The Hindu Business Line
Camp as Christmas
Joe Keenan’s first novel, spectre of AIDS kicked in offers a rare peek into gay life in the US, before the
Gifts at this time of year are traditionally fun and rather sparkly. So, this Christmas, here is my gift to you: Joe Keenan’s novel Blue Heaven. If I could, I’d have an Amazon drone drop a copy down your chimney. As it is, you’ll have to go hunt it out for yourself. Like a good strong nip of brandy, it’s the perfect pick-meup, and — trust me — you’re going to need it come 2017.
The story starts with the narrator, Philip Cavanagh — a young gay writer — surveying the carnage that is about to ensue:
“Looking back on the whole ghastly affair, what surprises me most is that when news of Gilbert’s plan first reached me I felt no sense of foreboding whatsoever. I didn’t blanch, I didn’t tremble, nor did I rush to a pay phone to call an airline and inquire about low fares to the Canary Islands. My early warning system, usually so reliable where Gilbert is concerned, had completely shut down. I was at a gallery opening, you see, and cheap wine will do that to you.”
The Gilbert in question is Gilbert Selwyn, Cavanagh’s best friend and first fling, a young man who manages to be simultaneously “Old Man Trouble’s sorriest victim and (…) his most indispensable collaborator.” As Cavanagh goes on to elaborate: “Fate, and fate alone may place the banana peel in his path, but it is Gilbert who will every time make certain that at the moment of rendezvous he’s carrying a tray laden with Baccarat crystal which he has, in order to impress a date, borrowed without the permission or knowledge of its owner, and which he’d been hoping to return in secret.”
The plot — and it is the kind of brilliant, towering confection of twists and flourishes that would make Mary Berry gasp with pride — revolves around Selwyn (a lifelong, one might even say devout, homosexual) marrying Moira Finch, a woman whose scruples can be glimpsed only with the aid of a particle accelerator. Why? For the gifts.
Their plans to relieve their respective families of vast amounts of white goods and hard cash go as spectacularly awry as it is possible to go. It’s a terrible idea from the outset, but is given added zest and piquancy by the fact that the people they are planning to defraud — Selwyn’s step-family — are the kind who RSVP by severed horse-head. The discovery that his mother — a delightfully ditzy character called Maddie — married a mobster gives Selwyn pause, but only a brief one. Finch, on the other hand, is delighted, as she unleashes her schemes to fleece the fleecers, hoodwink the hoodlums and demob the mobsters all the way to the bank. As she gets to work schmoozing Freddy Bombelli — the wheezy, ancient Godfather of them all — Cavanagh frantically backpedals while hanging onto Selwyn’s coattails in an effort to extricate himself and his friend from an increasingly certain death involving concrete boots and the Hudson.
The narrative zips along with a memorable cast of support characters. There’s the fat, bald, unstoppable gossip Holly Batterman, who, while not New York’s most romantically successful homosexual, “derives what solace he can by being its most ostensible.” Then there’s Vulpina (no last name), Finch’s best friend and designer, whose outfits are invariably stamped with “Vulpina’s unmistakable hallmark: overpriced hideousness.” Vulpina speaks in heavily Slav-accented English, with “the throbbing intensity one should only be allowed to employ when saying ‘The tip is poisoned, use it if you must,’ or ‘Silence, you fool — his men are everywhere.’ I realise this habit may sound quirky and amusing, but after a while you just want to hit her.” Add to the mix a high-strung, cross-dressing, Duchess-impersonating trust fund manager, and the jilted ex-lover of one of Selwyn’s cast-offs hell-bent on revenge, you have a pretty heady cocktail. Think: gay PG Wodehouse on poppers and cocaine.
Blue Heaven was Keenan’s first novel — and by far his best. It was on the strength of this that he was offered a job as scriptwriter for the TV series Frasier (ending up at the end of season six as executive producer). The series is famed for the sharp characterisation and the brilliantly witty script: clever, funny, affectionate and at times genuinely touching and insightful — all things one could say about Keenan himself.
Published in 1988, Keenan wrote Blue Heaven in his 20s, and it sails along with all the buoyant (and boyish) charm and confidence that comes with youth. It’s a breeze to read. Cavanagh, Selwyn and the gang reappear in his next two books — Putting on the Ritz (1991) and My Lucky Star (2006) — but neither quite hit the giddy high points of the first. In Selwyn’s cheerful sluttishness, Keenan also captures something of the joie de vivre of gay life in America’s pre-AIDS days. Blue Heaven shimmers with the kind of bubbly wit that got Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series off to such a great start. Now don’t get me wrong: the angst and pain of Edmund White have their place — just not now, and not in a large green-and-red knitted sock nestling up with the satsumas.
You know that phrase ‘camp as Christmas’? Well: have a very merry one.