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How gay writers drove revolution

AS the fortunes of the gay-rights movement continue to soar, this new book reflects on the stories that helped carry the revolution forward when courts, politics and protests could not.

In Eminent Outlaws, New York-based Christopher Bram delivers a dense, exquisitely researched narrative tracing the evolution of U.S. gay male writers through the latter half of the 20th century.

In his second non-fiction book, Bram, a Guggenheim fellow and accomplished novelist in his own right (Surprising Myself, Father of Frankenstein) fervently spins a web of real-life stories to bolster his closing argument: that storytelling drove the gay revolution.

To be clear: Eminent Outlaws is not a literary review. Though Bram lovingly and frequently highlights passages of writers' plays, novels and poems, the book's gaze relentlessly faces outward.

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AS the fortunes of the gay-rights movement continue to soar, this new book reflects on the stories that helped carry the revolution forward when courts, politics and protests could not.

In Eminent Outlaws, New York-based Christopher Bram delivers a dense, exquisitely researched narrative tracing the evolution of U.S. gay male writers through the latter half of the 20th century.

In his second non-fiction book, Bram, a Guggenheim fellow and accomplished novelist in his own right (Surprising Myself, Father of Frankenstein) fervently spins a web of real-life stories to bolster his closing argument: that storytelling drove the gay revolution.

To be clear: Eminent Outlaws is not a literary review. Though Bram lovingly and frequently highlights passages of writers' plays, novels and poems, the book's gaze relentlessly faces outward.

From Tennessee Williams to Armistead Maupin, Bram places the writers' personal and professional lives in the context of their culture, muses on authors' motivations and sometimes even plays the village gossip.

Bram takes care to ensure that those bits — the gossipy ones — are perfectly germane. Christopher Isherwood's struggles with jealousy in his open relationship with young artist Don Bachardy, Bram notes, formed the underpinning of Isherwood's novel The Englishwoman, about an unhappy war bride contemplating returning to England.

"But the bit of secret autobiography — he didn't know if he and Bachardy would stay together — wasn't enough to bring the book to life."

This approach is humanizing and revealing, though not always pleasing. When he is frankly recounting Gore Vidal's bitter (and later litigious) rivalry with Truman Capote, Bram's masterful understanding of their characters shines.

His portrait of Capote as a man trapped in his growing fame and losing his grip on reality is similarly vital.

But sometimes, Bram's interjections stumble, leaving little room for readers to draw their own conclusions. For instance, in an otherwise reflective chapter on gay literature at the dawn of AIDS, he describes how novelist Larry Kramer angrily quit an advocacy group he had helped found.

"He was like a jilted lover who feels he can best prove his love by shooting himself in the foot," Bram writes, but Kramer's personality shone through better before it was shackled by simile.

In the end, though, Eminent Outlaws weaves a tremendous quilt out of the prominent and not-so-public writers who lent their pens to a historic movement.

The dozens of "outlaws" were sometimes forced to smother their sexuality in their work, sometimes bold enough to declare it in a time when such declarations were largely unwelcome — but always, as Bram makes clear, they drove the unfolding human story forward.

A minor note: in the book's subtitle, Bram employs the word "gay" in its gender-exclusive sense; he does not delve into the wealth of literature crafted by lesbian writers. This specificity is not a flaw, but some readers may wish to know in advance.

Melissa Martin is a Free Press reporter.

Read more reviewed by Melissa Martin.

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