The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights
BY DREW ROWSOME
The greatest joy of being a journalist, is having things that I would have been unlikely to discover on my own, drawn to my attention. And when the recommendation comes from as esteemed a source as the intellectual bitch goddess RM Vaughan (Compared to Hitler, Bright Eyed) . . . The title of the book, The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights, appealed instantly. The witty, chatty note from the author, Redfern Jon Barrett, also bode well. A bit of preliminary research ended when the words "doctorate in queer literature" stopped me in my tracks. Fortunately it was counterbalanced by photos revealing Barrett to be a cute ginger with a sense of humour. (It is the summer and my tastes in reading tend to be even shallower than usual though, after you read The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights, it is worth checking out Barrett's essay "Disability as Drag" from the collection Drag Noir).
The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights is a mass of contradictions, its structure conceptually echoing the messy realities of love and sex. It plays out with the heightened passions of a soap opera (particularly the lovable/annoying explicitly gay character Rutti) but somehow that makes the characters and their dilemmas more believable and grounded. The plot teases momentous events but they are mere distractions: the minutiae of life is where the real action lies. The story appears to meander but it is actually carefully orchestrated to make a specific point. The entire book is quite carefully constructed to give a faux feel of casualness - it is quite masterful.
Each of the main characters get sections told in their distinctive voices. The sections overlap, shedding new insight or conflicting information on the events and emotions. This monologues are occasionally interrupted by flash forwards into the far future which is oddly sci-fi at first but as the stories fold together, becomes emotionally devastating. All of the characters are dealing with identities of gender, sexual attraction and identity, class and race, and Barrett posits a future where some issues are utopianly solved and some are still lingering.
Each character takes centrestage and becomes the protagonist, not only in their designated first person sections, but throughout. It takes real skill to make this reader identify with a straight woman, a straight man, a drag queen, a lesbian, and their fluctuating identities, all sometimes within a single chapter. Most importantly, it made me examine my own identities and question the strictures that I have built around them.
The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights is set in Wales, in a town failing economically. The characters' lives are not glamorous but, most of us having been there, feel tangible and naturalistic. It helps that Barrett has a good eye for the telling detail, the comic circumstance, and the way words are spoken or not expressed. Rutti speaks in an agonizingly politically correct manner - "zie" for he or she, "hir" for her or him - that at first distracts and is off-putting, but then gives him a unique, distinctively mannered gay voice. And, typically for this deceptively simple book, the pronoun usage is a deliberate plot point that pulls the present into the future and makes Barrett's point, and the title, implicit.
From the moment I met - and I feel like I met these characters rather than just observed or was told about them - Caroline the bartender in a pub where the language is coarse but loving, I was hooked. I particularly enjoyed the sexual fluidity that was gently spun out and deeply rooted in all the characters. It was only after finishing the book (a not quite satisfactory finale aggravated by disappointment that it was over) that I returned to research mode and discovered that Barrett is a "polyamory rights campaigner." And lives in Berlin with his two partners. I'd been had. The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights is a piece of propaganda for a deviant lifestyle. No wonder I enjoyed it so much.