Art by Ronald Lockett
Photos by Cary Whittier, courtesy of MARCH
On Saturday June 10, at 3:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time, please join a dozen of Bo Huston's friends and colleagues (old and new) to celebrate Bo's birthday. He would have been sixty-four. For two hours, we'll share memories of Bo and read out loud from his work. The event is free and open to the public. Click here to join.
“There must not be a Jed.”
Is the last sentence of The Dream Life an imperative? Is it a “Thou shall not” forbidding Jed from existing? Forbidding Holly from forming Jed? Who is forbidding what?
Or is the sentence a speculation? Is Holly wondering if there is or was no Jed? Or at least as Holly has imagined him? Or as Jed has presented himself to us?
The sentence before was: “I’m lost.”
Of course Holly’s lost. We are lost, but somewhere bigger than we imagined when we started. Where are you now? How long have you been wrong? You cannot just be nowhere. We are lost because these sentences work like puns or optical illusions, like the one where first you see the vase then you see the two facing profiles but you can’t see both at once even though you know they’re both there, so which is the real one and what is the other? A dream? Sometimes in writing things can be how they can’t in life because anything can be the way you tell it.
These sentences are also somewhat what love is like. How it can make you your most alive self, but also make you not quite yourself, because you’re beside yourself then, a subset of who you love. Sometimes it makes you a friend or colleague but sometimes you get obsessed, deluded, vexed. You do things you didn’t dream before and don’t care what anyone thinks. You only think of the one you love. Whoever you were before is lost.
These sentences come in the last section of The Dream Life at the end of Holly’s narration of a dream he’s had when asleep. Holly dreams he is walking across a field where he is hoping to meet Jed. But in this dream, the person he meets isn’t Jed, doesn’t know him, walks past and leaves Holly alone. Sometimes even in dreams you can’t get what you want. Sometimes even love leaves you alone.
If you’re someone who doesn’t fit right into the world, if how you’re seen in the world is diseased and dangerous, why not live in a dream?
The first line of The Dream Life is “Prologue or epilogue.” But the story also begins in the middle, when Holly and Jed have just landed in L.A. and are about to get in a car to head out across the US, kind of like Huck and Jim, and Sal and Dean after them. They’re in a bright, wide, huge-windowed airport, and a woman in front of them starts coughing, then a male-female couple is coughing too, then everyone is coughing and trying to run away “like a scene of a plague.” Holly is terrified, Jed isn’t. Jed sees Holly like this: “His eyes were red, his lips were apart and whitish. It was like his skin had been stripped off him.” Holly thinks they’re being gassed but Jed is thinking about Holly: “I hadn’t ever seen him so scared, actually, not in such a sudden way, so fragile. I’d never seen an adult seem so much like a child.” Jed smiles, “I guess like an adult would smile to calm down a worried kid.”
But theirs were not boyhoods in which kindly parents smiled to calm scared children down. This is a book about children growing up without parents who know how to love, about boys becoming men, and men becoming old and trying to grasp at what they didn’t get when young. There aren’t any fathers to speak of in this book, and the mothers don’t know how to mother their kids, though Holly would be a mother if he could. This book is about being in the world not rightly made. I remember a friend of mine in the late 80’s telling me his father had been repulsed by his being gay. The father called his son “deficient.” My friend could not forget that word, even after his father came around to love him. A lot of us old homos from 30, 40, 50 years ago cannot forget what was said to us and thought of us. It still burns inside us.
Can someone rescue someone from the world? Maybe themselves? What if the way you are in the world is wrong? Do you look for someone else like you? Do you dream them into life? Can such a dream last?
The second line of The Dream Life is: “And keep the story simple.” The plot of this story is simple: a man goes to a café and remembers his life. He goes there in the afternoons and tries to avoid the embarrassing old queens who frequent the place. He regards himself, like them, as old: “I no longer feel dangerous. That was a thing of youth.” Holly is only in his early thirties (about the age Bo Huston was when he was wrote this book), but his body feels old because he’s sick. There’s something wrong with his eyes and he coughs all time. “Something’s gone terribly wrong, deep inside... a cruel unfathomable sickness.” It goes back to his childhood.
When does a child understand they’re different? When do they understand they are not loved? What’s wrong with them?
When news about what was variously referred to as gay cancer, the gay plague, GRID (Gay Related Immune Disorder), began appearing in the American press in 1981, many Americans accepted this as proof that being gay meant being sick. The term AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which came into use in l982, might have done away with the gay = sick equation, but it didn’t. Large parts of America and the world continued to revile gay men and to regard AIDS as an illness those perverts deserved.
Bo Huston was diagnosed with AIDS in l988. He quit his job in advertising and spent the remainder of his life writing and working for other writers. He was a regular columnist for the San Francisco Bay Times and a co-founder of Out/Write, the first LGBTQ literary conference. He wrote four books.
He wrote about people who were reviled—junkies and shut-ins and broken-down queens, wives whose husbands have left them, husbands whose wives have left. Murderers, hustlers, the self-deluded, mothers whose babies died, and convalescents. Huston’s first two books, Horse and Other Stories (1990), and Remember Me (l991), a novel, were published by Amethyst Press, a small press specializing in work by out gay men. Back in the 80’s and early 90’s it was rare for out LGBT writers to get their work published by mainstream houses or reviewed by the mainstream press. Our stories, back then, were mostly reviled too.
The “horse” of Horse and Other Stories is both heroin (Bo had been an addict and had gotten clean) and a child’s toy. There are a few pieces in Horse and Other Stories that are clearly the work of a young writer trying out different voices and formal experiments with varying degrees of success. But much of the collection is powerful and accomplished. One of the stories I can’t stop thinking about is “Seven Kinds of Pity.” I won’t summarize the whole story here, other than to tell you that the main character, Witthauer, has just been abandoned by his wife. This is the final paragraph:
It is not really that Witthauer is generous or forgiving, but that he feels nothing now but pity. That pity he feels for his wife, that which she feels for him, she for herself, he for himself, pity the whole world would feel for Witthauer and he for the whole world. If the truth were really known and could be told.
It’s hard to write about pity without being maudlin. It’s hard to write about sentiment without being sentimental. It’s also not worth writing unless you risk those things.
In “The Divine Image,” William Blake wrote of “Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love.” These four are God, Blake says, these four are also humanity. Of the four, though, “Pity has a human face.” Bo Huston looked at his characters with mercy and love, and very much with pity.
Holly looked sad, weak. And when he looked that way it was so easy for me to just forget my own side of things, to feel... I guess it’s sympathy. Pity, maybe? Maybe what people think is love is really just pity.
(The Dream Life)
“Bo Huston seems to have a godlike compassion for his characters. He sees them as imperfect human beings who have suffered or caused others’ suffering, yet are still capable of redemption.”
Can anyone really help who they are? Can anyone ever change? Can anyone take away someone else’s pain? Does anyone not need pity?
Bo Huston seems to have a godlike compassion for his characters. He sees them as imperfect human beings who have suffered or caused others’ suffering, yet are still capable of redemption.
Another of the stories in Horse, “Little World,” reappears as the first chapter of Remember Me. “I know that death is a rumor. I pay it no mind,” it begins, but illness, death and AIDS appear throughout this book. The first person narrator and his invalid shut-in housemate, Charlotte, try to live as separately from the world as they can and protect each other from it. As with Holly and Jed, though, their relationship becomes too insular and cannot be sustained.
The Listener: A Novella and Four Stories (St Martin’s Press, l993) was published posthumously. This is a book that, for years, my wife would buy every copy we came across (it went out of print a while ago) to keep to give people. I assigned it to my smartest, most passionate students. I find this collection utterly heartbreaking and maybe flawless. I don’t know of much more earth-aware and yet transcendent fiction.
In the penultimate section of The Dream Life, before Holly has his dream, he recounts an event from childhood “that shaped me, the source of all my meaty trouble, the origin of my sickness ... ” Aunt Joy (what a hopeful name!) has brought his mother home from the hospital. She’s had a mental breakdown and no longer knows her son. Jed’s mother is a mess in a different way. Early in The Dream Life, Holly asks:
Who were we? Teacher and pupil, master and slave, or friends? Fagin and Oliver Twist? Lovers? We were certainly not like a father and son... Was that what Jed wanted? (In my deepest, most honest dreams, I was his mother.)
A paragraph later Holly confesses: “I miss Jed with that saddest kind of grief; the way I miss my own childhood, my own self.”
These mothers loved their sons the way they could. What happened to them? Can a man love a child like a mother? Can a child let a male mother him?
What do you look for when you look for love? Who decides what is love and what isn’t? What if love isn’t enough? What if it is?
I met Bo in San Francisco when I was there to promote my book, The Terrible Girls, which City Lights published in the US. I’d been living in Europe for several years and when I came back to the states in 1990 I didn’t know many American writers and had little idea what was happening in LGBT writing. Amy Scholder, my editor at City Lights (God bless Amy Scholder!!!), arranged for me to meet Bo. I think one of us was supposed to be interviewing the other but maybe that was just an excuse to get us together. I remember feeling intimidated and somewhat shy around this particularly sharp guy. He had strong opinions about the work of our contemporaries, and thought a lot of it was slight. I didn’t know most of the work or the people who wrote it, so I wasn’t so shocked by his dismissals. I did, though, know and love some of the same classic writers he did. (Think of all those references, in The Dream Life, to Thomas Mann, E. M. Forster, Lewis Carroll, Willa Cather, Charles Dickens. We loved those guys and gals, though we disagreed about Gertrude Stein.) We also both totally loved Yeats. In Ireland a couple years before, I had bought a T-shirt with a picture of Yeats on it. This impressed Bo terrifically, for which I was and remain glad.
