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Merlis, Mark (b. 1950)  
 
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Mark Merlis is a novelist of unusual imaginative and linguistic power who examines contemporary gay concerns through the filter of historical parallels. His thought-filled, lyrical, yet wryly humorous narratives shift between the past and the present in order to illuminate the cause-and-effect relationship between and gay self-loathing, among other issues.

Ultimately, his explorations of gay memory and the gay past offer a vision of how the cycles of violence can be broken and individuals join hands across the divides that separate them.

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In American Studies (1994), Reeve, the elderly victim of a brutal beating by a hustler he brought home late one night, spends his time while recuperating in the hospital recollecting how Tom Slater, his college mentor, was driven to commit suicide when outed during the McCarthy era.

In An Arrow's Flight (1998), Merlis sets the events of the Trojan War in a late twentieth-century Mediterranean or Caribbean milieu, adapting the ancient myth of Philoctetes--who was abandoned under miserable circumstances by his fellow Greeks en route to Troy when a leg wound festered so badly that no one could bear its rank odor--to illuminate American attitudes towards the gay body in general, and towards AIDS-sufferers in particular.

And in Man about Town (2003), Joel Lingeman, a middle-aged civil servant specializing in health care issues who has just been abandoned by his longtime partner, searches for a bathing suit model about whose image in a magazine Joel fantasized as a youth. Only by deconstructing the illusions of his past is he able to address and move beyond his present alcoholic inertia.

In all three novels, Merlis examines how the chains of power that render gay men second-class citizens can be broken. These chains include the power that the past has over the present; the power that straights have to intimidate gays; and the power of desire to make one vulnerable.

Biography

Born in Framingham, Massachusetts, on March 9,1950, Merlis was six years old when his father, a physician, moved the family to Baltimore. Here Merlis attended a Society of Friends (i.e., Quaker) school.

After completing a B.A. in English at Wesleyan University in 1971, and an M.A. in American Studies at Brown University in 1976, Merlis returned to Baltimore where he took an entry-level position at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to support himself while writing.

His efficiency as a health policy analyst, however, earned him a series of promotions, allowing him to move in 1987 to the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress as a Specialist in Social Legislation. Here, in addition to being closely involved in most of the major health legislation that emerged from three successive Congresses, he devised the original grant allocation formulas for the Ryan White AIDS Care Act.

Merlis comments on his webpage that, unlike other gay writers who "are at their best when drawing upon their own experience, I find that my past is an empty well." While he has not yet produced (and does not seem likely to do so) the kind of autobiographical novels that Christopher Isherwood, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, and Felice Picano have made a staple of gay fiction, he does draw upon his knowledge of academe in American Studies, and upon his experience as a "senior health policy analyst in an agency that provides nonpartisan analysis and research for members and committees in Congress" for Man about Town.

Since 2001, Merlis has worked as an independent health policy consultant, while living with his partner in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He is currently at work on a fourth novel, tentatively titled The Anarch.

Hands across the Abyss

Merlis notes that his novels "are about breaking the chain of power and violence that permeates both straight and gay culture." He explains, for example, that the mix of ancient and modern materials in An Arrow's Flight "is a way of easing the reader into the drama and of rephrasing, without fundamentally modifying, the questions Sophocles asked: what country are we really citizens of, and what do we owe to one another in that country?"

Merlis's approach to social issues is as intellectually engaged as it is emotionally powerful and often wryly humorous. His protagonists are, in their dissimilar ways, all concerned with building the polis--that is, with creating a community sensitive to the needs of all its members.

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