Title: My Last Dance with Auntie Brie
Author: Ron Naples
Publisher: MLR Press
Release Date: April 19, 2019
Genre(s): Coming Out
Page Count: 89,000 words
Reviewed by: ParisDude
Heat Level: 2 flames out of 5
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
“My Last Dance with Auntie Brie”, Ron Naples’ debut novel, is a fictional story based on his coming out experiences in the ’70s. It is a vivid translation of a time when closet doors were nailed shut, but more than a vicissitude, it is also a peek back at the madness of the Disco Era.
Raised an Italian Catholic, Ron escapes his disciplinary family life when he’s introduced to his first gay bar. There he meets Auntie Brie, a drag queen who shapes his destiny. His impending dream of becoming a professional musician is shattered when he is seduced into the gay party arena.
Feel the reverberations of the disco beat as Auntie Brie seduces you on the dance floor. Revisit some of the infamous clubs of the day including NYC’s Studio 54 and escape to the Cape on a summer vacation gone wild with one of Ptown’s most prolific houseboys.
His familiar tour de force reaches even farther with his insight and questions surrounding gay culture. It delineates a 70’s puritan society filled with fear and ignorance which ignited The 1979 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights to end violence and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
“My Last Dance with Auntie Brie” defines an entire gay generation who succumbed to the hedonistic lifestyle of that time which has now become legendary. It carries the universal message of unconditional love and acceptance; we all need somebody to love us just the way we are.
The essentials first: I really liked this book, liked it very much indeed. It’s a compelling coming-out as well as coming-of-age novel, a historical manifesto, a sort of (I gather) heavily fictionalized memoir that retraces the author’s own experiences. In certain parts the book does read more like a memoir than a novel, alright, but my overall and pleasant impression was that Ron Naples didn’t so much want to tell us about his life with total accuracy than rather give us a feeling of the life-portions and the era he’s writing about—and that can only be done if you use a fiction writer’s tools and techniques, both of which he seems to master very well.
The novel is told by a first-person narrator called Ronaldo “Ron” Giuseppe Napolitano. We first meet him when he’s still attending high school somewhere in Connecticut. His best and obviously gay friend Derek takes him to The Warehouse, a gay nightclub near his parents’ home, where he has his first encounter with the ‘70s gay culture, which includes disco music, poppers, and of course drag queens. One of them, Brianna or Auntie Brie, will accompany us as a secondary character throughout the book. We follow Ron’s first, stumbling steps in this new, thrilling, exciting and alluring microcosmos. His first pick-up and ensuing sexual experience is a major disaster because he gets more or less raped by an older man. That plunges him into feelings of shame and self-repulsion, which he tries to handle by confessing his act to the local priest… who tells him he’s “an abomination” (alas, the man is merely quoting the Bible, by the way).
As he’s almost suffocating in the small town where he’s living with his parents, Ron sighs with relief when he’s accepted by the Berklee College of Music in Boston (he’s an aspiring drummer). He has a crush on a boy he befriends, then starts a relationship with Nikki, the boy’s ex-girlfriend, and at the same time continues to explore gay life together with Derek whenever he returns to his parents’ place. He secretly dates a dashing lawyer there, but these parallel relationships come to an end when both the lawyer and Nikki learn about each other’s existence. During the following weeks he enters the world of the civil rights movements and the fight for LGBT rights, finally accepts the truth that he’s gay and plunges deeper and deeper into his new lifestyle. There are many more twists and turns in his life: much dancing, occasional hook-ups, serious dating (watch out for Mitch!), even his coming-out to his parents. His maturing and learning process is a winding one, with major ups and downs, moments of sheer happiness, moments of gruesome drama, moments where I giggled uncontrollably (a drag queen’s advice after he broke up with a guy: “The best way to get over one man is to get under another!”) until he ends up in California some years later, a wiser, almost reformed man capable of starting a true relationship.
One might ask oneself: did Ron Naples really go through all the experiences we read about? Counterquestion: does it really matter to us readers? Because his tale is a fascinating one, no matter what; a trip down memory lane for those who have lived during those careless pre-HIV times when gay culture was blooming; a useful, even necessary reminder of our community’s history for those like me who’ve been born later. I found the novel nigh unputdownable, compelled to read on until reaching the last full stop. A powerful story of “how it all began”, almost as captivating as Felix Picano’s classic “Like People in History”. I really don’t care that much if fictional Ron equals real-life Ron, but at any rate the novel’s main character seems to be someone living, breathing, hurting, someone out of real life. He rings true, thinking, acting, and reacting in ways I can easily relate to. He’s often extremely annoying, oh yes, he is, caught up in unwarranted self-righteousness, selfish anger, un-empathetic actions and reactions. All this reminded me strongly of myself at that age, when I had found out (or rather: accepted) that I was gay and started to revel in the gay night-life of my time and place, thinking this was all there was to life, that nothing else was important but I. That’s the major point that got me hooked: I could see myself in Ron, all the differences between us (times, places, experiences) notwithstanding. No tepid, far-fetched or predictable plot-turns in this book—you get a read that draws you in by its credible story-line.
A little bit more effort could have been put into proof-reading the book, though (tenses, commas, wrongly placed spaces, missing words). I do hope the copies you purchase have been looked over because my ARC’s formatting was a complete shambles, almost impertinently so—there were “forced” line-breaks that, as bad luck would have it, didn’t match with the natural flow of the writing even when I tried to change the font size, so that it read almost like a prose poem. That turns out exceedingly annoying when you’re not reading a prose poem, let me tell you! Luckily, the story was so interesting and the story-teller’s voice so strong and compelling; otherwise I wouldn’t have put up with this nigh unreadable copy.
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