Author: Richard Stevenson
Publisher: MLR Press
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: Gay Fiction/Farce/Mystery-lite
Length: Novel (215 PDF pages)
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
One Sentence Review: The latest Donald Strachey Mystery is a fabulously hilarious look at normalcy and acceptance inside and out of the gay community.
When Hunny ‘You go, girl!’ Van Horn, Albany’s flaming-est working-class flamer, wins the state lottery’s first billion-dollar payout, his chaotic life gets even messier. It’s PI Don Strachey who’s brought in to deal with the skeletons tumbling out of Hunny’s non-closet, some violent. The eleventh Strachey novel is part mystery, part screwball comedy, and entirely serious in its exploration of the multiple ways of being gay in America.
If you’ve read any of my other reviews of this series, you’ll know that Richard Stevenson’s Donald Strachey Mysteries are some of my favorite books. Cockeyed is book 11 of this wonderful collection and continues the tales of the series title character, a gay private investigator in Albany, NY. Normally I would advise reading the series in order to see Don and his partner Timmy building their lives together over several decades, but here I can say that one could read this as a standalone. Of course, I would then highly recommend going back and starting with the first book, Death Trick. 🙂
Set about a year after the end of the previous installment, The 38 Million Dollar Smile, the story opens with Don and Timmy in bed getting ready to watch the eleven o’clock news. Their normal routine is Jon Stewart at that time, but they’ve been advised to tune in to the other instead. There they see Huntington “Hunny” Van Horn and his partner, Art, for the first time, and even before Hunny opens his mouth, they could tell he was what Carson would have called “a hint of mint.” Über-flamboyant, uncensored and unashamed, Hunny is the first person to win the state’s billion-dollar “Instant Warren” lottery, and there is much celebrating in the Van Horn household. Don gets called in to help once Hunny starts to receive blackmail and violent threats from those in his past, all wanting a piece of his new-found wealth while the Right wants to make Hunny the poster-boy of why homosexuals are a danger to society, and the Left wants Hunny and his friends to quietly go back under the radar before they irreparably damage forty years worth of gay rights progress. When Hunny’s elderly mother disappears, could it be related?
I feel that I need to say upfront that if you are looking for a more traditional mystery, please check out any of the other books in this series as Cockeyed is less mystery and much more a gay fictional farce (though underneath is a serious message). The mystery element — and there is one, even if it on the light side, and even though it does take up quite a bit of plot, it is second to the rest of the story — is Hunny’s mother disappearing. I fear that some fans could be disappointed as it is so very different from the rest, but that being said it is a great story and I encourage you to both read the rest of the review and then buy this book.
Cockeyed is by far the funniest of the eleven books, while at the same time having one of the most profound, serious messages of the series, which is appropriate as dichotomy is a strong theme of the book (more on this later). It is no secret that I loves me a book chock-full of smart, well-written humor, and I definitely got it here. When I read it the first time, I did most of it in bed at night, and to say that my partner was both entertained and annoyed is an understatement. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments that I shook the bed as I guffawed to the point of tears, and after the lights were out, I had to try to — usually unsuccessfully — contain my laughter as to not disturb the trying-to-sleep J. Even reading it through again for the review had me in stitches.
Don and his longtime partner and moral compass Timmy are back, and I couldn’t be happier. As I mentioned in a previous review, I think that Don has really mellowed since the series began and as he has aged. Instead of being the one suggesting murder or blackmail — at least in his own head — to solve a problem, he now calmly advises against it. 🙂 And I love how these two are together; one of the best things about Richardson’s writing is the dialog — especially between our two heroes. Here is an example of a conversation they have about a shady person wanting a portion of Hunny’s cash:
“He claims Hunny turned him into a homosexual after Hunny picked him up while Hood was cruising the park.”
“Why, Donald, it’s our story.”
“Exactly. I was a confused youth, and when you fondled me behind that bush, I thought, oh, wow, I could get used to this.”
“You were the mixed-up youth? I’m reasonably certain it was the other way around.”
“Then how come you were carrying that towel thing around with you at eleven o’clock at night? You even told me at the time that it was so you wouldn’t get moss on your knees.”
“I seem to have repressed any memory of that.”
And just because I can’t help but notice and point out, it looks like Stevenson has either stopped aging Don, or has even back-pedaled on his age. Don aged through the first nine books in real time with the stories, but there are indications that he may be just around sixty or so here (and he was in his mid-sixties two books ago in Death Vows). It’s noted here that he was just shy of being old enough to be at Stonewall, and Hunny, who is described as about sixty, thinks Don is a youngster.
