Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2004-2005

Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985, by James McCourt

reviewed by Brett Lock

Klunk! That’s the sound of another name dropping. If one applied that crazy “Bible-code” methodology to this book, instead of a forecast of the apocalypse (which might be a welcome relief to the reader) one would be left with the photo credits for the Sgt Pepper’s album cover. Turning to a random page we have (let’s see) Catherine Clement, Mae West, Camille Saint-Saëns, Bruckner, Wedekind, Dali, Benjamin – and the Greek gods Isis and Osiris thrown in for good measure. It’s conceited and oppressive.

The notion of following McCourt down a metaphorical “Queer Street” is tempting, but we soon find we have lost our tour guide in the busy bustle of unnecessary verbosity. Perhaps it was ducking under a grammatical ladder that brought one the bad luck of bumping into brackets, fumbling over footnotes, slipping on syntax and being pummelled by the parenthetical mugger that preys on Queer Street tourists.

How can I put that frankly? McCourt seems unable to complete a thought or a sentence without a pointless digression. The digressions, in turn, lead to musings on the verbal ejaculations of commentators – real and fictional – as diverse as Blanche Dubois and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Stir in a heady mixture of Slavic realism and Pop Art – The Brothers Karamazov meets Donald Duck – on the same page, and we begin to get an inkling of why this book is the pretentious, puzzling mess that it is. Where, not who, was his editor?

Feeling generous during a welcome pause from holding the one-kilogram block of compressed rainforest before my eyes, I thought, Well, perhaps you had to be there. But isn’t that really a socially graceful way of excusing a story that has fallen flat and bewildered the listener? Indeed, the self-indulgent trivia presented in this book must have meaning to a very select few, failing, as it does, to evoke any sense of wonder or stimulate much interest.

If one actually cared about what McCourt was saying, one might make more effort to penetrate the layers of pseudo-cleverness and (what I assume are) in-jokes.

Perhaps a “street” isn’t the best metaphor McCourt could have chosen. The path through the book is more like Geocaching – that modern outdoors-meets-hi-tech activity. My boyfriend and I took it up for a while. It involves stumbling around in a field with an Ordnance Survey map and a GPS device looking for trinkets hidden in a Tupperware biscuit container. Inevitably, it rains, which turns the map to papier-mâché, and the Americans have turned off the global positioning satellite to prevent potential Timmy McVeighs guiding an army/navy surplus ICBM into the White House. In other words, a shambles. But occasionally one finds the “treasure”.

Queer Street is not without its tiny treasures, found in much the same way. I’ll admit to finding the queer reading of the Jacob and Esau story from Genesis quite thrilling; and quite a satisfactory explanation for the Abrahamic religions’ fear and suspicion of gay men. Jacob as prototype “queer eye” – understanding the power of a good spread, a good scent and, most of all, good drag. What an idea! Homophobia as meta-narrative; homophobia as denouement.

The tragedy of this book is that often McCourt demonstrates startling insights into queer life, past and present (especially in Hollywood), and he has a genuine wit (he describes Edmund Bergler, who opposed removing homosexuality from the list of psychiatric disorders, as “a therapeutic Rumpelstiltskin”) and a camp charm (“the ideal man is a six-foot-six home-wrecker – in two directions”), but without the discipline to sustain the chain of interest that drives a reader from one page to the next. I imagined that following McCourt down “the street” would be like idea-shopping-as-therapy. I imagined that at the end I’d have bags of information, anecdotes and observations. Instead, it evoked memories of me as a five-year-old, being dragged along by my grandmother on a Saturday morning shopping trip: tired, bored, ratty, sticky with placatory sweets and wanting to go home because there was nothing in it for me.

Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985 is a book I’d love to read. Will someone please write it?

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2005-02-13 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :