (that is, beginning with the historical point at which heterosexuality and homosexuality begin to be socially differentiated as sexual orientations—a whole nother subject that could be written about and probably has) is resplendent with examples of fictions which are formed from queer writers’ own lives. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Picano’s Ambidextrous (subtitled “a memoir in the form of a novel”), Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Dorothy Allison’s Trash. Queer writers working with what is available to them as story. Wearing the drag of fiction. Or the drag of life. Those who know what to look for can spot the performer beneath the slap. Adam’s apple.
Oh sure, perhaps Roland Barthes was oversimplifying the condition of story when he asked, “after the Oedipus complex and marriage, what is there left for us to tell?” But Barthes recognized beneath that generalization the fundamental heterosexuality of classical plots. And yes, queer authors have co-opted these plots a-plenty, but they have done so to the exclusion of (or marginalization of) queer lives. How can I write a tale that ends in marriage (the classical notion of comedy) in a society where marriage is not available to me? And how can I write the tragedy of a queer hero without the hero’s queerness being perceived as the source of tragedy?
I do not wish to simply categorize—certainly, queer writers have been more inventive with queer characters than merely to present their own lives as fictions. But, I pursue this line of argument to show that autobiographical fiction is a queer genre; and, even though we have reached out into all manner of story—from Jean Genet to Radcliffe Hall to Sapphire—we own the autobiographical as a tradition, and we revisit the form as an expression of cultural identity.
In Little Men, Killian presents us with his own self-interview, “Who is Kevin Killian,” in which he coyly asks himself questions about his shifting and subversive sexual identity. As interviewer he is bi-curious; as interviewee he is evasive and disinterested, as if sexuality could not be any more important than what he had for breakfast. But this cat-and-mouse game around the bed is precisely where Killian wants us—author as exhibitionist.
Just as Killian is changing roles and identities in his work (posing as Ryan O’Neal in one of his won plays; remembering in Little Men how his mother would chide him that he’d never get anywhere if he continued to act like Audrey Hepburn), he is manipulating the reader (with all of the sexual connotations inherent in that little phrase) into new roles and new identities. Perhaps this is in the end the most seductive quality of his fictions—that we can be sexually various, amorphous and as fragmented in our selves as Sally Field in the made-for-tv movie “Sybil” (a particularly Killianesque simile, that one). Oh, he is a dark master of the word, Kevin Killian, an inviting bridegroom and a voyeur who’ll let us play in his fictions until we’re spent. Trick.
Originally published in Boomerang. Copyright © by D. A. Powell. Reprinted with the permission of the poet.