Bo and I kept in touch and talked about writing and books and writers we liked and hated and AIDS and death and God and love and other stuff. Bo had met the love of his life, Dan Carmell, in l987, and I had met Chris Galloway, the woman to whom I am now married, in l992, so we were both grateful for our good fortunes in that. We were passionate young writers with bodies of work—a couple books and lots of articles each—beginning to get out in the world. I had a long future ahead of me and Bo, of course, had AIDS.
In the late l980’s, AIDS was not the immediate death sentence it had been for the first years of the epidemic, but the main treatment then was AZT, which only partly treated it, and had horrible side effects. It was not a drug regime you could stay on forever.
In l991, Bo went to Zurich to undergo an experimental treatment for AIDS. His essay, “Meditations in Zurich,” published posthumously in Thomas Avena’s anthology, Life Sentences: Writers, Artists and AIDS (Mercury House, 1994), is a nonfiction account of this experience. It’s devastating in its personal and spiritual transparency. Sometimes I have found its intimacy hard to read. It’s like Bo was holding nothing back, nothing. A mortal man seeing the body, the heart, the longing, the loss, the love, death.
As Avena recounts in his introduction to that volume, after treatment failed, Bo planned his death. He completed edits on his essay, gathered his family and Dan around him, and picked a day.
Bo Huston was born in 1959 in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a name he got a lot of mileage out of. He left Chagrin and went to college, studied film, went to New York, became a junkie, left New York to get clean, got clean, moved to San Francisco, worked in advertising, fell in love with Dan, got AIDS, wrote articles and books, got sick then sicker, died. He did this all in not a lot of time. Wikipedia has informed me that another person born in Chagrin Falls was Sonny Geraci, the lead singer of “The Outsiders,” who had a hit in l966 called “Time Won’t Let Me.” I remember this song from when I was ten. The chorus went like this:
Time won’t let me (oh no!) I like thinking of Bo thinking of this ridiculous song, this ridiculous connection, and kind of half smirking and shaking his head the way he did. He’s smoking a cigarette and has that look on his face. Time wasn’t nice to Bo Huston, but he wrote profound and beautiful work, and he loved generously and well in the time he had.
I miss him.
Time won’t let me (oh no!)
(and so on... )
I like thinking of Bo thinking of this ridiculous song, this ridiculous connection, and kind of half smirking and shaking his head the way he did. He’s smoking a cigarette and has that look on his face. Time wasn’t nice to Bo Huston, but he wrote profound and beautiful work, and he loved generously and well in the time he had.
I miss him.
Spring / Summer 2023
Rebecca Brown is the author of 14 books published in the US and abroad, most recently You Tell the Stories You Need to Believe (Chatwin Books, 2022). Her other books (novels, short stories, essays, prose poems) include American Romances, The Haunted House, The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary, The Terrible Girls, Annie Oakley's Girl (all with City Lights), The Gifts of the Body (HarperCollins) and Not Heaven, Somewhere Else (Tarpaulin Sky). She has also written a play, the libretto for a dance opera, a one-woman show, Monstrous, commissioned by Northwest Film Forum, and popular arts and book criticism. Her work has been translated into Japanese, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Italian, etc. She lives in Seattle.
Bo Huston was born in Chagrin Falls, OH, in 1959. After Hampshire College, he lived in Manhattan, where he got clean and sober and started writing. Bo moved to San Francisco in 1987 and, within a year, learned he was HIV+. Over the next too-short years, he lived and wrote and found a partner and a community of friends who loved him fiercely. He died May 24, 1993, surrounded by family and friends, at a time of his choosing. His last book, The Listener, and an essay in Thomas Avena’s collection Life Sentences were published posthumously. His novel The Dream Life was republished this year by the Fellow Travelers Series, with a new afterword by Rebecca Brown, a contemporary of Bo’s he much admired. The Bo Huston Prize is an annual award to a writer completing a novel.
Ronald Lockett (1965-1998) was slight of build and sentient to the point of grace. Lockett existed somewhat precariously in a historical crossroads between two generations, after the great mid-century social movements had ended and just before the dominance of television and urban culture. He was a unique talent, influenced equally by Thornton Dial and Bob Ross, who he watched on television. He grew up in the wilds of post-industrial Bessemer, Alabama where he lived with his mother until her death, remaining in his childhood home until his own untimely demise resulting from AIDS-related illness. He never spent more than a few weeks away from home, but was able to mine far-flung histories, both personal and shared, with deference and aplomb.