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Tales of Heartbreak and Yearning in Less-Than-Rosy World

July 25, 2001|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Pasadena is where California's real history is," declares one of the characters in the title story of "The Rose City" by David Ebershoff (Viking, $23.95, 224 pages), "where its real class is."

Both the remark and the title of the book are strictly ironic--Pasadena is hardly a rosy place for the men and boys whose lives are examined in achingly intimate detail in several of the seven short stories collected here. Behind the broad lawns of Pasadena, to borrow a phrase from Hemingway, are some very narrow minds.

"Their neighbors were all in the Junior League," muses one of the gay lovers in "The Rose City." "Not a Junior Leaguer in the world ... could deliver a banana bread to the new ... neighbors without thinking at least once of attaching a card that read: 'Please leave."'

Ebershoff (author of "The Danish Girl") is deft at excavating and deciphering the hidden meanings in what appear to be ordinary families and friendships. The 10-year-old boy who is depicted in "The Dress," for example, appears to have a chummy relationship with his father. "Reggie, you're forgetting we're co-pilots," Dad tells his son. "If something's eating at you, then tell me." When a moment of private sexual experimentation goes terribly, if comically, wrong, however, the boy is forced to summon his father to the rescue, thus revealing to himself as well as his doting father the fact that he is "not a boy" but a "girl-boy." Says the father: "We'll just have to forget about this"--but they both realize that the shattering incident will be neither forgotten nor forgiven.

Ebershoff, born and raised in Pasadena, is a transplanted New Yorker. Now he is director of the Modern Library, one of the truly great and enduring enterprises in American publishing.

He conjures up a vision of his hometown that is capable of surprising even a native Angeleno--Mt. Wilson, Old Town and the Arroyo Seco are familiar landmarks, of course, but nothing that we already know about quaint old Pasadena quite prepares us for what happens in the steam room of the Pasadena Athletic Club in the story "Regime."

What links the seven stories in "The Rose City" is not always locale, however, but rather the yearning that drives the characters to seek some form of intimacy with their friends and family, with the objects of their sexual desire and with each other. Only rarely do they connect. Rather, Ebershoff manages to show us--with cool, elegant and graceful prose--the heartbreaking ways in which men and women tantalize, torment and ultimately disappoint each other.

A woman of my acquaintance once told me how she "came out" as a lesbian to her parents in her hometown of Toronto--and, the very next day, she left for Los Angeles. More than Castro Street in San Francisco or Christopher Street in New York, it was L.A. that symbolized the freedom to wholly reinvent oneself that has always given Southern California its powerful allure. "More than any other city," writes Moira Rachel Kenney in "Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics" (Temple University Press, $19.95, 232 pages), "Los Angeles is seen as an alternative to the rest of the country."

Kenney points out that the gay and lesbian community of Southern California is something unique. West Hollywood is sometimes seen as a kind of self-invented gay and lesbian ghetto--"enclave" is the word Kenney uses--but she points out that gay communities in Southern California "exist at all scales and levels of visibility," from Silver Lake to Laguna Beach to Palm Springs as well as otherwise unremarkable suburban pockets of Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley.

As research director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley, Kenney is a working scholar. But she brings insight, compassion and a certain lyricism to her scholarship. Thus, for example, she sets out to "map" the gay and lesbian neighborhoods of Los Angeles with the discipline and precision of a social scientist--"the specific ways individuals navigate their urban environment"--and yet, at the same time, "mapping" becomes her own metaphor for how men and women live their lives in the most intimate sense.

"Gays and lesbians," she explains, "live in cities they have mapped for their own purposes: neighborhoods discreetly appropriated in forgotten zones, street corners where kisses can be exchanged proudly, and community centers to provide safe space for coming-out or mobilizing activists." "Place claiming" is the term that Kenney uses to define, measure and map gay activism, here and elsewhere around the country. A public demonstration by militants such as ACT UP or Queer Nation, or a political campaign in support of an openly gay candidate, represent one highly visible form of place-claiming.

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