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A Dance With Romance Among Gay Men

THE RISK OF HIS MUSIC by Peter Weltner; Graywolf Press;
$12.95 (paperback), 252 pages | BOOK REVIEW

April 28, 1997|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For pure, unabashed romanticism, it's hard to beat these seven long stories by Peter Weltner about gay life in San Francisco and the Deep South.

Weltner, who teaches at San Francisco State, is also the author of "Beachside Entries / Specific Ghosts," "Identity and Difference" and "In a Time of Combat for the Angel." In this collection, he writes about lovers who have nothing but their idealism to keep them together--and plenty of incentives to break up.

The three San Francisco stories, in comparison to the Southern Gothic that follows, are contemporary in setting and realistic in tone. Weltner's characters are aware of their gayness and comfortable with it; they have found a hospitable enclave where they can cook, grow flowers, listen to opera and live as couples who just happen to be of the same gender.

It isn't that anybody minds that they act like married heterosexuals. Only an occasional snub from a straight relative reminds them, and us, of the larger society's intolerance. That's an old story--like AIDS, to which Weltner's characters seldom bother to refer by name anymore, though it goes on killing people they know.

But neither does anybody have a stake in their relationships. Not society--there are no obligations imposed on gays by churches or the legal system. Not even their own subculture, driven by the constant ascendancy of youth and beauty over age. Monogamy seems pointless (except for health reasons), a sad imitation of the mores of straight society. A certain amount of sleeping around is taken for granted.

But what about love? Weltner's characters ask. What about the human urge to make a romantic connection binding and permanent? The theme of "The Risk of His Music" is the persistence of that ideal despite the loss of youth, the disfigurement of beauty and the lovers' knowledge of their limitations, their "ordinary faithlessness."

In "The Greek Head," for instance, Sam and Charlie live in the same apartment complex as Don and Roger, an older couple who have seemingly achieved the impossible: a happy, exclusive relationship spanning 30 years. What does it mean, then, when the dying Don leaves his favorite possession, an antique sculptured Greek head, to Charlie instead of to Roger? Sam, the narrator, must decide whether his belief in the validity of both love affairs has been an illusion.

*

In "My Faithless, Faithful Friend," Todd, the narrator, had an affair years ago with Kit, the lover of his old friend Jay. Now Jay, who has AIDS and is long since estranged from Kit, is dying. When Todd brings Kit to Jay's bedside, against Jay's stated wishes, is he acting on his friend's real desire for a reconciliation, as he claims--or just trying to ingratiate himself again with Kit?

The tone becomes stranger and wilder in "Self-Portrait With Cecil and Larry," the first of the Southern stories. Bo, the narrator, is a New Orleans artist who paints handsome hustlers until, to the horror of his aesthetic-minded friend Cecil, he falls in love with Larry, a midget wrestler. "I could not bear to love . . . perfect things," Bo says, "until I'd learned to love imperfect ones much more."

In "Unlike Himself," an elderly professor who knows himself to be "given to damnable impulses" leads a life of ascetic self-control until, under a voodoo woman's spell, he swaps identities with the most desirable stud on Bourbon Street. In the title story, the man who inspires the teenage narrator to escape the rural South is Orville Earle, master mechanic, lover of Mahler and Brahms, and leader of a gun-happy mini-commune of deranged Korean War veterans.

Perhaps the most moving story here is "Buddy Loves Jo Ann," in which a simple small-town store clerk, faced in his 70s with the loss of his lifelong, platonic woman friend, tries to drown himself. He is rescued by a short-order cook, an ex-convict, who feeds Buddy soup, steals money for him and, shockingly, kisses him on the lips. If the professor's love dares not speak its name, Buddy's doesn't even know it has a name--yet it can sprout, as Weltner shows us, in the most barren soil.

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