21 June 2011

Figuring Out the Queers of New York

The Queers of New York
Leo Orenstein
Richmond Hill, ON: Pocket, 1972

The late Leo Orenstein was a producer, a director, an educator, an illustrator, a playwright and, with The Queers of New York, a novelist. That there aren't other novels in his bibliography comes as a bit of a surprise. As a young man, he played a part with the country's early paperback publishers. Orenstein's art for Fireside Publishing's Baron Munchausen is a personal favourite. "ILLUSTRATED BY GUSTAVE DORÉ"... except, of course, for the cover.

The Queers of New York is the product of a much different time. Its appearance owes a great deal to Pocket Books' belated effort to establish a line of Canadian mass market paperback originals. Orenstein's novel, one of the first, would soon be joined by titles like The Happy Hairdresser, Daddy's Darling Daughter and The Last Canadian, which I maintain is the stupidest novel yet produced in this country.

A much better book, The Queers of New York begins with a "panty-pink Cadillac convertible" being chased through Manhattan. At the wheel is our hero and narrator, charismatic go-getter Paul Norman. A Jewish gag writer for Punch Line – read: Laugh In Paul is doing his darndest to reinvent himself. In the past, he's sunk money into mining and a suicidal daredevil this time it's film production. Paul has gambled on an option for Fruitfly, "a play about homosexuals", which he's trying to mould into something that will sell in Hollywood. The thing is, he knows nothing about his subject, and the play's author, GT Baker, rightly rejects all his ideas. The gag writer thinks he's on to something when he learns that a blackmail ring has been secretly filming the city's wealthiest gays. Adding the blackmail element, along with actual blackmail footage, will make Fruitfly "something every producer in the business would be breaking their neck to get."

What seems too easy a solution becomes complicated when Paul's contact is run down by the crooks while walking away from the panty-pink Caddy. And so, the chase. Paul is also punched, kicked, drugged, kidnapped, shot at, and has a lead pipe thrown in his general direction. It's pretty exciting stuff, relayed with a good amount of humour he is a comedy writer, after all but the pacing is all off.

Blame lies with GT, who encourages Paul to learn a thing or two about homosexuality. His education begins with a visit to Dr Stanhauser, a professor of Anthropology at "the Forensic Clinic of Columbia University". Paul begins with a question:
"Are there any figures on what percentage of the population is homosexual?"
"I think Kinsey provides the most reliable figures so far, on that. At least judging from my work here at the clinic, I have no reason to doubt them. The picture that shapes up in these studies shows that 4% are exclusively homosexual, and another 33% have been involved in at least one enjoyable homosexual experience in their lives."
"Thirty-seven percent altogether? That's more than one out of three!"
"Yes, and that's to the point of orgasm. Mind you, I think Kinsey was a bit too wide on the 33% because he takes it from adolescents on; but altogether its generally assumed that 37% of the male population has at one time in their lives become involved with a male homosexual."
And on it goes, page after page. The whole thing reads a lot like an interview with a sexologist, circa 1970. Who knows, maybe it was. After the meeting, Paul feels it necessary to detail the life story of every second or third "queer" he encounters. Consider them case studies.

Ultimately, what might have been a fun and funny little novel suffers from want of a good editor. Pocket's Canadian branch plant was hardly known for its high standards; one need look no further than the first pages for evidence. No, not the novel itself, but the two-page "GLOSSARY OF YIDDISH WORDS AND PHRASES USED IN THIS BOOK". Not a bad idea, if Paul's own definitions didn't already pepper the narration. Here's our hero in the midst of an otherwise tense break-and-enter:
With all my "potzkehing" around, (potzkehing means fooling around and making a mess of things), I began to worry about Jinx. Could she hear me down here?
Nearly four decades have passed since publication, but I'm betting that in 1972 "Rosh Hashonah", "kosher", "schmuck" and "shmoose" were familiar to the "Goyim" (a word that also features). An equally useless "GAY GLOSSARY" follows the novel. Here, the reader is filled in on obscurities like "heterosexual", "homosexual", "bisexual", "straight", "gay", "queer", "faggot", "fruit", "pansy", "lesbian", "S&M", "narcissism", "buns" and "hooker".

I doubt Orenstein had anything to do with the glossary; there are differences in spelling between it and the novel proper. What's more, Paul's own definitions and those of the OED, for that matter do not match. "Pediaphilia" is "anal enjoyment in sex homosexual or heterosexual" we're told on the last page of the book.

The Queers of New York received only one printing. There was no chance for a correction.

Object: A mass market paperback with a cover illustration provided by Orenstein himself. As bowdler of Fly-by-night noted last year, cover copy tells us nothing at all about the book, presenting instead "an absurdly detailed biography of the author." A loan from bowdler, The Queers of New York is the first book reviewed here that isn't part of my collection.

Access: Held by Library and Archives Canada and just thirteen universities – even the Toronto Public Library fails. Scarce and highly collectable; any decent copy offered for under $40 is a bargain. Of the three copies are currently listed online I recommend purchasing the most expensive. Yes, it's US$75, but the thing is signed.

My thanks to bowdler for the loan, and for the images used in this post.

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  1. I guess "buns" and "hooker" might easily be misinterpreted by a 1970s reader. If he were reading a book about fishermen in a bakery! Geez. What pretentious prude felt that glossary was necessary? Pediaphilia? Wow. There's an archaic word. What happened to the old standby "pederasty"? Which of course is sexually fetishizing the feet of statues, doncha know?

  2. And here I thought it was an fetishistic attraction to pedestals.

    I might add that the order of the GAY GLOSSARY is mysterious. It's not alphabetical, nor does it follow appearance in the novel. "Queer" appears as #28 of the forty words and terms.

    Still, I can't help but think that the pretentious prude might have a a bit of fun. The very last entry?

    "Being done — blowed off".