The books in this series all have a large and very colorful secondary cast, and it is no exception here. Hunny is now one of my favorite characters ever. I adore him, and if he were real, I would definitely want to be friends with him and Art and their gang. They crack me up, every one of them. Here’s how we are introduced to Hunny during his first television interview after the lottery win:
“God, I’m richer than Madonna,” Hunny blurted out, recovering, and then was struck by another sudden thought and cried, “Oh, Madonna, honey, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that! Girl, nobody is richer than you are! If you’re watching, I’m still your slave, and even if I’m almost a rich as you are now, I’ll never be as fabulous as you are!”
Equal parts fun-loving immaturity, bad taste, dirty old man, lush, and big heart, Hunny is a dying breed, for sure. He is a throwback to flamboyant queens who make no apologies and don’t care what anyone thinks, even when he went on the The Today Show and complimented Missy Matt Lauer on his “nice basket.” Hunny was at Stonewall and many are in awe of this. You just don’t find them like him anymore. Here is Don and Timmy talking about Hunny in one of the many conversations on the topic:
“I find him interesting and sometimes even entertaining,” I said. “Hunny is one of a vanishing species…”
“Vanishing species, I don’t think so. God, if only.”
“Hunny is gay man at his most primitive. He’s the untamed queer Neanderthal. He’s the rugged individualist on the old gay frontier. He’s a homo Huck before Aunt Polly tried to civilize him. Hunny is proudly out and proudly nelly. Hunny am what he am.”
“What Hunny am,” Timmy said, “is a loudmouth drunk and a hideous old letch. It wouldn’t surprise me if the greatest threat to Hunny at this point is not some juvenile delinquent arsonist he had sex with, but any of the thousands of decent, sober, well-behaved gay men and women across America who see Hunny on national television and are now looking for ways to make this grotesquely embarrassing creature just disappear.”
But as you see from Timmy’s comments, not everyone feels the same way I do — or Don does deep down. In fact, many of the characters on both the Left and Right would like to see Hunny shut up and/or go away. And if they didn’t want that, they had mixed feelings, which brings up this whole dichotomy thing. Some people, like Don, have feelings of polar extremes: revulsion and nostalgia; horror and fascination; embarrassment, yet embarrassed to be so; appalled, yet ashamed of themselves; envy and disgust; cringes to indulgent smiles. Don himself talks about this:
“He is a bit of a right-wing gay caricature. If Hunny hadn’t existed, Rush Limbaugh would have had to invent him. It’s why I think I’m basically glad to be working for him. I mean, in addition to walking away with a tiny portion of his billion dollars. In a world of gay folks like us who are busily turning queer life in America into a kind of insipid parody of our parents’ dull, stable existences, Hunny is this horrifying creature climbing out of the primordial homo ooze. I have to say that I find him alternately hair-raising and beguiling.”
Other secondary cast members are just wonderful and include Art, who is almost as bad as Hunny; Hunny’s nephew, Nelson, who while admittedly proud of Hunny’s role in the gay rights movement, is a conservative gay and generally ashamed of his uncle and how he acts (yet another dichotomy); Nelson’s partner, Lawn — who Hunny and Nelson call “Yawn;” the baddies in the form of right-wing nuts Arletta and Clyde Briening; a Marylou Whitney drag impersonator (who is really Guy Snyder, an accountant in the New York State Department of Taxation); Bill O’Malley, a Bill O’Reilly-type newscaster that wants nothing more than show Hunny in a negative light; the college-aged twinkie twins who hang around Hunny’s house and who he wants to put through podiatry school since they like feet; the Radical Drama Queens (RDQ), who live on a commune in Vermont and come down to try and exorcise the demons from the baddies.
But underneath the hilarity is a very serious look at the definition of gay culture in this country. With themes including history, comfort levels, acceptance, and family, the question is asked if have we, in an effort to be equal and “normal,” blanded ourselves down so that the uniqueness that defined us is gone? Is the only way to be accepted by the heterosexual population to be just like them — assimilated? Should those who came before and blazed a path be shoved back into a closet just because they are different? Have we developed an ironic, selective homophobia towards those who we feel don’t meet the social acceptance of homosexuals, those heroes who made it possible for us to be where we are today? Stevenson challenges us readers — especially those of us who live alternative lifestyles — to think about gay culture as a whole and where it is going.
Cockeyed is a wonderful, very funny, serious look at gay culture in America, and the differences of opinion about it. Though different than the other books in the series, I encourage fans — and anyone else who appreciates good gay fiction — to pick this one up.