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Going for the Laugh : For years, gay literature has been dominated by somber topics--coming out, AIDS. Now, both writers and readers are turning to humor.

March 13, 1995|MARY SUSAN HERCZOG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"At times like this, we need to laugh more than ever," says Mark Haile, an employee at A Different Light bookstore.

For a generation now, gay literature has been primarily a serious and somber business--first dominated by the anguish of coming out, and for the past decade by the tragedy of AIDS.

Not anymore.

"Most customers come in and say 'I want something funny,' " says Mark Simon, book buyer for A Different Light, Los Angeles' leading gay bookstore. "A humor book is one of our most common requests."

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\o7 Gilbert, a charming young man with a profound allergy toward employment, arranges a marriage with an immeasurably conniving female friend, in order to reap financial benefits from the presents their families will shower upon them. With the grudging help of Gilbert's hapless friend Philip, the scams swiftly pile up, leading to an extraordinarily outrageous climax.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 15, 1995 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Gay books--The name of one of the writers mentioned in the Monday Life & Style story on gay literature was misspelled. The author of "Object of My Affection" is Stephen McCauley.

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An undiscovered P.G. Wodehouse novel? While the boisterous epigram-riddled events might lead one to think so, it's really "Blue Heaven" by Joe Keenan, one of the most popular entries in the growing wave of gay comic fiction.

With pointedly wicked satire, zingy one-liners and absurd situations, gay comic fiction represents a revival of the classic comedy of manners, but with its own fresh and distinct twist.

Although the genre is part of a tradition that dates at least from Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, in the last couple of years it is experiencing a boom. Authors Keenan, Robert Rodi ("Fag Hag," "Closet Case"), Paul Rudnick ("I'll Take It"), Stephen McCalley ("Object of My Affection"), Robert Plunket ("Love Junkie"), David Sedaris ("Barrel Fever"), Christian McLaughlin ("Glamourpuss") and others are finding a strong audience with considerable potential to move well beyond the gay demographic.

While humor makes up a small fraction of the titles carried by A Different Light, it outsells the rest by a significant amount.

"Most books we sell five or six copies a year," says Simon. But in the past 16 months, Keenan's "Blue Heaven," for example, has sold more than 200 copies, while Rodi's "Closet Case" has topped 160.

"It is certainly one of the areas growing in publishing," says Peter Borland, the NAL/Dutton editor who handles Rodi and McLaughlin. Rodi in particular, he says, "has found a very loyal market--each book does better than the last, with 'Fag Hag' doing especially well in paperback. I expect Christian will do the same."

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What has prompted this revitalization? The most obvious explanation is that gay culture is badly in need of a laugh.

"In hard times," Keenan says, "when people are bombarded by tragedy, they tend to look to comic relief to take their minds off something so horribly persistent in their lives. It's what the film musicals of the '30s were to the Depression."

Some stress that the comic novel never really went away--it just took a nap.

"Comedy was the dominant form of gay expression until AIDS," says Keith Kahla, editor of the Stonewall Inn line from St. Martin's Press. "The angst- ridden fiction of the '80s was a sidetrack."

Says Sedaris: "I think (authors) went through a period where they were pretty much told they had to write about AIDS."

The immeasurable tragedy of the disease produced a tremendous, and much-needed, body of work, but "it does get heavy after awhile," says John Karle, a publicist at St. Martin's. Karle admits to reading dramatic works not so much because he likes them, but because "it's like eating right--it's something you do because it's good for you and helps to keep a balanced perspective."

Rodi believes that gay culture, after a grim decade and a half, is finally ready to be irreverent about itself.

"After Stonewall (the 1969 battle between gays and the New York Police that ignited the gay pride movement), there was a movement to make homosexuality respectable," he says. "It was an issue, and issues are always serious. But now we are at the point where we are past the saintly icon."

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Readers, too, are ready for a change of pace.

"Gays are tired of AIDS and coming-out dramas," says Rudnick. "What they are looking for is variety, the diversity of gay life. Coming-out dramas are like a gay 'Catcher in the Rye' syndrome. It's very effective, but then what happens? It's very important, but it's not the whole journey."

As an editor, Kahla agrees: "I don't want to see another coming-out piece unless it's brilliant ."

"The closet scene became trivial and obscene," Rudnick says. "People are sick and dying--and you are worried about what your neighbor thinks?"

Rudnick also believes that, cliches aside, oppression is a great humor developer. "Being able to entertain yourself is a good idea when there are people looking to beat you up."

"I never chose to write comedy," he says. "That's just the way it came out."

Even though each author began writing for different reasons, each ultimately came to the same conclusion: Funny is universal. Funny is versatile. And, frankly, funny is what they were best at.

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