So this isn’t going to be one of my standard book reviews where I simply provide my praise-of-approval, quote the back cover to prevent myself from ruining the entire plotline (including climax) and wrap it up with the book’s website. The reason; my latest read, Swish by Joel Derfner truly challenged me as a gay man and left me bewildered on my personal beliefs and my despising the stereotypes around gay culture and those ideas around homosexuality that we simply accept due to being gay.
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely found myself enjoying parts of the book like the constant reference to The Golden Girls (oh you know I have a think for those stunning four dolls) and his intense reference to the final performance of the first act of the musical Wicked, and the heart-wrenching Defying Gravity performed by original cast members Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. But those were only two small parts of what felt like an excruciating long and awkwardly uncomfortable read exploring the deep realms (and really surface concepts) around those ‘cultural concepts’ that all light-in-the-loafers men encounter in their journey through life.
Being compared to the writing style of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs on the back cover forced me to purchase the book without hesitation. Furthermore, the impressive forward written by none other than Sir Elton John definitely had me thinking I was about to embark on a boisterous adventure through gayness filled with giggles and couple ‘oh no you DIDENT!’ I definitely wished I had jumped to the contents section outlining the different chapters as I would have been better prepared for what awaited ahead.
The chapters, in order, are as follows; 1. On Knitting; 2. On Casual Sex; 3. On Cheerleading; 4. On Camp Camp; 5. On Dating; 6. On Teaching Aerobics; 7. On Musical Theatre; 8. On Go-Go Dancing; 9. On Exodus.
While the latter chapter definitely left me a little intrigued as I have always wanted to learn about unique Exodus experiences, good and bad, I was thrown off my guard with each chapter leading up to that point. I found myself relating to a lot of the stories, but also thinking to myself, these were the parts of homosexuality I respected the least. They all were largely formed on the stereotypes that any heterosexual on the outside looking in would suspect a gay man to experience, enjoy and literally end his life if he were deprived of any one piece if the big ol’ gay puzzle. These chapters also dredged up a large portion of my past that I went through while I was trying to ‘define’ myself as a gay man and felt I needed to WANT these things so bad just to desperately fit in. Funny enough, that is exactly the voice that Derfner takes throughout the novel, endlessly voicing his reasons for each action crediting a need for acceptance. Damn it, why do we do it?
The casual sex chapter hit me hardest of all as it literally lays out all the gay bullshit of acceptance that we have as a culture deemed appropriate. Meeting four or five complete strangers at a random location at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon to do absolutely everything sexual under the sun. Open relationships that come crashing down in utter failure due to jealous and self-depreciation. Literally losing track of your sexual conquests, but making that irrelevant as you used protection 100% of the time.
I don’t want to seem like I am preaching like I think I’m Mother Theresa on a pedestal who has lived a life of a simple past; however, the reminder of the road that took me to get to where I am today definitely left me feeling less than giddy.
There were also several portions of the book that include self-mockery that caught me off guard and instead of laughing along (as I believe Derfner intended me to as a reader) I found myself questioning why he would include a slander directed inwards. It would be hurtful if someone else sad the words he wrote about himself, yet they seemed to just blend into the story effortlessly that it was simply bypassed as a shot at humour. This is the one portion that I truly feel is the differentiator between the writing talent of Sedaris and Burroughs, as a direct comparison.
Now should Derfner himself ever come across this article, I want to apologize at this time as I’m sure my grammar in this article is terrible. For those of you who have read the book, you will know perfect grammar is one of many mandatory requirements for Derfner to love you. I definitely have too many flaws for his taste.
With that said, I definitely encourage people to pick up this book and form your own opinion. As I mentioned above, its title Swish by Joel Derfner and you can find out more about the book at the author’s website; www.joelderfner.com