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.

I think Faggots is a much more complex book than people have sometimes identified. Early in the boo, for example, Kramer includes a quotation from the Penguin Companion to Literature, European:

Alienation, however, does not lead our hero out of society, but deeper into it, for he is impelled by a curiosity to know, down to the smallest detail, the corrupt world that he wishes to escape. Concealing his opposition, he takes part in the intrigue of his day with the secret aim of proving to himself, by the very falseness of his conduct, the distance that separates him from his contemporaries. (9)

While this passage is ostensibly about one of Stendhal’s protagonists, I think it should guide our reading of Faggots too. Fred (and by extension Kramer) is both repelled by the society in which he lives and driven to know it in all of its details. He sets himself in opposition to it, but it’s unclear if Fred (and Kramer) can ever really separate himself from that society. He hopes that by showing the falseness of his participation he will achieve this distancing effect, but I don’t think Kramer really lets his “hero” (or himself) off the hook that easily. As he writes at the novel’s end, “Yes, it’s hard to leave” (363). I think Kramer sees the difficulty of the project he undertakes in this novel. And it’s that recognition that makes this novel so beautiful to me.

I also love Kramer’s use of language in this novel. I’m not sure why, but my favorite sentence in Faggots is, “Dinky Adams’s ass was the first ass Fred had ever rimmed” (18). This sentence always strikes me as completely crazy in a “serious” work of literature. A better example of Kramer’s effective use of language is this one: “He took both cheeks in his hands and he buried his face in it like an elegant pillow in a perfect Italian palazzo overlooking the blue Mediterranean where they could be when they were living happily ever after” (20). Here Kramer shows us Fred’s thought process while he’s rimming his boyfriend — he definitely romanticizes this act. Within the context of the larger scene we see that Fred is making all of these romantic plans about his future with Dinky while the latter is simply having a (relatively) quick fuck. It’s a great use of image and diction! (One of my goals in this class is to show my students that sexually graphic language is nevertheless literary — image, metaphor, diction, etc. are all still important tools employed by the writer to convey meaning.)

In part, I love teaching this novel because it’s almost guaranteed to shock my students and really make them think. Its graphic depictions of sexual acts are like nothing else most of them have ever read for and discussed in a class before. But it’s the thinking part that’s really important. I love that there’s so much in the novel to analyze and discuss that (I think) inevitably we are forced into some serious thinking about its content, its message, and its contributions to Lesbian & Gay Lit.

I really do regret not teaching the whole novel this term. When I teach the class again in the winter, I will return to teaching the whole book. I just think its too towering a work to ignore or only partially read. Plus, when else do you get the opportunity to explain why a man would douche?!