Last year, author Garth Greenwell suggested that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life could be the great gay novel that contemporary culture was waiting for. A few months later, Greenwell produced his own contender for that title when his acclaimed What Belongs To Us was released. Around the same time, Alexander Chee’s novel Queen of the Night was released. Thatt’s another beloved book that’s widely regarded to be gay—if not in subject matter, then in sensibility.
Gay books are, in short, a thing right now. And while former MTV VJ and current editor-at-large at Esquire.com Dave Holmes’s new book is so consistently hilarious that it might deceive you into thinking it’s a lighter, less serious read than the aforementioned literature-with-a-capital-L, do not be fooled: Party of One is every bit as deserving to be considered in this new wave of essential, unmissable gay writing.
In Party of One, pop culture references flow like that white-water river that Meryl Streep shot Kevin Bacon on over two decades ago. Holmes writes of his obsession with entertainment, especially music, that bloomed at an early age, not as separate from his developing sexuality but as intertwined with it. “Each day, I became more aware that I was both different and different, and each day, I turned to music to ease the discomfort,” Holmes writes. Without ever signaling as much, Holmes cogently illustrates why owning and announcing one’s queer identity is relevant to situations where it initially may not seem so, situations that seemingly have nothing to do with sex or love.
Holmes efficiently describes the deep confusion gay and pre-gay boys feel when interfacing with the narrow conceptions of masculinity (or at least, those conceptions as they existed for a white kid in St. Louis coming of age in the ‘80s). Of his experience wherein the most minor of quirk could get you “called a faggot as an American thirteen-year-old boy in 1984,” Holmes writes:
In this environment, if you do not fit into the narrow, ever-shifting definition of what is masculine and therefore acceptable, life becomes a constant, exhausting effort to stay on what you are told is the right side of the cool/gay divide. You study older, more secure-looking boys for cues on how to talk, how to walk, how to yawn and cough and laugh, so that you will be acceptable. You make a hundred thousand micro-decisions about your behavior before lunch. You never exactly get it—you can’t wear coolness and masculinity as effortlessly as the boys who are born with it—but you can fool some people. And when you can’t, when you hear things like “man up” or “quit being such a faggot,” you don’t recognize these comments as bullying, you take them as you would notes on a performance. I should be better at not being me, you think. Thanks for the reminder.
Earlier this week, Holmes visited the Gawker office to talk to me about his book. The entirety of our conversation was broadcast on Facebook Live, and you can watch it below. When I asked Holmes his reaction to the labeling of Party of One as a gay book, he didn’t disagree but he did go back and forth a bit as he ruminated on the descriptor. His initial response was:
I don’t think that’s limiting necessarily anymore. There’s a lot of gay content in [Party of One]. But I think if you grow up gay, it’s a very pointed exercise in learning how to be different. You can’t deny it. If you want to live happily you have to engage with it in some way. And I think everybody feels a little different in some way. This culture will still shame you for being different. We talk a good game about diversity and accepting each other and everybody’s Number 1 and all that, but if you’re different, if you stand out at all, someone will make you feel ashamed for it. So if you are gay then you have to go through that process of coming out, which is a very specific thing. There’s a before and an after, and your life is a little bit different after. But if you’re too into...like if you have a big doll collection or something, whatever, if there’s some dumb thing that you have that’s yours that makes you feel a little bit strange, you have to engage with that in some way. I think I speak to that. I wanted to speak to that experience.
As we continued our conversation, he came around to suggesting that, “It’s not a gay book,” and considered the other side in this way:
Looking back, there are things like that that the larger world needs to know about. You do shame people when you make those sorts of comments about people. It’s deep shaming. It’s not just, “I don’t like your shirt.” It goes real, real deep.
The experience of coming out does define me and it does define the book. So it is, but I think we’re past the point where a straight person would be like, “Oh, it’s a gay book. I don’t want to read it.” I mean, I am bracing myself for those kinds of comments, but there are eight other reasons why that person wouldn’t like the book. So fuck it.
To Holmes’s point, pop culture does not have to be relatable to the viewer to be worth viewing. There are universal truths throughout Party of One, but they radiate from one man’s specific experience of growing up gay, and that’s vividly relayed here. So much of Party of One’s wisdom and sensibility rang true to me and my experience. I see a huge part of my own story here, and Holmes tells it with such insight and wit. I don’t think you have to relate to appreciate Party of One, but if you do relate, you will probably be floored.