We have many male authors known for loving women, fewer known for loving men. Love that is not overtly homoerotic--resolutely heterosexual, in fact--can take on an intimacy and purity untroubled by sex, even if still troubling for its intensity, its incoherence and frequent confusion, violence or aggression, its exclusionary quality. And so it is no surprise to find it so often in novels of war, or the military. In the last half-century American practitioners of this form have included Heller and Mailer, Ward Just, Tim O'Brien and, perhaps most overlooked, James Salter, who is interested in more than the camaraderie among men in uniform but also its inverse as well, the case of the solitary, perhaps a newcomer breaking in. Here is his description of the fighter pilot Robert Cassada from his new novel of that name:
It was his beauty, of course, a beauty that no one saw--they were blind to such a thing.... By beauty, nothing obvious is meant. It was an aspect of the unquenchable, of the martyr, but this quality had its physical accompaniment. His shoulders were luminous, his body male but not hard, his hair disobedient. Few of them had seen him naked, not that he concealed himself or was modest but like some animal come to drink he was solitary and unboisterous. He was intelligent but not cerebral and could be worshipful, as in the case of airplanes.
"They" and "them" are his colleagues, the men of a fighter squadron stationed in Germany in the 1950s. The men--Dunning, Isbell, Wickenden, Godchaux, Phipps, Dumfries, Ferguson, Harlan, Grace--lead restless, incurious, exalted lives, flying every day in the skies above Western Europe, waiting for the conflict that never comes. So conflict comes from within and among the men, who are arrogant, competitive, bored, cussedly suspicious yet trusting, too. They are not alike. Major Dunning is a Southerner and former college football star; Harlan is a rustic, an overgrown farm boy. Wickenden, or "Wick the prick," Cassada's nemesis, was "born in the wrong century. The cavalry was what he was made for, riding in the dust of the Mexican border with cracked lips and a line edged into his hair from the strap of a campaign hat." Cassada is from Puerto Rico, which leads Harlan to wonder what he's doing in the US Air Force. "Puerto Rico's part of the United States," replies Godchaux.
"I don't know. A long time."
"I must of missed hearing about it."
The banter may not recall Catch-22--while sharp, it is seldom witty--but Salter's particular genius is for the inexpressive man. He saves his tenderest regard for Cassada, about whom there is "an elegance...a superiority. You did not find it often." It is perhaps his gravest mistake, for to a reader with less invested in the project, Cassada is the least present, most flattened out, of all the men, the one who never steps out of the page despite being so beautiful or unforgettable as all that. Cassada, which is a revision of an early, out-of-print novel, The Arm of Flesh, should instead be titled Isbell.
In interviews Salter has dismissed The Arm of Flesh as a "failed book," and he says the same in his preface to Cassada. Admitting that the new venture might be "a mistake," he cites "the appeal of the period, the 1950s, barely a decade after the war; the place, the fighter bases of Europe; and the life itself." Cassada, then--in words that I have seen repeated in every notice--is "the book the other might have been."
I think in fact it is the same book, although better turned out for some crucial changes. The Arm of Flesh is a novel in alternating voices--seventeen altogether--some of which are hard to figure out, others appearing only briefly, even once. Several could be cut entirely, as their narrative distracts from the general thread, which is about the ordeal of two pilots (one whose radio is out) trying to make it home in terrible weather, while interspersed are episodes from lazy days on base and elsewhere. Cassada is told in the third person, but the structure is much the same--if the two books are laid side by side, one sees in Cassada a succession of loose little chapters that more or less correspond to an individual voice's narrative in The Arm of Flesh. Major Clyde is now Dunning. Lieutenant Sisse from the earlier book does not appear at all in the second. In The Arm of Flesh Cassada never speaks with his own voice. In both works his words are reported to us through the perspective of others; and so he is always at least once, often twice, removed from a reader.
