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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

As Stereotypical as He Wanted to Be : A BOY NAMED PHYLLIS, A Suburban Memoir by Frank DeCaro; Viking $22.95, 219 pages

June 24, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Frank DeCaro's parents had had inklings--how many heterosexual teenage boys love white sales?--but his announcement that he was gay still had serious repercussions in 1980 in an Italian American enclave of Little Falls, N.J.

"Considering how awful my father could have been when I told him . . . he was terrific," says DeCaro, who went on to write "Frank's Place" for New York Newsday, the first gay humor column in a major U.S. newspaper. "On the other hand, he was terrible, considering how understanding he could have been.

"He was terrific in that he didn't disown me and tell all our relatives, 'Nostro figlio e morto'--'Our son is dead'--or withhold my college tuition payments . . . or send me in for that kind of anti-gay therapy where they show you pictures of Art Deco apartments and play Barbara Cook records and then shock you with a cattle prod.

"He was terrible in just how melodramatic he was. 'You mean all those kids who had tormented Frank in school were right all those years!?' he said. And then, later, in a fit of Dewar's-fueled anger: 'If I'd known you were going to be like this, I would have killed you at birth.' "

This is pretty much how DeCaro operates throughout this memoir of the absurdities of his growing-up years. He sinks in the needle, but then swabs the affected area with the Novocain of affection and nostalgia, and slaps on a brightly colored bandage of wit.

His father, Frank Sr., was "a real guy-guy--a hairy, nicotine-fueled, baseball-playing, linseed-oil-smelling, bowling-enthusiastic man." His mother, Marian, was "the fancy one" in the family, with a "weakness for faux Pucci-print dresses, auburn hair dye and black convertibles with red leather interiors." His 4-foot-tall grandmother lived in the basement, drinking beer and swearing pungently in Italian.

None had any sympathy for the kind of person DeCaro knew--from kindergarten on, he says--that he was destined to become: "a major homosexual."

"Most kids lived their childhood lives as if they were episodes of 'Leave It to Beaver' or 'The Brady Bunch,' but I was convinced that my family was 'The Munsters,' " DeCaro says. "I felt like the normal-looking Marilyn . . . the blond sheep of the family--totally unlike her relatives, but bound to them nonetheless."

America as a whole seemed equally hostile to gays, but DeCaro learned to pick up signals--Liberace's costumes, Paul Lynde's snide laughter, Elton John's "fabulous" disco persona--that he wasn't alone and that somewhere a subculture existed in which he wouldn't have to be a misfit.

"Elton John gave me a strategy I've used throughout my life," he says. "He made it clear to me that I could reinvent myself, as he had done, take my natural flamboyance and run with it."

This explains the obsession with pop minutiae that, along with DeCaro's snappy columnist's patter, gives "A Boy Named Phyllis" an air of superficiality it doesn't quite deserve. For gay kids, he says, pop culture wasn't superficial; it was layered with subversive meanings.

Even "Flipper," believe it or not.

There's an irony here, and DeCaro admits it. Rebelling against the majority culture, didn't he hew all the more strictly to the styles and postures of the minority one? Sure, he says, but so what? There ought to be room for "those of us who didn't want to be stereotypical, but just turned out that way. Swishy hairdressers, show-tune queens, fashion designers and me."

What about now? One hopes things have improved for gay kids since DeCaro's childhood was haunted by youths and adults alike "who made sissy-torture their life's work," but most places they probably haven't. This breezy book, with its message that a fat, effeminate boy from the sticks can come out, be cool, keep his sense of humor and finally be reconciled with his family--love winning out over prejudice--might give them hope.

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