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literature

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McGehee, Peter (1955 -1991)  
 
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What keeps the "melancholy" that infuses McGehee's novels from tipping into melodrama is the comic sweetness of the screwball world that McGehee creates. No matter how egregiously self-involved and tacky the tastes of Zero's blood family in Arkansas, the relatives are endowed by McGehee with warm, vital, larger-than-life personalities whose eccentricities inspire bemusement rather than derision. In Toronto, where Zero has emigrated, his circle of friends includes Snookums, a West Indian-born recovering alcoholic who works as a magazine editor and disguises his premature baldness with a variety of ill-fitting toupees and Carmen Miranda-style turbans; Searcy Goldberg, a middle-aged, plus-sized drag queen who has made Bette Midler's "The Rose" his signature song; and Miss Jesus Las Vegas, an oversexed young Latino drag queen descended from a family of tent preachers, who "performs a stunning version of 'I'm Just a Little Girl from Little Rock,' starting out as Carol Channing and ending up as Marilyn Monroe."

However outrageous their individual personalities, the friends who make up what Zero calls his "entire cast of characters" function as a well-oiled machine when managing the various crises that confront them.

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Because McGehee's world pulsates with such comic vitality, an early death proves as much a performance to be stage-managed as a tragedy. Zero's best friend, Randy, may die of AIDS, but not before a last resurgence of strength allows him to complete a film that he has longed to make and to embark on a final, deeply satisfying love affair. (Randy also has the foresight to mandate in his will that, should his father insist on trying to save face in the community by erecting a stone to Randy in the family cemetery plot, it must bear the inscription "If there were options in the air, my legs were right up there with 'em.") The memorial service that Zero organizes for Randy involves friends coming to the dead man's apartment and each choosing an item from his wardrobe to wear while participating in a dance that erupts spontaneously and that Zero names "Raising the Dead."

Similarly, Trebreh dies surrounded by friends and former lovers after quaffing a last glass of champagne and injecting himself with a lethal serum supplied by a sympathetic doctor: a gay version of the biblical Last Supper.

Thus, although AIDS may exercise its power over the bodies of Zero and his friends, it cannot, finally, break their spirit. McGehee's imaginative daring is to replace the traditional female screwball protagonist with an HIV-positive gay male, Zero MacNoo's very name alerting the reader that he represents a world in which personal whimsy is valued far more highly than social decorum. The last scene of Sweetheart--a novel that records a heartbreaking series of illnesses and deaths--sees a sero-positive Zero and Jeff, who have been planning a garden for their apartment terrace, dance together romantically, "so warm and so alive," at least for the moment.

In short, McGehee's world is driven by an acceptance of difference so generous that it reduces potentially destructive greed and jealousy in antagonists to foibles of no permanent consequence, and by a humor that so delights in the outrageous that AIDS is, finally, just the latest, even if the most powerful, obstacle that one must negotiate in order to savor the melancholic sweetness of life. In McGehee's screwball world, AIDS, however devastating, proves finally to be the occasion for men to learn how deeply they are loved and are able to love.

Wilson's Double Talk

In his preface to Labor of Love, Doug Wilson records discovering among McGehee's papers after the latter's death brief notes for a third novel that would have concluded the adventures of Zero and his friends, making a trilogy of Boys Like Us and Sweetheart. As McGehee's first, and many felt, best reader, Wilson was intimately familiar with his characters and intentions. However, because Wilson does not explain which of the plot situations in Labor of Love were invented by him and which by McGehee, his involvement with McGehee's characters suggests a variation upon Wayne Koestenbaum's paradigm of the erotics of male literary collaboration. Koestenbaum's theory of literary "double talk" attempts to account for the ways in which "men who collaborate engage in a metaphorical sexual intercourse" in which one member of the team invariably "keenly feels lack or disenfranchisement, and seeks out a partner to attain power and completion."

A recurring image in Boys Like Us and Sweetheart is the prince who rides to the rescue of the damsel in distress. Significantly, McGehee dedicates his second novel "For my prince, Doug Wilson," acknowledging the importance of Wilson in his life. In his two novels, however, Zero's romantic relationship with David (Wilson's alter-ego in the novels) is clearly in the past. Sweetheart concludes with Zero comfortably reconciled with David as a close friend, but passionately sharing his life and bed with Jeff.

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