On Wallace Hamilton’s Coming Out | By James Magruder
“But Michael, as Roger learned that afternoon, was a very different partner—a roistering boy-man who had been loved by men and taught by men. Gentleness was not for him. Reassurances he did not need. When Roger held him, he’d say, “Harder!” When Roger paused, he’d ask, “What’s the matter?” When Roger would fall back, he’d be over him like a horde of Goths.”
In the spring of 1977, on the spinning rack at the Walgreen’s across the street from our subdivision was a new paperback called Coming Out. On its cover was a young man framed in a doorway, arms crossed, legs akimbo, wearing powder-blue bellbottoms and a frank expression. “The most open and honest revelation of what it means to be gay in American today” read the jacket line on the back. I raced home, feeling very zero at the bone, then sent my little sister back to the drugstore with two dollars and fifty cents, enough for Coming Out, plus tax and tip. Margarette thought nothing of the errand, used as she was to buying Broadway cast albums for me at Sears and Wax Trax.
I was a junior in high school and all I knew of the subject, besides my own furtive feelings, came from the hateful (but arousing) Chapter 6 in Dr. Reuben’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask) and Mart Crowley’s sad, saturnine play The Boys in the Band. Wallace Hamilton’s Coming Out turned out to be a far more seditious read. It was a love story. Architect Roger Thornton, a recently divorced, womanizing father of two, uncovers his most authentic self when he invites Michael, a 22-year old art student, to his room in a Manhattan residency hotel for coffee. At forty-seven, Roger’s learning curve—personal and sociological—is steep: leather bars, lesbians, psilocybin, the baths, Michael’s drag friends, PDAs, STDs, confessions to his daughter, mistress, business partner, and most wrenching of all, trust and commitment.
I read Coming Out three times that first week, hiding it in my bookshelf behind a row of Hardy Boy mysteries, an outgrown enthusiasm. Witty, fast-paced, and yes, highly informative, the novel suggested a template for what my life might one day become—passionate sex with kissing, a career in the arts, and a shared loft on West 15th Street. Michael and Roger’s happy ending was a rebuke to Anita Bryant’s concurrent Save Our Children dispatches from Dade County, Florida, in the same way that Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video project may be giving hope to isolated queer kids today.
I have reread Coming Out several more times in the intervening decades, not as literature, but as a touchstone. Although its pre-AIDS, pre-Marriage Equality Act setting is now as remote as the Gobi Desert, I find that I have somehow, as planned, managed to reap some of its narrative rewards. When I began to allow myself to write fiction in my forties, I discovered that my earliest stories all treated mistakes I’d made with older men when I was Michael’s age, a sort of “Why did I sleep with him?” mystery series. For her part, my sister fell hard for Heathcliff. Did those fevered first readings of Coming Out stoke a search for a Roger Thornton? Today, I am four years older than Roger and have discovered, after thirteen years with my own partner, who came out in his forties, with six children, that a mortgage is the bedrock of romantic commitment. I wish I could have met Wallace Hamilton, or that he had lived to write a sequel.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. James Magruder lives in Baltimore. His first novel, Sugarless, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. His second, a novel-in-stories titled Let Me See It, is coming out in August 2012 from Magnus Books. He’d like the world to know that his story “Matthew Aiken’s Vie Bohème” was rejected by 67 print journals before New England Review (32.3) gave it a home.