Monday, December 29, 2008

Being gay was dangerous ... The Mayor of Castro Street

Here's a book that's topical right now, because there's a major movie coming along ... it's also a very good book in its own right! The title tells all: it's the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay political figure in the US of A, who was shot dead by a rival political candidate, in 1978.

Correspondingly, Randy Shilts was the first openly gay journalist to make a place and name for himself in the US press (and have the nerve to write gay stories). He worked in San Francisco for The Chronicle (it took him six years to get hired on in a homophobic industry!) and from what I've read, he had known Harvey Milk personally.

So, no surprise that RS should have made the biography of this amazing, milestone figure his debut work. The book is a very good read. The style is practically what we think of today as "docudrama." Almost like a novel in large patches. It's like a great collection of dramatized "bites of life," that build up to make an overall picture of Harvey Milk in episodic installments. The writing style is very journalistic -- which works well, in the context of the book. I found the methodical, meticulous, leave-nothing-out approach very satisfying.

You could wish wholeheartedly that RS had written more books, but he only did three. He was an AIDS victim and passed away in 1994 at a tragically young age. Mayor... is the first of his books, and you can actually tell. The style still has to settle down a bit! Maybe he could have done with a bit of polish here and there. But actually I'd slap the editing hands away and tell people to "leave off," don't mess it about, because there's also a candidness about it that's accentuated by the less-than-perfect style. (You could say it was the literary counterpart to the always-moving, jiggly camera work you see on modern tv shows, where the director's trying to make his million-dollar show look like it was shot on a handheld camcorder like Blair Witch ... Hollywood currently believes this effect makes footage look "real" and "immediate" and "exciting." Well, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the damn' gander! In the literary world, editors need to learn when to leave well alone and let the "reality" and "immediacy" of slightly rough writing speak for itself. I'll probably get beat up for saying that...)

Back to the book! Mayor... is a truly marvelous portrait of time and place and people. The book was put out by Saint Martin's Press in 1982, and then fell out of print for eons. It was reprinted just a few months ago (August or September of '08) also by SMP, as a partnership for the upcoming movie. I read a borrowed copy back in the late 1980s, and just got the new edition. I read it again, and was just as impressed this time around. Yet...

The book is a strange mixture (not RS's fault) of the contemporary and the historical. Hard to define. You swing back and forth like a pendulum while reading, when "this" strikes a chord as being contemporary, then "that" strikes another chord as being a historical note, and you realize how much has changed in the world since the era of the book.

30 years later it seems so totally weird that somebody like Dan White, who had once been a policeman, could haul off and shoot a guy for being gay and having the audacity to run for public office. But it happened. It was a real event. Nobody made this up. The first thing that hits you as being "out of the past" is the weirdness of the fact this actually happened. (A few years earlier, Patricia Nell Warren had written of the assassination of a gay athlete in The Front Runner ... which shows you a little bit about what the state of things was like in the USA at the time. Thank heavens things changed.)

The second thing that hits you when you read Mayor... is even more sad. AIDS wasn't an issue in 1978 when Harvey Milk was killed. Mr. Milk would never have even heard the word. He represented the gay and lesbian community for one of the cities that was about to be hit the hardest. He could probably have made an incredible difference in the next thirty years, using his influence to get funding for research and support -- and public AIDS education. A lot of lives could have been saved. And Randy Shilts's life could have been one of them.

Don't let me give you the impression that Mayor... is a sad book, because it's not. It's vigorous and witty, clever and insightful. Does it have a downside? Yes and no. Yes, if you're one of those readers that needs a footnoted citation for every syllable that comes out of someone's mouth. You're not absolutely sure where "fact" blurs into "faction" (can't say fiction ... would have to be a cross between the two, with RS as the stable master). For myself, I'm not that all-fired bothered, because somebody who knew Harvey Milk personally (and did as much research as Randy Shilts did, to bring this book together) would know the truth of things better than anybody else. I'm prepared to take what RS writes on trust.

Great book -- very timely, with the movie coming out and also with the Proposition 8 travesty taking place in the same location. California again! Harvey and Randy are up there somewhere, shaking their heads over us. Highly recommended. AG's rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Here's Randy Shilts's page at Wiki:

And you cam get great deals on The Mayor of Castro Street at Amazon right now: