Sometimes I get jealous of my gay writer friends. I think that compared to me at least, they have such a rich life - filled with things that I can never experience since my sexual orientation is NEVER called into question, never outlawed, and mostly never prosecuted. They have this whole world of things they can draw from to write about which I simply… lack.
Then I think about the things they have to put up with which make their lives so full and rich, and I decide I’m not so jealous after all.
Now, I don’t know if my friend Eric Sasson has been to all the places his characters visit in his short story collection Margins of Tolerance - although I know he’s well traveled. But if he’s been to even HALF of them, then I’m jealous once again, and not of his experience as a gay man, but of his experience as a world traveler. I’ve been a LOT of places, but now that I have two school-aged kids, I don’t get to go to far away places so much anymore.
What Eric has done with Margins of Tolerance is brilliant. He’s taken those two things I’m jealous about - his experience as a gay man and his experience as a traveler - and combined them into a rich and varied commentary on things which transcend ALL experience.
Two common threads run through each of the stories contained in this volume: the first is that every protagonist is a gay male. (I think that’s obvious from the things I’ve implied so far.) But if these stories focused solely on what it’s like to be gay, then I think it would be easy to dismiss Eric as a writer who’s found a comfortable niche - something to fall back on and rely on and repeat. I know some writers who happen to be minority, and who inhabit THAT personae in all of their writing - to the point that, even though I sympthasize with them and support them, I sometimes find their reliance on their status tiresome and uninventive.
Eric doesn’t do that. The SECOND thread which runs through Margins of Tolerance is how very DIFFERENT each story is. The protagonists are all wildly different - the only things they have in common are their gayness and their maleness. Other than that, they’re a different as anybody you can imagine.
The settings are also all different, ranging from a cheap hotel in Peru to a bar in St. Petersburg, Russia to a writers’ conference in Lake Tahoe. Eric has evidently visited many of these places, and if he hasn’t then he’s done his homework - he KNOWS these places in a profound and intimate way, and he uses them to great effect.
Not only are the characters and settings varied - even the style and language change from story to story. This is no small feat, I can tell you from my own experiments in changing style, voice, and cadence between stories. It’s very difficult to be tongue-in-cheek and sassy in one instance, then somber and melancholic in another. Many writers can’t pull off first person, and others revel in it. To see a single writer pull off such a variety of styles in such a small space is somewhat astounding.
Finally, the themes in Margins of Tolerance vary as well. I recently reviewed a book of short stories, that while enjoyable and worth reading, did dwell a lot on a number of contained and related themes. Margins of Tolerance defies that as much as it defies any other border. It’s a great irony and a triumph of sorts that this book, which sets itself up to be about the lines we as humans draw in the proverbial sand, crosses those lines again and again.
The power of Eric’s stories here are that each disparate piece - the characters, their situations, the setting, and the themes - are perfectly put together. Like a talented confectioner building the perfect cupcake from scratch, Eric somehow knows that THIS person experiencing THIS emotion and circumstance in THIS particular place will yield THIS transcendent message for the reader.
Some of these stories will disturb you - especially if you’re homophobic. Some of these stories will offend you. Some of these stories will make you cry, some will make you groan, some will make you shiver, and some will make you stand up and say “FUCK YEAH, that’s how it is!”
All of them will make you think - about your own person, about your own surroundings, and about the margins which you have established regarding your own tolerance.
And if you’re me, they’ll make you jealous.
Living as I have and as I do in Atlanta and New York, I have a LOT of gay and lesbian friends – not just people I KNOW who are gay and lesbian. Friends. It’s to the point that, while I am aware of their sexuality, between us it has become such a non-issue that the subject scarcely ever comes up.
Then I go to a poetry or writing event which seems to lean heavily toward gay and lesbian, or I see an announcement for something like MondoHomo or Gay Pride, and my (shameful) knee-jerk reaction is: Why? Why do you feel the need to be so in-your-face about this?
AND THEN along comes something like Proposition 8, and Miss California, and I think: Oh yeah. That’s why.