"Something was usually beginning before the last thing ended." This is Isbell, and the words seem to me to be the key to the book. Cassada is a new arrival at the wing in Giebelstadt, but the rivalries, the ennui, the excitements of a life in the air, at speed, have been going on as long as men have been assembled to fight. Salter, who was a pilot himself in Korea--with the advantage, unlike many of the pilots in Cassada, of actually having seen combat--has written of this elsewhere, in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir Burning the Days. A pilot, it seems, becomes obsessed with doing something remarkable, with being remembered and spoken about even after he's gone. "In the end there is a kind of illness," Salter writes in his memoir. "A feeling of inconsequence, even lightness, takes hold. It is, in a way, like the earliest days, the sense of being an outsider. Others are taking one's place, nameless others who can never know how it was." Cassada is driven relentlessly to prove himself; his immediate commander, Wickenden, thinks he has a death wish. Isbell, who grows to love Cassada, acknowledges his own part in stirring him up. "It was true [he] had sometimes opposed him. It had been essential to. It was part of the unfolding." Earlier we have learned of Isbell's mysticism, his sense of his role among the men as "biblical." "It was the task of Moses--he would take them to within sight of what was promised, but no further. To the friezes of heaven, which nobody knew were there."
In this kind of outfit, Cassada never stands a chance. It is he who is one of the pilots in trouble as they try to reach home. The other is Isbell. The bond between the two is the strangest in the book, yet critical to its success. I don't think Salter has convinced us that it is true. Isbell is decent, perceives Cassada's isolation; pencils himself in to fly with him once, on an early morning training mission over Germany. It is a matchless day, the kind fliers dream of. They hardly speak.
The earth lay immense and small beneath them, the occasional airfields white as scars. Down across the Rhine. The strings of barges, smaller than stitches. The banks of poplar. Then a city, glistening, struck by the first sun. Stuttgart. The thready streets, the spires, the world laid bare.
Afterward Isbell's body is "empty," his mind "washed clean." Cassada asks about a city they flew over, Ingolstadt. "It's not as great as it was this morning," Isbell replies.
"You could say that about everyplace," he commented.
It was true, Isbell thought, exactly. He felt a desire to reply in kind. It was not often you found anyone who could say things.
It is worth reprinting Salter's original language from The Arm of Flesh. The speaker is Isbell:
"The whole world's like that," he said.
A chance remark that entered my heart. I didn't know what to say. Suddenly he was not what he seemed--as wise as a schoolboy who knows sex--he was entirely different. Yes, I thought. The whole world is. And early we rise to discover the earth. I felt a sudden desire to bequeath him my dreams, to offer them up. All of the searching is only for someone who can understand them.
This seems to me rather better, nearly perfect, in fact. While terseness can suggest all the things that must remain unspoken in life, a writer striking at the essence of character must occasionally open himself up, like a pilot his engines. Earlier in the same passage, in The Arm of Flesh, we have the measure of Isbell that is stripped from its revision in Cassada--excitable, aroused, ready for risk: the risk of loving a fellow flier: "We stealthy two. Streaming like princes. Breathing like steers," he thinks while aloft. Over Stuttgart:
Watch out, Stuttgart. Watch out. We're at God's empty window. We can see everything. The thready streets. The spires. It's all apparent. We can stare through the roofs. Right into the first cups of coffee. Your warm secrets, Stuttgart. Your rumpled beds.
None of this is in Cassada. None of it says much about Cassada, but it says everything about Isbell. The end of the chapter is the same in both books, except for the following sentences from The Arm of Flesh: "He could have told me what he was going to be. I might have believed him." And later on, when the two men's mission has met its tragic end, a lengthy Isbell monologue is sharply cut, in which his obsession with Cassada again comes to the fore: "There is so much I almost told him. I can't understand why I didn't. I was waiting for something, a word that would fall, an unguarded act." Of course, there are no unguarded acts from the embattled Cassada, but more surprising is the sense--retained in Cassada--that the young pilot actually had something to say. Both versions ascribe uniqueness to him, the phrase "the sum of our destinies." Yet Cassada doesn't even pretend to understand Isbell in those moments when their communion is said to be greatest: "You amaze me, Captain.... We're talking about two different things. I don't know. I just don't understand, I guess."
