Today I taught excerpts from Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel Faggots in my Lesbian & Gay Lit course. For the past couple of years I have taught the entire novel in the class, but this time I decided to teach only a small section — mostly the first 30 pages or so — in order to make room for Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart and Wayne Hoffman’s 2006 novel Hard. I’m looking forward to teaching those works for the first time, but I definitely wish I had been able to keep all of Faggots on the reading list.

Faggots Faggots follows its “hero,” Fred Lemish, as he maneuvers his way through the gay scene of 1970s New York City. The novel is extremely graphic and includes detailed descriptions of felching, anal sex, water sports, rimming, douching, oral sex, incest, group sex, S/M, and fisting. Ultimately, Kramer’s point in this novel is to critique the endless and often anonymous sexual encounters of many gay men in the 70s, arguing that this lifestyle is destroying their chances of living more normal, fulfilling, and loving lives.

Not surprisingly, Kramer took a lot of heat for this critique. Here’s what one reviewer writes about the novel:

Kramer has attempted to write a comic sex novel; his model, it is clear, is Portnoy to Holleran’s Gatsby. However, combining intense, John Rechy-type sexual explicitness with broad, crack-timed humor requires the technique of an expert writer, and Kramer is anything but. So his jokes stiff, and his porn goes limp. In fact, he does almost everything wrong. He creates too many characters and gives them farcical names like Randy Dildough and Yootha Truth, so you don’t take them seriously; but then he keeps bringing them back and asking you to care about them when you can’t even remember who they are. He delivers his wit and wisdom in subtle, clever statements like this: “Of the 2,639,857 faggots in the New York City area, 2,639,857 think primarily with their cocks.” He rushes his characters from orgy to orgy with increasingly unfunny running gags in a way that suggests what might happen if Rechy’s The Sexual Outlaw were made into a sitcom by Terrence (The Ritz) McNally.

I don’t really agree with this writer. While its true that Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance is a much more lyrical book, Faggots makes a much more pointed critique. It’s much more like eighteenth-century satire — think Jonathan Swift — than Dancer is. If we read it from this point of view, I think it has a lot to say to us about a certain portion of 1970s gay male NYC culture as well as about our own attitudes to that past and what’s happened since.