Thursday, December 29, 2011

Death, Disease, And The Vatican

The Mosaic Virus by Carlos T. Mock, MD (Floricanto Press, 268 pp.)

The Mosaic Virus is a medical/political thriller all rolled into one. Carlos Mock, MD, has the novel set in 1983 when thirty-seven priests (and counting) in the United States have died mysteriously. The Vatican has appointed Father Javier Barraza to the task of finding out who and what is responsible for these deaths.

Father Barraza is an Argentinean-born Jesuit priest and physician, whose "work was crucial to the process of proving, or more often than not, disproving, the occurrence of miracles," as a "devil's advocate" (a sainthood investigator).

He is aided by an FBI agent, Lillian Davis-Lodge, with whom he was once romantically involved when her father was the American ambassador to Argentina. Now many years later, despite his celibacy vows, there is still some feeling between them.

As the assignment takes them across the globe to the Vatican, New York City, Washington, D.C., and South Africa, there is reason to suspect that the Catholic Church and the U. S. government know more than they are willing to tell. Especially troubling is a Nazi Germany connection.

A key component of the mystery is the 1967 death of Francis Cardinal Spellman, who in this account, is a Jewish convert to Catholicism. (Dr. Mock makes it clear in his Author's Note that "The Mosaic Virus falls somewhere between a historical account and pure fantasy." I looked up Spellman's biography on the Internet and most of what is depicted of his life in the book is indeed "pure fantasy.")

Spellman (ne Jacob Goldman) became the secretary and translator to Bishop Siri (later a cardinal himself). Spellman's identity is found out and he is turned over to the Nazis. This is done to enforce the pope's neutrality decree and to counter an SS chief's accusation that the Vatican was "a friend of the Jews." After Spellman's release from a concentration camp, he is made a cardinal as a way to assuage the guilt of the Church. He is later exposed as a homosexual and a pedophile , a matter the Church tries to hush up. Could Spellman's sexual secret be linked to the subsequent death of several gay priests? Barraza and Davis-Lodge believe so. Their lives are at stake, too. They must find out the truth and avert any more deaths before their respective institutions can stop them.

Many devout Catholics will view The Mosaic Virus as another Catholic-bashing book. The Church is a convenient target because of its wealth, power, and the mysterious inner workings and rituals attached to it. However, the basic premise--the Church as a mighty suspect in the spread of a biological agent--is intriguing. Unfortunately, Dr. Mock's handling of the story doesn't fulfill the promise. It's a literary mess. The plot is too complicated and at times confusing to follow. The characters are so poorly drawn that I found it difficult to identify with or care about them. Some of the passages read like textbook or recruitment brochure prose like this description of the Swiss Guard who protect the Vatican: "The guards must be Roman Catholic males of Swiss nationality who had completed basic training with the Swiss Military and could obtain certificates of good conduct."

The events take place during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. When a Bellevue Hospital doctor tells Barraza about "a new and rare disease that seems to affect homosexuals--but with completely different symptoms," Barraza, a medical man, oddly doesn't know about it. It also is odd that there is a lack of urgency among the public health authorities, the media, and, most especially, the gay community regarding this mysterious "competing" virus.

Real-life figures such as J. Edgar Hoover and Henry Kissinger appear. Their presence made me wonder if they would have actually spoken and acted as depicted. It was unnecessary for Dr. Mock to invent a past for Spellman which undermined the story's believability. (Spellman was actually born in Massachusetts.) It would have been better to have created a completely fictional cardinal. Plus, I got the feeling that the author didn't have a thorough knowledge of Vatican politics and protocol.

If there had been a stronger editorial hand a la the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, the book might have been better.

NOTE: My review of The Mosaic Virus was originally published (in a slightly different version) in the Gay & Lesbian Review, July/August 2007 issue.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Missing Bodies Under The California Sun

Fadeout by Joseph Hansen, University of Wisconsin/Terrace Books, paperback, 187 pp.
Death Claims by Joseph Hansen, University of Wisconsin/Terrace Books, paperback, 166 pp.

