In May one of the authors Queer Readers looked at was Felice Picano. We chose Like People in History and Fred in Love for the reading list (see other post). John Cook thought it would be interesting to explore some of Picano’s earlier works. Read on…
I have number of Picano publications, I decided to look back at some of his earliest work (he is three years younger than me) which may be harder to access. The titles I chose were his collection of poetry “The Deformity Lover” and an early novel “The Lure” on a well-known theme. It is that theme which creates some linkages between the two.
The Deformity Lover and other Poems by Felice Picano. 1978, 1980
This is a slim collection of poetry with elements of Beat poetry, EE Cummings and Allen Ginsburg. One of the features of 1970’s literature and poetry was a combination of ‘in your face’ and celebration of some gay lifestyle characteristics. Amongst the most notorious were public sex especially in New York’s meat handling areas near Christopher Street and activities in SOPVs. Leather men were portrayed as the most mysterious and threatening. This poem highlights (in italics) this aspect and provides a link to the novel published one year later as shown on its cover image.
Teeming as teardrops
steamdrops in billows
accost the green tiling
assail silent bodies
perspiring like icebergs.
settled in frescoes
suddenly come to life
send out a gesture
to passing masters of men.
Aeons ago, protozoa may have mated so:
listless, half-wishing, in Amazonian mists.
Sleeping, legs dangling, on a yellow chaise lounge
Face through a mask of moustache and beard
eyes through dark eyelashes, a visor of eyebrows
cap full of brown curling soft at the nape
This shy knight wears his helmet of hair,
clothed or bare.
The Lure by Felice Picano. 1979.1980
The Lure is an interestingly timed book. It was followed, one year later, by the release on the (in)famous movie “Cruising” starring Al Pacino which you may have seen. That movie was based on an even earlier book by Gerard Walker in 1970 while others exploited this theme particularly as it applied to the concept of latent or changing homosexuality.
The Lure centres around a young clever Sociology (had to be!) Professor who has lost his wife and is somewhat at sea professionally. He accidentally encounters a gruesome murder and is inveigled into an attempt to entrap a Mr X who sits at the centre of an endlessly complicated set of double-edged actions and operatives. The plot is often enough improbably complicated and at times unbelievable – the psychology messy to say the least. However, it does draw the reader in if only to see it through to the conclusion. There are plenty of gruesome murders but they are more related to the machinations that lay behind a developing commercial gay scene and forces opposed to it, rather than a maniacal psychopath.
The text has the usual time-specific cultural references to clothing, food, housing, clubbing, Fire Island etc in all of which Picano was well embedded. The protagonist rides an Atala bike, but a ten-speed not a fixie (hipsters please note). Some of the more purple (or should I say violet – Picano co-founded the Violet Quill writers group) writing is devoted to descriptions of life in the clubs and tubs, drugs and sex. The main night club described sounds suspiciously like the recently opened Studio 54 (another more recent movie). If you have seen Cruising, you will remember the infamous scene in which a character is threatened by a massive jock-strapped negro who is clearly intended to terrify. Similar tactics are employed here are even actually described as a psychological manoeuvre.
‘Although certain the subject was unallied to the perpetrator(s), we nevertheless decided to implement plan J-23, an instant total breakdown test. The subject was incarcerated over and hour in a dark freezing cell, threatened, ignored and finally assaulted under controlled conditions by four operatives (18, 301, 75, 111) to ensure the total release of any remaining defensive devices. I then interfered, as previously planned, and setting myself up as saviour for the moment, immediately gained his full trust for the preliminary interview.’
An interesting period read with plenty to hold the reader’s attention but with occasional tiresome passages with needless complications and pop psychology ramblings. At least there is less of the name-dropping that infests so much of his memoir work up to his latest “Nights at Rizzoli” though it must be admitted that some readers do enjoy these references.