HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON / Ethan Mordden. 1995 (590 pgs) First Ten Pages = 1.7% of total book
Garrison Keillor, the other day, quoted an author who’d said, “The novel is the answer to the question, ‘What is it about?’” This credited, but not captured by me, quote took hold of my thinking, and I wanted to find a way to work it in. It’s in.
[updated 2/7/10: English novelist and critic David Lodge, said, “A novel is a long answer to the question ‘What is it about?’ I think it should be possible to give a short answer — in other words, I believe a novel should have a thematic and narrative unity that can be described.” Garrison Keillor’s version can be viewed at THE WRITER’S ALMANAC from 1/28/10 at: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/01/28 %5D
What intrigued me about Eathan Mordden’s book, aside from the heft of it – just shy of 600 pages, with Part I titled “Los Angeles, 1949 – 1950” and Part IX called “New York City, Gay Pride Week, 1991” – is that I was very curious to know how this story would be told and how much, if any, would be my story. I came into the picture late in Part 2 and “out” onto the Scene around Part 5. From the book jacket it is clearly a gay history, “…as bit by bit, men and women come out of hiding to create America’s trendiest yet most revolutionary subculture: gay life”. I was absolutely mesmerized by Mordden’s Buddies “trilogy” of which I’ve read four out of five in the series. HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON? goes slightly against my thesis presentation criteria – discovery of common denominators in the first ten pages of selected fictional novels I have not read, which have achieved a solid degree of mainstream recognition where the book or the author has stood the test of time, such as it is (say that three times, fast, with quiche in your mouth!), but while I argued with myself over the meaning of “mainstream” I decided (as Mordden so convincingly does in his tril five-logy) that what makes up the mainstream depends upon the influence of its tributaries. Mordden’s books chronicle the history of my chosen family; therefore, I decide it qualifies. Besides, since I have already included SONG OF THE LOON, and LOVE STORY, HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON? is a shoe in and with quality writing.
First Sentences: “In the days when men were men and women adored them, there was a club called Thriller Jill’s on a side street off Hollywood Boulevard. It was one of those late-night places, that didn’t get going till ten or even eleven. Bouncer at the door, tiny stage for the acts, one toilet marked “Men” and the other marked “Queens”.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Past tense. As indicated by the headings, the story is a review of history from a current point in time. The narrator begins these first ten pages in a broad, third person point of view focusing specifically on the bar and its clientele. However for short moments the voice shifts into the POV of various characters during spoken dialogue and thought. One character in particular refers to herself in the second person “you” voice, which prepares the reader for easy transitions of narrative to slip from one character’s perspective and into another’s. There are also significant moments when the narrator speaks to the reader as confidant and informant in direct address.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The narrative events supply the reader with realities of the Hollywood gay bar scene during the post WW2 run up to the McCarthy era. The narrator shows how strictly closeted it was on the “Other Side” during a short history of Thriller Jill’s and its many downward spiraling transitions from Italian lunch counter serving movie industry technicians to the dark and closeted element that existed in the other Hollywood. Thriller Jill’s outlines the strong division between the Men and Queens, Johns and Hustlers. Most are introduced as types like the dyke bar-owner, the flamboyant entertainers, the dark and sturdy bartenders, the dirty cops and the Hollywood element that slums around after dark.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: These first ten pages stay mostly within the confines of the bar and give the reader a chance to get hip to the lingo of gay life inside the club and the oppressive elements that force its patrons to hide out on the “Other Side”. Of the several character types mentioned in these early pages, a small handful begin to emerge with the potential of lasting from 1949 – 1991. We initially follow Lois, the bar owner, who maintains a strict no-touching policy for fear of retaliation by the cops as she moves from the front of the bar to the back area dressing room and dingy office where the reader meets the small coterie of entertainers who make up her staff: a pianist, a comic and an underage crooner. Over the course of the novel, the crooner ages from seventeen to fifty-nine. After spending the first several pages moving through the club, establishing a sense of how-goes a “normal” night, enter Hollywood in the form of a closeted, rising, second-rate matinee idol and his beard, his cover girlfriend, and the oily maneuver that hustles the crooner up to the Hollywood Hills palazzo for a midnight tryst. All the while the crooner keeps eyeing the chauffeur. Distilled, it is the stuff of soap opera. The book jacket calls it epic. What keeps these transparent characters from falling into caricature is the amount of first-person second thought and reconsideration the narrative allows in and between these budding character’s thoughts and actions. The crooner is an ambitious underage punk, and yet the narrator includes his nascent charm and need for a new way to live (ie: perform) via the neutral but sympathetic perspective of the piano player, the adoring eyes of the audience, the competitive nature of his co-worker, the comic. As the narrative point of view illuminates different angles of the same character, individual and multifaceted personality aspects emerge. This story, epic though it will become, begins by familiarizing the reader with a small element of characters against a very large social / political context.
Language: Evidence of a blurry line between the first and third person point of view and the shifting narrative perspective begins on the second page. The narration hovers over Lois, the club owner, as she makes her way through the bar in a long, descriptive paragraph set in her tough, no-nonsense voice. The next paragraph begins even more tersely: “Monday night. Slow. But slow even for Monday, this half-baked movie star slips over to the Other Side in Thriller Jill’s….” Seemingly, the narration is still from Jill’s thoughts and relays what she observes, but, for this entire paragraph, there is no attribution to Jill. In the preceding and the following paragraph Lois thinks, Lois says, but for a moment – a paragraph – the narration could be from the narrator or from Lois, similar to how one maintains a slippery identification maneuvering across one side to the other. This narration being a direct address to the reader and this being an historical – albeit fictional – telling, the reader is required to take part in making history, as history relies on involvement from those who will pass it on to future historians.
Character: Those who the reader meets at Thriller Jill’s seem to be a very small contingent of the entire cast of characters. Each of the other parts are titled with different city names and cover a forty years span of time. It is not clear who will appear, or when, or how they will mesh, but in the style of an epic, they will. Like an episode of the television series, Star Trek, it is easy to see which character will not survive to the end of the hour. When Captain Kirk puts together a landing party to a planet’s questionable surface, clearly, the young ensign who is not a series regular will be dead by 9:00PM. Clearly, in Mordden’s story, if a character doesn’t get a name and a set of defining characteristics she will not make it to the end of the chapter. Mordden defines his characters, first by their gay type, and then adds in other personal contradictions that create human qualities.
Setting: Even to the most inexperienced representative of any constituency, there is a huge disparity between the oppressed atmosphere of 1949 Thriller Jill’s and a 1990’s dance club / gay bar. Mordden effectively exploits contemporary cultural gains against mores of a post World War II era in the descriptions of “normal” society versus the secret world of Gays and Lesbians. The dark and dinginess of Thriller Jill’s against the opulence of the movie star’s mansion are images that readily exist in the imaginations of the contemporary reader. Mordden does not spend much page time describing details of setting, since the reader’s preprogrammed imagination and the characters’ interactions within their environment tell the story completely.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON? is a huge book. From past experience of reading Mordden’s work I knew it would be filled with a variety of iconic figures who represent a large majority of homosexual history via a strong core of real and accessible characters. And yes, I’m going to continue reading because I want to know his take on this period in my history. An Ethan Mordden book is like sugar water to a hummingbird: sweet and life affirming.
Random Comments: Ethan Mordden has an admirable non-fiction output from opera history, Broadway commentary and movie lore. These themes also play major parts in his fictional works. While Mordden’s fictional novels usually end up on the “Gay and Lesbian” shelves, as if the only readers who would want to read about these marginalized souls are a marginalized GLTB audience, my experience in reading his fiction is that I can not stop being glad I come from a history of creative people who are willing to put down their stories so that the youngsters who follow, no matter how oppressed they may feel, will know they are never alone.