The Guys Who Came in from the Cold

Ethan Mordden’s Buddies, published in 1986 by Stonewall Inn Editions, a historic gay-fiction imprint of St. Martin’s Press, is the second collection of interconnected short stories in Mordden’s five-volume series on gay life in Gotham (later titles include Some Men Are Lookers and How’s Your Romance?). They describe a group of gay-male friends and lovers living in New York City in the ’80s and ’90s, and together capture some of the emotional canyons of that era’s iconic, revolutionary American-gay-male sexual culture, and its eventual devastation by the aids epidemic. The first book, I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore (1985), introduced the central characters—Dennis Savage, Little Kiwi, Carlo, and the narrator, Bud, who addresses you, the reader, as if you were the latest trick to wake up in what turns out to be a full Fire Island house. Buddies is something of an intermezzo for this series, and could as easily have been called Brothers for the way it examines various kinds of fraternal relationships, from the biological brother, to the fraternity brother, to the best friend, to even the brother that becomes a lover.

Mordden begins with a prologue that is also something of a manifesto:

The gay writer’s unique contribution to literature, the Bildungsroman of gathering self-awareness and coming out, is essentially a family novel; and our secondary invention, the New York camp-surreal romance, is notable for its desperate flight from the family, its attempt to reconstruct an existence without any relations but those we choose ourselves.

The fantasy of leaving the straight family that rejected you and finding a new gay family that welcomes you was a powerful plot device in fiction by queer writers of the time. Mordden was one of a group of authors—along with Gordon Merrick, Andrew Holleran, Armistead Maupin, and Edmund White, among others—who had only just gained enough acceptance to publish their stories outside of books labeled “sexology.” Buddies, published on the cusp of this shift, has a back-cover blurb from a review in Torso—a nod to the way gay writers counted on serious reviews from gay-porn magazines rather than from, say, the New York Times.

Buddies is that gay bildungsroman, reconfigured as a camp-surreal romance that sets Bud’s straight and gay families in contrast. In the first story, “On the Care and Training of Parents and Siblings,” Bud describes the family he fled and an electrifying war between his brothers that involved the destruction of antiques (“At least all this violence prepared me for life in New York”). In the last, “Sliding into Home,” Bud’s gossipy family welcomes a newly out and handsome stranger, who happens to be a former fraternity brother of one of the characters, to their Fire Island house. The stories often veer in surprising directions, dwelling on cruising that has gone terribly wrong, and the unpredictability of male sexuality (or sexuality in general), in deceptively casual vignettes that reveal how life in this new family works, how its members come of age in it—and how this gay family is not free of its own pains, rejections, and abuses.

As Mordden goes on to say in his introduction: “Our family haunts us, like it or not, in allusions rapt and rueful . . . father and brother figures, masked and idealized as passing strangers, companions, lovers.” Buddies is, by the end, about the power of the difference between the family you’re born into—one you have no choice but to remember—and the new family you choose, whose secrets you have yet to learn. Rereading these stories again now, even as I’m reminded of their unique value, of their sense of discovery and reinvention, I’m also reminded of their historical context, and I can only wonder what Mordden would do with what was for his characters perhaps unthinkable: federally sanctioned gay marriage.

Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 2016.