The most important detail on the cover of Sky Gilbert's Sad Old Faggot is the words, written in a tasteful pink, "a novel." The publisher calls Sad Old Faggot "a daring foray into the groundbreaking genre of autobiographical fiction." That is a marketing tool. They probably don't know what to label Sad Old Faggot but "a novel" is certainly closer, though also inaccurate, than "autobiographical fiction."
Two other things to consider, not disclaimers or advice but perhaps spoilers, before sampling Sad Old Faggot's many pleasures:
1) Gilbert also called his plays The Terrible Parents and To Sky Gilbert at 60, experiments in autobiographical fiction. Both placed the accent on fiction with the autobiographical aspect was mined for dramatics and irony. Building on a nugget of remembered truth, adds a veracity to the most outrageous and theatrical of proceedings.
2) At the book launch for Sad Old Faggot, when I told Gilbert I was looking forward to reading the book, he quipped that he thought I would enjoy it, it was a silly little comedy he had tossed together.
Sad Old Faggot presents itself as the next chapter in Gilbert's autobiography, with Ejaculations from the Charm Factory posited as Volume I. He proceeds to trash his self-censorship in writing Ejaculations, and rhymes off some of the dirt - naming names - that he would have included if not for lawyers (notably Richard Ouzounian's). He hints that it will all be presented just a few pages on. That is the first time that the Sad Old Faggot is a cocktease.
Gilbert has not written an autobiography but rather a vicious satire on gay men of a certain age and our world view. He just happens to have culled many of the events, opinions, descriptions and characterizations from Sky Gilbert's life. The protagonist is a bitter old queen of a curmudgeon who rants about whatever earns his ire. Sometimes he is Oscar Wilde-witty, sometimes he uses a sledgehammer when a droll flyswatter would have been more devastating. And because it is 'fiction,' there is no need for even the most cursory facts, evidence or considered opinion, like those that attempt to add credibility to even the most shallow of celebrity rehabilitation memoirs.
There are thought-provoking passages that leap off the page: an analysis of why homophobia has hindered Gilbert's career is spot on. Gilbert, the real playwright and the Sky Gilbert of Sad Old Faggot, has a huge body of work that ranges from the transcendent to the intriguing to the brave attempt. But his work has always been fabulous, engaging and boundary pushing, yet, as the protagonist notes, there has been very little respect or financial reward. The Gilberts explain that homophobia specifically as a fear of gay sex, and Gilberts' work has always been about gay sex. And filled with gay sex.
The sex that Sad Old Faggot is full of is the best writing in the book. It is as if he took the homophobia as a direct challenge and decided to be a virtuosic, to shove it down the throats and ease it up the asses of the homophobic. The sex, and the analysis of it, is gloriously gay, insightful, sometimes comic, sometimes squirm-inducing painful, but always brutally honest. Except when it isn't. The chapter "My Dick" cuts to the heart of the gay, perhaps the male, experience and places an obsession with cock at the centre of the Gilberts' world view. Except it's not quite accurate. I've seen Gilbert's cock (not in a sexual context, we both used to enjoy sunbathing nude in the days when Central Spa was a Village oasis) and his self-deprecating (but very funny) description and analysis is a negative exaggeration of reality.
As well as being another clue that Sad Old Faggot is a cocktease and not to be trusted, the penis size, its capabilities, and all the sexual encounters, illustrate just how valuable autobiographical fiction can be. Gilbert is going for an emotional truth, a universality from the very very specific but not necessarily honest, and in this case he nails it. It is some brave bravura bit writing.
Other sections and Sad Old Faggot overall is more uneven. For every telling anecdote, there is one that ambles nowhere or in which the point eludes. The final quarter where Gilbert becomes deludedly obsessed with the possibility that author/sex symbol Tom Tryon is his biological father turns into a farce that lacks the effervescence to make it flow (odd because the rest of Sad Old Faggot, aside from the occasional colloquial authorial intrusion, uses words with a casual grace that makes each sentence an addictive joy). It is also disconcerting, but politically astute, that the character who has railed against homophobia begins spewing out internalized homophobia in some rather nasty ways without appearing to be aware of the contradiction.
Following that action film parody with a long explanation, digs at self-help and relationships, and an attempt to tie together what is a shaggy dog satire, makes for a disappointing conclusion. Fortunately getting there is not only worthwhile but also entertaining. Gilbert and the sad old faggot have more ideas, lustful impulses, guilt and things that outrage them, than can quite be contained between two covers. It is as if he took his blog (which should be visited at skygilbert.blogspot.ca) where he is free to express, dissect or vivisect whatever comes to mind, and fed it into a curatorial blender before preserving it in a satirical overflowing mould.
Sad Old Faggot is not really a novel, not just a silly little comedy, and it certainly isn't the autobiography Gilbert deserves, but it is an exhilarating experiment that rewards the reader with laughter, anger, and a sense of just how important the Gilberts' work is.