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literature

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Merlis, Mark (b. 1950)  
 
page: 1  2  

In American Studies, Tom Slater (whose career parallels that of influential Harvard scholar F. O. Mathiessen, who committed suicide in 1950) is the author of a ground-breaking book titled The Invincible City, which celebrates the "triumph of comradeship" in nineteenth-century American writers such as Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Slater enthuses that through his book he hopes to foment "a revolution built on love and not bloodletting. A world where I can watch a Billy Budd walk away and not want to obliterate him because I can't get inside his skin."

Tragically, Slater's own efforts at "comradeship" fail: his advocacy of socialist ideals rings hollow while he continues to live off inherited family wealth, and he has difficulty acting upon his erotic attraction to men.

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At first glance, conversely, Joel Lingeman of Man about Town is just another cog in the boring grind of government. When a newly elected, conservative senator draws upon Joel's expertise in drafting health care legislation in order to deny Medicare benefits to gay men who contracted HIV through "irresponsible" (i.e., unprotected) sex, however, Joel recognizes that "we're all in this together," and argues that government is a "covenant" guaranteeing that the fortunate will care for those who are less able to care for themselves.

Even An Arrow's Flight's Pyrrhus, the runaway prince cum gay stripper and hustler who seems so self-involved as to be incapable of thinking about the polis, comes to understand how a person can function as "a country of your own" (just as, Reeve notes, Tom Slater managed in his American studies seminars to "make a little country of his own").

For Merlis, what keeps "the invincible city" of comrades from being realized is the retributive anger that straight men direct at gay men for refusing to wear the impenetrable armor of masculinity, and the consequent shame that gay men feel regarding their sexual orientation.

Pyrrhus's inheritance and eventual rejection of the armor belonging to his father, Achilles, is a powerful metaphor that informs all three of Merlis's novels in which gay men are repeatedly despised by straight men for having made love the center of their lives, rather than arming themselves in "the seemly reticence that makes men talk only of sports and cars and bosoms."

Taken together, Merlis's novels offer an extended meditation upon the ways by which homophobia creates feelings of inadequacy, and even self-loathing, in gay men. Each novel contains multiple scenes in which a gay man is made to feel small by a hearty.

Reeve, who was repeatedly "browned" by male classmates as a boy, is both intimidated by Tom Slater's openly disdainful brother into relinquishing his claim upon Tom's estate and humiliated to be evicted from his apartment building for daring to disrupt the peaceful night's sleep of other residents with his screams on the night of his beating.

The conservative senator whose homophobic legislation Joel's non-partisan status requires him to support is as presumptuous of his privilege as Joel's low-ranking status as a government functionary and gay man renders him deferential and eager to serve. The United States Senate is one more group of privileged straight boys, like the ones that excluded Joel in high school.

And Odysseus understands only too well how to play upon Pyrrhus's sense of inadequacy after growing up in the shadow of his super-macho father, Achilles, in order to get Pyrrhus to manipulate the errant prince into doing the Greek general's bidding.

Merlis displays a profound psychological insight in his representation of the ways in which gay men render themselves all the more vulnerable by their attraction to the emotionally impenetrable straight men who are most likely to disdain them.

Pyrrhus, for example, acknowledges the erotic fascination that his father's body held for him--the same stupidly over-masculinized body that causes Pyrrhus to test the attractiveness of his own far more elegant form.

Tom Slater's afternoon sherry hours with his Harvard students "always looked like a casting call for an Arrow Shirt ad." Reeve describes the men to whom Tom was attracted as "Wheaties eaters." Reeve, his vision damaged by the beating that he suffered at the hands of a hustler, nevertheless casts sideways glances at the working-class heterosexual boy who is in the hospital bed next to his.

And Joel, obsessed with finding the model in a thirty-year-old swimming suit advertisement, must unexpectedly confront the effects that unsolicited gay desire has had on the boy, who proves to have been heterosexual.

But, while "the invincible city" of comrades may not be immediately available, and while gay men are most likely to feel that we are living in a "war zone where no covenants held," Merlis holds up for examination an alternate form of heroism: the reaching of two hands across a seemingly unbridgeable distance.

In breaking his bow, Philoctetes displays to Pyrrhus that gay men can simply refuse to give straight men power over us by turning away from straight warfare and joining hands to create "a country of your own."

At the end of Man about Town, Joel quells his suspicions concerning a new boyfriend's petty thefts and enters into a biracial relationship.

And whereas Tom Slater proved unable to cross "the abyss between the two beds" when he lay awake as a boy at boarding school with the object of his desire sleeping in a nearby bed, Reeve can "cross between the beds" in his hospital room. Falling while returning to his own bed after pulling up the covers on his sleeping roommate, he is startled to have a helping hand extended to him by the straight boy he initially feared was going to strike him.

Raymond-Jean Frontain

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    Bibliography
   

Corber, Robert J. "Sentimentalizing Gay History: Mark Merlis, Alan Hollinghurst, and the Cold War Persecution of Homosexuals." Arizona Quarterly 55. 4 (Winter 1999): 115-41.

Martin, Robert K. "A Dream Still Invincible?: The Matthiessen Tradition." Whitman East and West: New Contexts for Reading Walt Whitman. Ed Folsom, ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002. 97-104.

Merlis, Mark. "Arrow Interview." www.markmerlis.com (2004): http://www.markmerlis.com/arrow_interview.htm

_____. "The Greek Presence in An Arrow's Flight." Lecture Presented to the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, New York, 1999. www.markmerlis.com (2004): http://www.markmerlis.com/Hellenic2.htm

_____. www.markmerlis.com

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Merlis, Mark  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated July 13, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/merlis_m.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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