In Burning the Days--the eponymous chapter of which, thirty pages long, is a true anticipation of the story told in The Arm of Flesh and Cassada--Salter invokes briefly a pilot named Cortada: "He was from Puerto Rico, small, excitable, and supremely confident. Not everyone shared his opinion of his ability--his flight commander was certain he would kill himself."
And that's it for Cortada. Another cipher, with too much in common with Cassada to be a coincidence. Salter has kept the story of both men to himself, which is why a reader turns more attentively to the lonely and appealing Captain Isbell, standing between the men and Major Dunning. It is no surprise, of course. Failing to attach ourselves to the protagonist for whom the book is named, we look elsewhere, and find our longing met in the author's substitute.
The end of Cassada is beautiful. It is only four pages. Isbell and his family are leaving Germany; they are on a train along the Rhine, his daughters rambunctious, his wife solicitous, Isbell alone with his thoughts, which include Cassada. For the first time he senses himself as the romantic figure readers have seen all along, joining the ranks of the eternals, "the failed brother, the brilliant alcoholic friend, the rejected lover, the solitary boy who scorned the dance." Isbell is Salter; and one turns to Burning the Days, where the author takes his own solitary farewell to the flying life:
When I returned to domestic life I kept something to myself, a deep attachment--deeper than anything I had known--to all that had happened. I had come very close to achieving the self that is based on the risking of everything, going where others would not go, giving what they would not give. Later I felt I had not done enough, had been too reliant, too unskilled. I had not done what I set out to do and might have done. I felt contempt for myself, not at first but as time passed, and I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them. But it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.
"I would have given anything, I remember that," Salter adds, remembering the pilot's terror ("none of it mattered"), including separation from his leader. Isbell mouths nearly those words in remembering a Cassada who "stands before him, fair-haired, his small mouth and teeth, young, unbeholden." In Burning the Days Salter recalls a beloved figure from West Point who fell in the war: "He had fallen and in that act been preserved, made untarnishable. He had not married. He had left no one...he represented the flawless and was the first of that category to disappear."
Reading Salter's memoir, or recollection, as he prefers to call it, one senses that much of his life has been a mourning. The list of the dead is long and unfolds over pages and pages--many are pilots, men Salter flew with--and it becomes easy to see what he hopes is evident from his preface to Cassada: "the fact that it was sometimes the best along with the worst pilots who got killed." All of Salter's novels--including The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years--are beautiful elegies in which a survivor tries to go on, somehow make sense of it all, knowing the task is futile but that perhaps peace can be achieved. Why should his memoir be any different? Cassada will take a few hours to read, in which time there is exquisite suspense, some lovely sentences, a tender portrait of a hero--Isbell, I still believe, not Cassada--and a lot of shoptalk about flying. But the flying talk is better, more exactly described and sustained, more rapturous--"exalted," to use a favorite Salter word--in Burning the Days, and the memoir has the advantage of tracking the two held-apart strands of Salter's emotional life--the chaste love of men, the unsatiable desire for women--more closely than is possible for a book about fighter pilots. The following sentence sounds like Isbell recalling Cassada, but in fact it's Salter standing in the wreckage of all who have died: "You are surviving, more than surviving: their days have been inscribed on yours."
In their hunger to take back the White House, the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons have swallowed the mellow prose of Texas scripted for them by George W.'s handlers--but at the state level, the antigay hate campaigns of the Christian right are picking up steam. "In 2000 there have been and are more gay-bashing initiatives on the ballot than ever before," points out David Fleischer, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force organizer for state and local politics.
