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Highsmith at 100: Literary legacy marred by racism

Few writers are as popular or more embedded in pop culture

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Talented Mr. Ripley, gay news, Washington Blade
A scene from ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley,’ a film version of Patricia Highsmith’s series of novels about the famous protagonist. Her work is available in print, e-book and audiobook format. (Photo by Phil Bray; courtesy Paramount/Miramax)

You don’t know this about me but I’m a murderer. At least that’s what the brilliant, talented, queer novelist Patricia Highsmith, who was born 100 years ago, may well have called me.

Why, would Highsmith renowned for her novel “Strangers on a Train” and other psychological thrillers, have said this of me? Because, I confess, I’ve eaten snails, smothered, so to speak, in garlic and butter. Highsmith, a misanthrope, gave us in her fiction Tom Ripley, the world’s most charming, but murderous sociopath. Yet, she (seriously) believed that you were a murderer if you ate snails.

Welcome to the world of Patricia Highsmith!

Few writers are as popular, well regarded or more embedded in pop culture than Highsmith, who lived from 1921 to 1995. She wrote many short stories and more than 20 novels. More than 25 movies and numerous TV adaptations have been made of her work. Highsmith’s diaries (comprising some 8,000 pages) will be published this year. A movie, with the same name, of her 1957 psychological erotic thriller “Deep Water,” starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas will be released in August.

Her first novel, “Strangers on a Train,” is a gripping psychological thriller. In it, two men, strangers, meet on a train. Guy has a troublesome wife who won’t divorce him, and Bruno, an engaging sociopath is enraged that his wealthy father won’t give him money. Bruno proposes that they go “criss-cross” – that they murder the person who’s so annoying to each other. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 movie of the novel will keep you glued to your seat.

Highsmith is perhaps best known for her series of novels about Tom Ripley. (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the first of the Ripley novels, was published in 1955. The last Ripley thriller, “Ripley Under Water,” was released in 1991.) Ripley is a sociopath. Lies are to him what potato chips are to junk food addicts: he can never tell just one. Ripley steals other people’s identities, forges paintings and murders anyone who’s an obstacle on his path. Yet, I dare any reader, no matter how saintly, not to love him. He’s handsome, courteous, clever, witty, great at doing impressions of people and has fabulous taste in art, food, and wine.

Highsmith’s work will give you an unforgettable mix of pleasure and suspense. As you read, you’ll wonder: Why am I enthralled by characters who deceive and steal identities as naturally as they might have a beer or coffee? Why am I rooting for a murderer? Graham Greene called Highsmith “the poet of apprehension.”

Perhaps Highsmith’s most important contribution to LGBTQ history was her groundbreaking 1952 novel “The Price of Salt” (later re-titled “Carol”). As I’ve written before in the Blade, Highsmith originally wrote the novel under the pseudonym Clare Morgan out of fear that using her real name would have derailed her career. “The Price of Salt” was a rare novel for that time: It featured a lesbian couple who didn’t die or go to jail. It gave hope to generations of queers.

A Fort Worth, Texas native, she moved at age 12 with her mother and stepfather to New York City. Highsmith often said that her mother had told her that she’d tried to abort her by drinking turpentine.

Highsmith was brilliant, eccentric, but “bigoted, obsessed and intolerant,” Richard Bradford wrote in “The Daily Mail.”

She had numerous relationships with women as well as some male lovers. In one diary entry, Highsmith noted that she’d had 10 lovers in one day. She “made the likes of Casanova look demure,” wrote Bradford, author of the new biography “Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith.”

Highsmith didn’t like Black people or women (except for sex). She was so virulently anti-Semitic that she wished more Jewish people had been killed in the Holocaust.

Yet, Highsmith had a soft spot. She left her estate to Yaddo, the writer’s retreat where she worked on “Strangers on a Train” in 1948.

Knowing about Highsmith’s bigotry is stomach turning. Yet her writing is magnificent, thrilling, pleasurable, and psychologically profound. That’s something to celebrate on her centennial.

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Books

‘Playing the Palace’ a campy, fun rom-com read

What happens when a prince meets an event planner

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‘Playing the Palace’
By Paul Rudnick
c.2021, Berkley
$16/272 pages

If you loathe romance or hate to laugh, then skip this book.  

If you’re looking for a rom-com that’s as fab and campy as Provincetown or Rehoboth Beach on a summer night, “Playing the Palace” by Paul Rudnick is the book for you.

Reading “Playing the Palace” is like sipping a delicious frozen Daiquiri.

Carter Ogden, the neurotic, good-hearted, Jewish, funny, out, gay narrator of this frothy romance, becomes your BFF and drinking buddy at the opening sentence, “It’s still weird, waking up alone.”

The plot of the book is simple: Carter, 29, is an associate “event architect” (in plain English – event planner) in New York City. He makes ends meet by living with wacky, supportive roommates.

Carter, a native of Piscataway, N.J., and IHOP aficionado, is feeling dejected as he approaches his 30th birthday. His ex, an actor, has left him. He can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever find love again.

Until, at work, he meets Edgar, the Prince of Wales. Edgar has come over from the United Kingdom to speak at a charity event for a group that works to provide clean water to countries that need it. And, this being a fictional prince in a rom-com, Edgar is openly gay. 

As you’ve been forewarned, we’re not dealing with realism here.

Edgar sees Carter and asks him to give him tips on how he can get his speech across more effectively.  

From that moment on, the two – the IHOP-loving event planner and the future King of England — are in a fine romance. (Edgar is an orphan. His parents were killed in a plane crash.)

Their quest for the happily-ever-after involves pancakes, projectile vomiting, social media and a Thanksgiving meet-up of Carter’s Jewish aunts and Edgar’s grandmother, the Queen of England.

By itself, the story of “Playing the Palace” might seem predictable. What makes it sizzle – why you laugh out loud even as you root for the romance to work out – is its narrative voice.

“Playing the Palace” is a funny, sometimes touching monologue in the voice of Carter.

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to love Carter when he says he “addressed my problems to the framed photo of the late beloved Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the wall of my tiny, partitioned bedroom.”

Writing a whole novel as a monologue could fizzle out if other writers tried it.  

But, Rudnick a gay novelist, playwright, essayist, screenwriter and humorist, is a master of this form.

His plays, produced on and off-Broadway include “Jeffrey,” “I Hate Hamlet,” “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” and “The New Century.” He’s won an Obie Award, two Outer Critics Circle Awards and the John Gassner Playwriting Award.  

Rudnick’s novels include “Social Disease” and “I’ll Take It.” “Gorgeous” and “It’s All Your Fault” are among his YA (young adult) novels.

His screenplays include “Addams Family Values,” “In & Out,” the screen adaptation of “Jeffrey” and “Sister Act.” He wrote the screenplay for “Coastal Elites,” the comedic satire that debuted on HBO last year.

Something of a polymath, Rudnick is, according to his bio, “rumored to be quite close” to film critic Libby Gelman-Waxner, whose reviews have appeared in Premiere magazine and Entertainment Weekly.

A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, his essays have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times and Vogue.

As you might expect, the volume is chock full of pop culture references and wit. “I took a shower using my new manly body wash,” Carter says, “which is exactly the same as the female version, only with simplified graphics and a steel-gray, squared-off bottle, as if it contains motor oil and testosterone.”

It’s not surprising that Rudnick told Entertainment Weekly that he’s working on a musical of the movie “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Reading “Playing the Palace” is like seeing a Broadway musical.  

“I was looking into eyes that were so radiantly blue I either wanted to faint or yell ‘just stop it,’” Carter says when he first sees Edgar.

“Playing the Palace” is a show-stopper.

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Books

Drew Pisarra’s ‘dangerously funny and queerly inventive brain’

‘You’re Pretty Gay’ shatters expectations and social mores

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Drew Pisarra’s ‘You’re Pretty Gay’ is just out from Chaffinch Press.

Is there anything more absurd than this, wondered gay poet and writer Drew Pisarra.  Pisarra, then, was an assistant to a paralegal at a toothpaste company.

Fiercely protective of the pattern on its toothpaste, they wrote letters to rivals who, they felt, were infringing on their copyright.

Even when their competitors were in countries in the middle of a civil war, “They would write back, ‘we can’t respond now, we’re in a war,’” Pisarra said.

But that didn’t soften the heart of the toothpaste company. They’d insist that “this most important matter be dealt with as soon as the war ends,” Pisarra said.

If you think that authors don’t encounter the absurdity and grit of everyday life or that all writers do is drink coffee (or sip stronger libations) while looking at the sunset, you haven’t met Pisarra.

Pisarra, 56, whose new short story collection “You’re Pretty Gay” is just out from Chaffinch Press, has worked at everything from ventriloquism to domestic work.

The word “unique” is so hackneyed that it’s a cliche to say it’s a cliche. But there’s no other way to describe “You’re Pretty Gay.”

This collection “is a prime example of Drew Pisarra’s dangerously funny and queerly inventive brain,” said Kevin Sampsell, author of “This Is Between Us.” “Each story is its own performance, its own shattering of expectations and social mores.”

Pisarra, who lives in Manhattan, gives readers a mosaic of wit, surrealism,  sex, queerness, memory, mortality and self-discovery.

In “You’re Pretty Gay,” there are gay bars in New York and New Orleans.

You’ll find everything from adolescent bullies fighting over a rare caterpillar to a character taking an AIDS test and, later, meeting up with Mrs. Claus.  

“Mrs. Claus I didn’t even know you were alive,” says the narrator of “Arctic Chill.” “I didn’t even know you were real. I haven’t received a gift from you or your husband in ten years.”

Another of Pisarra’s tales revolves around a trip to hell. “I love traveling,” says the narrator of “The Hat from Hell, “I got this hat when I was in Hell back in 1992.”

In “Granny,” siblings gather after their mother’s death. “All anyone could remember of her was that chair, how she sat in it for the last 40 years,” Pisarra writes, “immobile as ‘Jeopardy’ and the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ glared at her night after night.”

Pisarra’s characters yearn to find love, sex, and who they really are.

“In my quest to bed mankind, I tended to avoid perfection’s rejection,” says the narrator of “Every Man for Myself.”

Pisarra, whose first short story collection “Publick Spanking” was published in 1996, was born in Orange, N.J. When he was in the third grade, he moved to Maryland. There, except for living in Oxon Hill for a year, he grew up in Silver Spring.

When Pisarra was growing up, being gay wasn’t even remotely on the horizon. “There was such denial in the culture then,” Pisarra said.

From early on, he had feelings for men. “I had a crush on a boy in kindergarten,” Pisarra said.

He consulted books and a priest, which wasn’t helpful. They said he’d grow out of it.

“As a teenager, I recognized that I hadn’t outgrown it,” Pisarra said.

Pisarra was a college freshman when he came out. “I sobbed the night I came out,” he said.

He was out in college, Pisarra said, “but I wasn’t getting laid.” That changed when he moved to New Orleans after college.

Pisarra graduated from Hofstra University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in theater.

In college, a professor had the students sit in a circle. Then, the teacher told them how she thought they’d be cast. 

“She told me, ‘you’re a grotesque,’”Pisarra said, “‘You won’t work until you’re in your fifties. Because your face and body don’t match.’”

Pisarra was relieved to hear this. His sense of relief was related to being a young gay man in the late 1980s.

“I wasn’t interested in being closeted,” Pisarra said, “I wrote. I wanted to perform.  I wasn’t interested in conforming.”

Since then, Pisarra has been creating – performing and writing his own material. Some of the stories in “You’re Pretty Gay” were originally created for the stage.

“I don’t write that often,” Pisarra said, “I started writing the stories in ‘You’re Pretty Gay’ 20 years ago.”

A prodigious reader, Pisarra has always “written to some degree,” he said.

Pisarra got turned on to writing poetry when he went to a meeting of a gay and lesbian writers group.

“There were, like, 10 people in this apartment,” Pisarra said, “there was a terrible woman sitting next to me.”

He would have dropped out of the group, if he hadn’t met writer Mare Davis, now his close friend.  

“I said to her, ‘I never want to see any of these people again except you,’” Pisarra said, “She inspired me to get into poetry.”

Davis wrote the introduction to Pisarra’s poetry collection “Infinity Standing Up” (Capturing Fire Press).

Released in 2019, the volume of sexy, playful sonnets received glowing reviews from the Washington Post, the Blade and other outlets.

“Devour me! Think me not some crazy nut!,” Pisarra writes in one of his sonnets.

With lines like these, he gives Shakespeare a run for his money.

Pisarra has held a variety of jobs – many of which have involved the arts. He has helped homeless people with mental health issues to find housing.

“I ran a writers group for them,” Pisarra said, “I encouraged a super-talented woman to send her work out.”

The woman and Pisarra submitted their work to the same magazine. “Her work was accepted. Mine wasn’t,” he said, “I was thrilled!”

In an unusual career twist, Pisarra, who received a literary grant from the Café Royal Cultural Foundation, toured a ventriloquist act entitled “Singularly Grotesque.” He created the act after the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art commissioned him to develop a new solo piece.

“I was wandering around the library aisles and I found two (self-help) pamphlets on talking with ‘multiple’ selves,’” Pisarra said, “and I thought this is ventriloquism in a nutshell.”

Pisarra hadn’t watched much TV.  But that didn’t keep him from interviewing with AMC to be its director of digital media.

“I thought why not,” Pisarra said, “it would be a chance to see what else is out there in the world.”

He worked on the websites for “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”  “It was a pleasure to be part of the online team for these cultural phenomena!” Pisarra said.

With Molly Gross, Pisarra co-founded Saint Flashlight. In this project, he and Gross find inventive ways to get poetry into public spaces.

One of the project’s most innovative efforts has been putting haiku on movie marquees.  It’s fun to see people, looking up, counting the syllables, Pisarra said. You sweat when you put the letters up on the marquee, he added.

“It’s part of the fun! It makes you feel like you’re making something matter,” Pisarra said.

He doesn’t want poetry to be confined to “The New Yorker.”  “It should push the envelope,” Pisarra said, “It’s not just for the upper crust.”

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Books

‘The Guncle’ never wanted kids but now has two

Novel is as charming as they come with a surprise ending

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‘The Guncle’
By Steven Rowley
c.2021, Putnam
$27/326 pages

The situation you’re facing isn’t one you wanted.

You had no wish for it; in fact, it’s 100 percent the opposite. Not your circus, not your monkeys, as they say. So usually, you’d follow your instincts and run but this time, you surprise yourself by stepping up and taking ownership. Now it is your problem but, as in the new novel, “The Guncle” by Steven Rowley, that’s more than OK.

Sara had been his friend first.

Patrick wasn’t exactly happy when she married his brother, Greg, but she managed to make it work and he loved her for it. He loved her first, actually, and he never let her forget it.

But now she was gone and Greg had asked the impossible: would Patrick – gay man, former TV star, Palm Springs fixture, no-responsibilities Patrick – take Greg and Sara’s kids, nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant, for the summer so Greg could go to rehab while grieving the death of his wife? Could the kids’ GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick) step up?

No. There was no way that Patrick was taking temporary custody of two kids – but then his older sister, Clara, copped an attitude, rolled her eyes, and told him he was “off the hook.”

PfftRight.

And so Greg headed to rehab after the funeral and the kids went home with Patrick to Palm Springs. It would be a long 90 days.

Grant was cute but full of questions; Patrick learned to make things up. Maisie was nobody’s fool and Patrick learned to hide his passwords. He gave them “Guncle” Rules (gay + uncle = guncle), life lessons, and stories about their mother – but past that, what does a gay man who never wanted kids do when he suddenly has two of them?

He takes them to the museum way too often, that’s what. He takes them to five-star restaurants and cringes when they order kid food. He lounges with them in the pool, gets them a dog, lets them put up a Christmas tree in July, hugs them, and throws a party.

And he loves them.

There are four words that best describe “The Guncle”: A. Dor. A. Bull.

That’s it. This novel is simply as charming as they come and don’t be surprised if you can almost hear your favorite actors as any of the characters here. Don’t be surprised, either, if you spend your vacation racing to reach the ending you think’s coming and you’re wrong.

Indeed, author Steven Rowley offers the perfect mix of snorts and sobs here, snarky fun one minute and pathos the next but neither emotion is belabored or forced. That gives readers room to enjoy the tale as it unfolds and grows like an inflating pool toy, and to watch the characters twisting wistfully in irresistible, concentric circles.

Your ticket’s in your hand, your suitcase is packed, your destination is close, but you need a book to get you there. If you’d love to immerse yourself inside a sweet novel like “The Guncle,” then step right up.

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