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Revisiting Sarah Schulman's satire-tragedy of 1990s New York City
closed door thrown out

I spent last weekend at the Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference in Houston, and I needed something to read on the plane. Something short, punchy, an in-flight entertainment that could keep my attention after an event that is equal parts spiritually uplifting and emotionally harrowing. I threw Sarah Schulman’s Rat Bohemia into my bag and grinned as I set my alarm for 1995. More fool me.

Rat Bohemia is in some ways the scathing nostalgia trip I was hoping for. It’s sometimes a satire of gay life in ’90s New York City: a world of gunfire and AIDS protest funerals. Hothead Paisan, Assotto Saint, Derek Jarman, Alison Bechdel when we were the only ones who watched out for her. Schulman has a terrific ear for that unmistakable ’90s argot, from the slang in her unsexy sex scenes to the politically-incorrect S&M. Her characters have spent the past decade and a half losing their families, their homes, their friends, their health, all their money if they had any, and most of their illusions. Their anguish makes them silly and unfair, catty and self-righteous—and often ferociously funny.

It was so refreshing to step back into that pre-moral world. We live in a moralistic age. That ’90s world of violent fantasy (and violent reality) seems like a fever dream. Schulman’s characters allow themselves to feel rage instead of just solidarity; they lust and they don’t try to justify it. Their damage glitters across their hardened carapaces; they are gleaming deviants, not “virtually normal.”

The two points of view on this willful deviance are a) people only react this way because they have been shut out of the normal bourgeois institutions of marriage and family, and b) you see more from the margins, where the air is thin but bracingly clear. Rat Bohemia gives evidence for both positions.

The novel is really four intertwined stories: The first and last, “Rat Bohemia” and “Rats, Lice and History,” are narrated by Rita Mae Weems, a half-Jewish Jackson Heights escapee who kills vermin for the City of New York. “1984” is narrated by her friend David, a Jewish writer with an HIV diagnosis and a downward-spiraling T-cell count. And “Killer in Love” is told by their knockabout hemidemisemiemployed friend, the eponymous Killer, who loves a poet and isn’t quite loved back.

Rita can be off-putting in her sophomoric need to prove her street smarts: This is how Puerto Rican girls sit, this is how Cubans go to the movies. She’s gotta be so in the know all the time. And Killer’s section has a lot of parody of unintelligible poetry—maybe more than necessary.

But almost every time I found myself thinking, “Well, this section isn’t so good,” Schulman yanked me back with an unforgettable scene. Some are comic, like the Walker Percy-esque self-help parody (“The answer lies in the Eight Leaps of Faith. Just memorize them and you will have accomplished at least one thing”). Most are searing. Schulman is not subtle about her theme: the utter abandonment of gay people by their parents. The best parents in this book show wincing discomfort with their children’s sexual orientation. The worst simply put their kids out on the streets. The two most memorable scenes in the novel, for me, were David’s childhood memory of walking away from his parents after they ordered him out of their car, and Rita’s description of being homeless and almost being taken in by her girlfriend’s mother.

At the GCN conference it sometimes feels like I’m walking on a half-frozen lake. You’re trotting along talking about Jesus or tacos or Have you read the new Marilynne Robinson? and then suddenly your foot will crunch down and you will be in ice water up to your head, and some pixie-faced girl or painfully hopeful guy is telling you about their years of terror and anguish. Exorcisms and disciplinary hearings and physical abuse, and then, with that embarrassed grin, “Well, my parents and I don’t really speak these days.” And then probably tell you about their unpronounceable pronouns, because we do live in a silly world as well as a hard one.

Anguish isn’t the universal story, thank God. There were lots of parents at GCN and while that whole “my identity is the fact that my kid is gay!” thing can get kind of wearying to actual gay people, it is far from the worst thing in the world. I don’t know why your kid coming out should be more life-defining than e.g. your kid becoming a Buddhist, or whatever kind of Christian you’re not, but I’ll gladly spend my conference time dodging women with buttons that say FREE MOM HUGS as long as we live in a world where people’s real mothers wouldn’t hug them if they paid cash money.

Schulman wants us to see not only how so many gay people got used to this abandonment, but why we shouldn’t. She wants to make it shocking to us again. This is the core of her story.

It is the only story she wants to tell. There’s a slowly-growing sub-theme in the novel: Straight, married people don’t suffer like we do, they are not alone like we were alone when we were young and we needed help. Like Jack Boughton snapping at his sister, “You can’t commiserate!”

The last several chapters are the weakest by far, largely because they try to defend this sub-theme. We even get a tacky, plastic little dialogue:

“Don’t be too dramatic,” Lourdes said, puffing out the window. “You’ll never know what [Rita’s high-school sweetheart] Claudia would have been if she didn’t have a reason to get married. Besides, straight people have problems too, you know. If my mother ever caught me in bed with a boy she would have thrown me out on my ass.”

“Yeah, but,” I said, getting really furious, really fast and absolutely hating her. “You would still have had something. You would have had an idea. You would have had an image of young love, an image of romance, of just the two of you against the world. You would have had a friend or a romantic adult who looked at you and saw Romeo and Juliet, instead of just the two of you totally alone looking at each other and seeing nothing.”

Rita’s speech is actually powerful, raw and real. She’s describing a real thing that gay people faced, and in our churches still usually do face: the absence of a future, and the self-loathing that absence brings. But Lourdes’s words are fake (“straight people have problems too, you know,” really?); she’s a strawman.

Here are some things I’ve heard, volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center:

“Is it legal in the District of Columbia for a parent to make you get an abortion? Because my mom says she’s going to take me there and make me kill my baby—can she do that?”

“Do you know of any homeless shelters that can take me tonight? I’m about eight months along.”

“That church helped me out a lot when I was escaping my husband but I just can’t go back there like this. If they see me pregnant out of wedlock they’ll be like, ‘Why can’t you get yourself together?'”

“He isn’t in the picture. He’s [incarcerated/deceased/out running the streets/not somebody I could trust/not in the U.S. yet/violent with my children/smoking pot all day].”

This, too, is close to the knives.

Our clients feel utterly alone, because of, in some sense, their heterosexuality. Straight women are abandoned and shamed for it (“I have to get the abortion before my mom finds out or she’ll put me out on the streets”) and straight men, whom we see more rarely, are isolated and despairing. Class is a big part of this but there’s a lot more to it than that. It isn’t the same as what Schulman’s characters go through, or even parallel—it’s about behavior, for example, not solely desire. But then again, imagine being sixteen and homeless, washing your hair in the high-school bathroom sink and eating your classmates’ leftover lunches, and pregnant. That might give you a reason to live or it might only make you feel much more alone.

Schulman lampshades her characters’ (or her own) lack of empathetic imagination: They get stuck in a rental car with no gas. They can’t get out of Chinatown to go visit Rita’s heterosuburban ex-girlfriend. They are trapped with only their own perspective, their outsiders’ pride, their humiliating sorrows.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.



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