In Nevada, an amendment to the state Constitution banning same-sex marriage, backed by the Southern Baptists (who have pledged $1 million to pass it) and the Mormon Church, won 60 percent approval in the latest polls. In Nebraska, an even worse measure bans civil unions and even legal status for domestic partnerships, which threatens benefits afforded to same-sex couples by private companies doing business there (like Qwest and Wells Fargo). In Maine, the Christian Civic League (a Gary Bauer spinoff) and the Christian Coalition are spending heavily to defeat ratification of a gay civil rights law already passed by the legislature. The progay forces are woefully underfunded in all three states.
But the most critical battle is in Oregon, which has seen forty antigay initiatives (four statewide, the rest local) in the past twelve years. This year's Measure 9 is a viciously broad version of the "no promo homo" amendments Jesse Helms has been trying to pass in Washington for years: It bans public school "instruction of behaviors relating to homosexuality and bisexuality...that encourages, promotes or sanctions such behavior." Sponsored by professional antigay crusader Lon Mabon and his Oregon Citizens Alliance--who were behind the previous referendums--this thought-police measure would have a devastating effect on the ability of the state's schools and colleges to teach about HIV or antigay discrimination and menaces the livelihood of openly gay teachers. Mabon makes it quite clear: He has said that the measure is designed to defund "any place that there is a cultural diversity program or multiculturalism or AIDS education [in which] homosexuality is presented as being normal and acceptable.... Any AIDS education like what occurred at Portland State University or at the local level could not be done. Any speakers that come in, if they are homosexuals, they could not stand up in front of a class or an assembly and talk about a pro-homosexual lifestyle."
Mabon-sponsored referendums aimed at banning civil rights laws protecting gays were defeated in 1992 and 1994, but it will not be so easy this time. In previous years the gay-bashing measures were the only controversial ones on the ballot, and a broad-based progressive coalition fought back effectively; this year, there are twenty-six different ballot questions, and the official guide mailed to every voter is 400 pages, the size of a telephone book. Moreover, there are seven other initiatives of major concern to progressives: two antilabor "paycheck protection" measures; three on tax and budget cutting; and two anti-environmental proposals.
"It's very shrewd of the right wing," says Paddy McGuire, who ran the Clinton campaign in Oregon in 1992 and 1996 and is now chief of staff to the secretary of state. "For $100,000 you can put damn well anything on the ballot--9 is the only one of these measures where signatures were mostly gotten by volunteers, while the others were gathered by paid workers at $1.50 a signature. It's going to take around a million bucks to defeat each one of them--that's $5 to $6 million we won't spend to elect progressives to office." The strategy to sap progressive energies through referendums was the brainchild of Bill Sizemore, the 1998 Republican candidate for governor. Sizemore has turned his strategy into a lucrative business: He runs Oregon Taxpayers United--which is funded by wealthy GOP conservatives and the oldtime timber barons and fronts for the ballot measures--and on the side he runs a signature-collection firm that rakes it in for petition drives.
"We're stretched thin," worries Josh Kardon, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden's chief of staff. "The governor [liberal Democrat John Kitzhaber] is tied up fighting off the two measures aimed at his budget. Wyden's tied up trying to raise money for state legislative races--we're in spitting distance of taking back one or both houses. Because we're so diluted, trying to explain in a short time why Measure 9 is bad for kids is going to be tough."
All the more so because "we have less than half the staff the campaign that defeated the 1994 antigay referendum had, when they spent $1.7 million," says No on 9 campaign manager Kathleen Sullivan; by mid-September the group had raised only $300,000. Both the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council are putting major resources into 9's passage. The No campaign does have strong support from the PTA as well as the state AFL-CIO, whose president, Tim Nesbitt, points to "an alliance between Lon Mabon and paycheck protection, which the OCA has endorsed." As the state's leading Democratic pollster, Lisa Grove, points out, "Passage of 9 would have implications beyond Oregon--if they can win here, they'll try it elsewhere." Money for TV ads is desperately needed. To contribute, make out checks to: No on 9, PO Box 40625, Portland, OR 97240; or log on at www.noon9.org.
