Germs, Slaves, & Imposters 

In this month's East Bay book news, Raymond Burr lied rather than come out, and if Frank Yerby's books sold 100 million copies, why did America forget him?

Then again, certain West Virginians actually do exist: "I know there are probably a lot of questions floating around right now about me," wrote Jason Headley -- author of the bracingly funny novel Small Town Odds (Chronicle, $23.95) and formerly of Clayton -- in a recent e-mail to Press Here. "I suppose in some ways it's understandable. However, the fact that I come from West Virginia, moved to San Francisco, and happen to be a writer should not implicate or associate me in any way with the alleged life and times of JT LeRoy. Here are the facts: I actually DID grow up in West Virginia. This can be validated in numerous ways, not the least of which is my lingering hillbilly pronunciation. ... I actually DO live in San Francisco. If I don't, then I at least live in a location that has a shockingly detailed, life-sized replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. And I actually DID write my own book. I think this is well evidenced by the fact that it's not particularly good."

Ill street blues: Strolling through Berkeley one day in 1980, Dorothy Wall was overcome with exhaustion. Panting, she stared fixedly at yellow roses bobbing against a fence. She would spend the next twenty years outside what she calls "the world of the well." "I entered illness blind," Wall muses in Encounters With the Invisible (Southern Methodist University Press, $22.95), a poetic yet scientific chronic-fatigue-syndrome diary decrying the medical community's slow response to CFS and other "postmodern" immune-deficiency disorders such as Gulf War Syndrome and fibromyalgia. Wall was an energetic mother and teacher who didn't want to be sick: "For someone who has had a lifelong antipathy to acknowledging or talking about weakness, 'coming out' as a seriously ill person has been a process laden with ambivalence. ... I still have fantasies of recovery that involve simply rising from bed and striding out the door, refusing to submit." Yet she lay aching, unable to speak for months on end. "I'd worked hard to leave home, my mother's world, to have a life," Wall says now. "CFS had made me a shut-in, muted and invisible. ... It's easy to think of chronic illness as a bland stretch of days interrupted by a meal or a friend." But actually, it's boring and it hurts.

Perry Mason was gay: Well, sorta. The Queer Encyclopedia of Film and Television (Cleis, $29.95) reveals that Raymond Burr, the deeply closeted star of that long-running TV-lawyer show, hid his orientation for decades by claiming that he'd been widowed thrice and had lost a son to leukemia. Such monumental fibbing -- Burr said one wife had perished in a plane crash -- deserves an Emmy. Edited by Claude Summers, the encyclopedia dishes on hundreds including East Bayites such as Berkeley-born James Ivory and Cal prof and documentarist Marlon Riggs.

Outta sight, outta mind: After writing 23 books that sold nearly 100 million copies in 82 countries, Frank Yerby still doesn't join Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston on your typical list of mid-20th-century African-American novelists. St. Mary's College lecturer Eugene Stovall wants to change that. "One of the reasons for his anonymity," says Stovall, author of the new novel Frank Yerby: A Victim's Guilt (Regent, $25.95), "is that some say that his novels are merely pulp fiction. His contemporaries, such as Langston Hughes, criticized him as being purely commercial." Stovall isn't buying that. He argues that Yerby is shunned because "he does not make African Americans the focus of his works. Rather, Yerby's works are about white characters. However, I would argue that all of Yerby's works put black people in a historical context -- and black people's role in Western history is so painful that many African Americans prefer to read a romanticized version rather than the actual version." Rather than being a potboilermaker, Yerby idolized "the Victorian writers such as Thackeray, the Brontës, Melville -- many believe Yerby deserted African Americans and their issues to become a commercial success. I do not disagree; however, I believe as a literary genius Yerby must be rehabilitated and transformed." Stovall wanted to do this via a biography, but Yerby's heirs refused to help him. So he wrote a novel, in which Yerby's own fictional characters descend on his deathbed demanding that he recant having written "that blacks themselves were responsible for being enslaved by whites."

The Civil War persists: In The Sorcerer's Trick (Crying Lion, $26.95), a coffee-table collection of clip art, poetry, and politics, Morgan "Two Fires" Kazembe laments that "White supremacy is the reason I'm poor/White supremacy got me serving as a whore." Slavery, Kazembe tells Press Here, is alive and well in America: "The Marine and the prisoner are both slaves. ... They have the same master. The soldier, who is most often the poor man, serves his master's advancement of imperialism. He could be described as 'the slave with a gun in his hand, going afar to kill another poor man.' The prisoner is a victim of that same master's greed ... the greed that results in poverty, isolation, miseducation, and desperate acts, which lead him to the executioner's door, or should I say the billion-dollar prison-industrial complex that makes his master rich." Kazembe's book -- one chapter is titled "Whitey Leaving the Planet, Hooray!" -- indicts the upper classes and their sinister schemes. AIDS is arguably a depopulation plot, he says, noting "evidence that alleged the creation of this virus in the laboratory to be directed at blacks and gays. And if you look at the numbers of AIDS cases amongst people of color ... this so-called 'conspiracy theory' becomes more of a fact than fiction."

Wanna bet? In Las Vegas to celebrate his parents' wedding anniversary, Burt Dragin vowed one night that just this once, he was going to leave town a winner. With $600 in his pocket, he took what he calls "the longest walk" along a single block. "Every casino I walked past, I had to go in, have a beer, and play," says the Berkeley author, a Laney College journalism professor. "But I just kept losing. I couldn't win. It was like -- total jinx. And I said, 'Stop, stop,' but I couldn't stop and I just kept betting. Finally when I was down to my last $20 I went to the bathroom and it was all mirrors. I didn't even know how I was going to look at myself long enough to brush my teeth, because I felt such incredible shame." Dragin attended some twelve-step meetings as part of an article he was writing -- he was, after all, a reporter: "It was a way of getting into Gamblers Anonymous by stealth without having to admit that I had a problem." But he's not a group kind of guy, so he kicked the habit solo by making writing itself his "higher power": writing, research, and a burning curiosity about how this could have happened to the son of a gambling addict, who of all people should have known better. The result is a funny-sad memoir, Six to Five Against: A Gambler's Odyssey (RDR, $17.95).

Go, girl: They told her she was crazy to leave Los Angeles: Kate Braverman's well-meaning relatives, the old uncle who "looks like a Joshua tree in a brutal decade in a parched century when you open your mouth and sand blows in." That's what she remembers of "my squalid adolescence." But leave she did: Feminist activist Berkeleyite Braverman became a cult idol with her 1979 classic, Lithium for Medea. Her new book, Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles (Graywolf, $15), is a haunting eulogy for a megalopolis "fermenting under an incendiary sun."

Curl up and dye: His head is shaved, so when San Leandro social worker Shadrach Linscomb says he's spent a lot of time in barbershops, you can believe him. "It's a place where African-American males can come and share their experiences,"Linscomb says, "and be the center of attention rather than be marginalized." That's why the hero of his new thriller, Sex, Guns, and a Barber (View House, $12), is a wielder of clippers and shampoo.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Books

Author Archives

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

Taste, Fall 2016

Everything you need to know about dining in and out in the East Bay.

The Queer & Trans Issue 2016

Queer and trans coverage contributed by individuals who identify as queer or trans.

© 2016 East Bay Express    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation