Lethe Press, the independent press that publishes the annual Best Gay Stories anthologies, takes its name from the river of forgetfulness and oblivion in Greek mythology. With the publication of Best Gay Stories Lethe’s name becomes a bit of a misnomer for two crucial reasons. The first is that most of the twenty stories collected in the 2014 edition deal with memory, to the extent that “memory” means the absence of forgetfulness. Only three of them are in the still-cutting-edge present tense; the rest are firmly in the past, confronting issues of wanting to forget the traumas and stigmas of growing up gay in the previous generation, but also of nostalgia. As editor Steve Berman writes in his introduction, “The men you will meet in these pages are pained by the realizations that they are no longer young boys who can leap off rocks into a swimming pool or can happen upon a tryst without consequence.
Some are at the precipice of adulthood, some are already across the great divide of years[…]”. The second reason for the name’s irony is simpler: most of these stories are truly quite memorable and attentive. The assemblage of stories is impressive in its diversity. There are two translations: an excerpt from Austrian author Josef Winkler’s novel The Graveyard of Bitter Oranges—which is the most explicitly erotic of the group—and Dmitry Kuzmin’s “On the Moscow Metro and Being Gay,” an introspective essay that discusses how its two titular states of being reflect the desire for power that seems so prevalent in the Russian character. There is also “Ma tu sei pazzo?!”, Tommi Avicolli Mecca’s sweeping summary of the role of Italian-Americans in LGBT and labor rights activism. Sewed into this history lesson is the author’s memoir of growing up and coming out amidst the ultra-Catholic, ultra-conservative environment of southern Italy and the Italian diaspora.
There are few less equivocal moments in the anthology than when Mecca states with startling candid simplicity that when he came out to his family, one “uncle suggested to my oldest brother that they take care of me Godfather style.” Rounding out the nonfiction in the collection is James J. Gifford’s essay “Proem: How to Read Gay Pulp Fiction,” an homily to the now-out-of-print dime store paperbacks that broke ground in male gay narratives in the early twentieth century. For contemporary readers left jaded by the onslaught and easy accessibility of traditional formulaic literature both inside and outside of the LGBT genre, Gifford provides a refreshing approach to the pulp novels that he resurrects. Of course, there are stories that smudge the boundaries between fiction and reality, such as Richard Bowes’ “Seven Days of Poe,” which—as one may guess—dissects a week in the life of the narrator, a library employee, through allusions to his beloved Edgar Allan Poe stories. That story could turn out to be fiction, yet the invocation of the locale—1960s Boston—and the affinity for the Poe tales—which are used variously as mimicry, fantasy, symbolism and even contrast—all feel genuine insomuch that a semi-autobiographical impression is unavoidable.