Let's give up some applause for Dick Cheney for affirming in deed, if not words, that homosexuality is perfectly consistent with traditional family values. The decision for a Republican candidate for the vice presidency to have an avowed homosexual at his side through virtually every hour of his campaign is a bit risky. It means taking on the forces of intolerance on the right wing of his party, a wing that at one time included Cheney and, more prominently, his wife.
However, now that Cheney has granted his lesbian daughter a major role in his campaign, is it not time for the candidate to distance himself from a Republican platform that would deny equal rights protection to all homosexuals? Evidently homosexuals can be reliable workers, and it should be illegal to discriminate against folks like Mary Cheney simply because of their sexual orientation.
"I think of her as sort of my aide-de-camp," candidate Cheney said in paying tribute to his daughter Mary in an interview last week with the New York Times: "She keeps all the paper flow coming to me; everything sort of funnels through her. More than that, she knows me. She has no qualms about telling me when she thinks I'm wrong, or when I need to do something. Mary will always come in and lay it right on me. My experience over the years is that's invaluable in a campaign. Everybody wants a good relationship with the candidate--not everybody will level with you. Mary levels with you."
One would accept such excellent skills to be valuable to any employer not biased by prejudice against gays. Yet anti-discriminatory laws are needed precisely because not all employers have had the opportunity to learn from their own offspring that homosexuals are indeed normal people.
Given that Mary Cheney is proving so valuable in the campaign, would Cheney, the person who'd be next in line to become commander in chief of the armed forces if George Bush wins, still stick to his oft-expressed view that homosexuals not be allowed to serve in the military? Would his daughter be more inclined than heterosexuals in the military to undermine morale by acting in indecorous ways?
The Republican platform declares that homosexuality is "incompatible" with military service and even stands "united" with the Boy Scouts in that organization's avowed policy of excluding gays. Does Dick Cheney believe that the Girl Scouts are amiss in not following the example of the Boy Scouts, and would he be in favor of excluding his own daughter from playing a role in that organization?
These questions are not intended to be cute or to pull the candidate's chain. They go directly to the hypocrisy in which we treat homosexuals as dangerous freaks unless we happen to be friends with, or related to, one.
Ignorance is the essential ingredient in hate. Dick Cheney probably didn't know his daughter was gay when he compiled one of the most viscously anti-gay voting records in Congress. He was one of only 13 representatives in 1988 who voted against funding for AIDS testing and research at a time when that was conveniently thought to be an exclusively gay disease, and one of only 29 that same year to vote against a Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
Perhaps he would vote differently now that his daughter, whose judgment he trusts in all important matters, has determined that she is indeed a homosexual. Should a woman of such sound thought and strong moral principles not be the best judge of her essential sexual nature? Or should we continue to be guided by the bigotry of legislators and religious proselytizers? It is still against the law in Texas to perform homosexual acts; does Mary Cheney have to retreat to Colorado to legally make love?
Yes, it would be best if such decisions could be left in the private realm, as the Cheneys now ask in refusing to discuss their daughter's sexuality. But it's too late for such niceties because the hate-mongers and their respectable allies in the Republican Party have for decades exploited homosexuality as a hot political issue. It is they who have thwarted every legislative effort to grant to homosexuals the same rights afforded all other citizens.
One can understand why Mary Cheney does not now want to become a poster woman for gay rights. But she is, by her father's witness, living proof that being gay is perfectly compatible with leading a moral, public-spirited and fully enriched family values life. She is a role model that even the political right might be forced to respect.
A recent decision reminds us that true equality for gay people will arrive only when the Supreme Court is not controlled by Justices whose moral view of gay people is negative.
Gay-Baiting in the Military Under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
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What makes an American writer? In today's narrow, backlashed literary
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Scheduled for April 30, the Millennium March on Washington for Equality--the fourth national lesbian and gay rally on the Mall--may sound like your standard, good old-fashioned mass march on Wash