Title: Spine Intact, Some Creases
Author: Victor J. Banis
Publisher: Wildside Press
Buy link: Amazon.com
Length: 469 pages
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Lloyd A. Meeker
Review Summary: A fascinating, entertaining memoir–full of what every lover of gay fiction should understand about our history.
A legendary name from the Golden Age of Paperbacks, VICTOR J. BANIS spins a witty and exuberant tale of A Thousand and One Knights, flitting blithely from tale to tail, in one era and out the other. Part autobiography, part a history of the Gay Revolution, part writing manual, part juicy gossip, with a few tasty recipes thrown in for good measure, Spine Intact, Some Creases is a summing up — alternately hilarious and touching, instructive and impassioned, and always entertaining — of the remarkable life and work of a writer hailed by top gay pulp historian Michael Bronski as “one of my heroes.” “Banis’ memoir provides a poignant history of West Coast paperback publishing in the Sixties, and one author’s journey from small beginnings to critical and financial success as a writer — but it’s far more than that: witty, elegantly written, funny, sad, smart, and even wise. Every penman-apprentice should read this book — twice!” — Robert Reginald.
If asked directly, I suspect Victor Banis would tell you that in spite of his remarkable accomplishments he’s not a particularly extraordinary man. It wouldn’t be true.
In a conversational tone, much as one might use to walk through a colorful garden chatting, Banis takes the reader of Spine Intact, Some Creases through the kaleidoscopic events of his life, remarking on this or that, as if supplying rare porn videos to Hugh Hefner, or facing prison while being tried on obscenity charges, or handing out impeccable guidance on the craft of writing, or urging the development of a daily meditation practice, or memories of living with his large family in an abandoned street car before moving up to a partially roofless home locally named “the Burnt Place” all fit together in the same casual conversation.
And they do. So if I ramble in this review, it’s because I’m still under the spell of the book and can’t help myself.
It’s sometimes said, probably most often by those with a penchant for classical Greek philosophers, that a biography should start at the end so that the reader can tell right away whether the life story is worth reading. While I’m profoundly thankful that Spine Intact doesn’t contain the literal end of Banis’ life, it does contain more than enough of his life to establish a reliable track record of his living, and it’s definitely a story worth reading.
Amongst other things, it’s an education, a must-read for any lover of gay fiction, reader and writer alike. It offers a perspective on where our literature was in the 50’s, and how it got to be where we are now. Even better, it lets you meet some of the people who were essential to the intervening changes, like Earl Kemp of Greenleaf Publishing, and a fairly short list of other intrepid pioneers.
It’s amazing to see how much depended, to borrow Churchill’s immortal line, on so few — a small and disparate group of brave souls on the west coast who led the charge. There’s nothing like some grounded context to bring home the understanding that technology aside, hopping onto Amazon and choosing from a long list of gay erotica titles hasn’t always been an option.
On the other hand, the fundamentals of good storytelling haven’t changed, and through Banis’ eyes we see how a good — and unimaginably prolific — storyteller helped erase literary restrictions while telling good stories. Around two hundred of them, actually, although for startling reasons he’ll explain to you in the book, he doesn’t really know how many stories he’s written.
The portrait that emerges is dignified and self-effacing, wise and humorous, courageous, ruthlessly honest, and disdainful of pretense. It’s also the portrait of someone incredibly resilient — gentle by inclination, but made of very tough stuff.
He’s also a stalwart friend, as we learn in his heart-wrenching story of how he took his dear friend, the fabulous drag queen Lady Agatha, with whom he’d written a number of books, to doctor after doctor trying to find an effective treatment for the mysterious ailments he suffered, only to lose him to HIV/AIDS before the disease had been given its name.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is a passionate love letter to his home town of Eaton, Ohio, dwelling on aspects of the Beloved as they shift through each season of the year. It’s exquisite.
As the cliche goes (and I’m proud to use it here) there’s something in this book for everyone — even if you just happen to be looking for a recipe for chicken bosoms (because “breast”, he says, requires a nipple) marinated in gin, or the best way to cook corn on the cob.
Or you may enjoy the glamor stories of life in LA, when movie stars didn’t have entourages and security guards and showed up in Hollywood restaurants and bars, and when hints about the sexual proclivities of the stars were handled with more gentility than today. Banis provides lots of sightings and semi-rumors to give an intriguing sense of the period, and to satisfy even the most celebrity-addicted reader.
The happiest part of the book for me was Banis’ return to writing. It had stopped being fun, he said, and so he stopped writing. For fifteen years. Then one wonderful night, the desire to write came back to him like a mysterious young lover who wouldn’t leave. Having read many of the titles he’s published since resuming, I can say that return is one of the best things that has ever happened to gay literature.
The print copy of Spine Intact is quite expensive, but the e-book is very reasonable. Either way, it’s well worth buying a ticket to share this remarkable man’s story.