Before John Morgan Wilson's Benjamin Justice, Lev Raphael's Nick Hoffman, Mary Wings's Emma Victor, R. D. Zimmerman's Todd Mills, and Mark Richard Zubro's Paul Turner, there was Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter, the very masculine, self-assured openly gay, highly cultured, middle-aged (!!!) claims investigator for the Medallion Life Insurance Company.

The University of Wisconsin Press/Terrace Books has reissued Hansen's first two novels in the 12-volume series: Fadeout (1970) and Death Claims (1973). Fadeout begins with a preface by Hansen (written a few months before his death), which succinctly traces the origin of the pioneering detective series set in Southern California, featuring, notes Hansen's obituary in the Los Angeles Times, "the first major gay protagonist in the mystery genre."

At a time when detective fiction can run as long as 300 or 400 pages, both Hansen books number less than 200. In addition, the prose is so spare, the stories so fast-paced that it is possible to read them in a single sitting.

The books transport the reader to the early nineteen-seventies with references to hippies, the fuzz (the police), phonograph records, and hip huggers. And of course, there is the ever-present cigarette. What manly detective back then would be without one dangling between his lips? Hansen, however succeeds in keeping the books from becoming dated.

Both Fadeout and Death Claims involve missing persons (in the first book, it is the insured; in the second, the beneficiary). It's Brandstetter's task to locate the bodies, if there are any. Otherwise, the insurance company may have to write a fat check. This leads Brandstetter into a tangled web of lies, betrayal, multiple suspects, long-held secrets, and long simmering hatreds.

NOTE: My review of the Hansen books was originally assigned by Lisa C. Moore, the editor of the Lambda Book Report, in 2005. Publication of LBR was suspended indefinitely, so I offered it to the Gay & Lesbian Review, where it was published (in a slightly different version) in the September/October 2005 issue.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mount Morris Baths: An Uptown Refuge

Friday and Saturday nights regardless of the weather were the busiest at Harlem's Mount Morris Baths, the oldest Turkish bathhouse in New York. The men, mostly black, sat on a long wooden bench or stood elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a tiny vestibule, near the cashier's window, waiting for a room or a locker to become available. Sometimes they waited two or three hours. Being in such close proximity to each other often caused tempers to flare, especially if someone was thought to have jumped the line. On rare occasions angry words escalated into fistfights. But, the customers, for the most part, maintained their cool. Once inside, they had eight hours (twelve on weekdays) to explore the rooms, corridors, and other areas of an establishment that had been in operation since 1893.

That was the year when a group of Jewish doctors built it as a health spa for their patients. Sometime in the 1940s it became a gay bathhouse. According to the historian John Loughery, in his book The Other Side of Silence, it "catered to black men who were often denied admission to bathhouses in midtown Manhattan."

It became apparent upon entering the TV lounge/dormitory that this place would never appear on the front cover of Architecture Digest or Better Homes & Gardens. It looked and smelled every bit of its hundred plus years. The Fab Five of the reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy would have had a field day doing an extreme makeover. Oddly, many customers preferred its antiquity and shabbiness. Mount Morris was sort of like the old man down the street whose shoes are turned over, pants baggy and soiled, face wrinkled, body decrepit but is still regarded with kindness.

Even though it had seen better days, for many of its customers, it was their second home. For some, it was home, offering a place to bunk down, take a shower, and have a free morning cup of coffee (with donuts).

One customer told me , "If these walls could talk." Indeed. The tales would fill several volumes of celebrities (past and present) and non celebrities, who were spotted getting a rubdown or sitting in the hot room or going in or coming out of someone's room.

Note: I worked as a towel attendant and cashier at Mount Morris Baths from February 2001 to August 2003. In August 2003, the bathhouse closed permanently.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Missing Sondheim TV Interview

Stephen Sondheim is one of the four gay Jewish men who created the Broadway musical West Side Story. And he is the only surviving member of that creative team. (The others were composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and librettist Arthur Laurents.) You would have thought that his comments would have been sought when a local New York TV news show did a report commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie version of the musical. Only two cast members from the movie George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn appeared on-camera. ( As a tie-in,the report mentioned that the investigation of fellow cast member Natalie Woods's 1981 drowning was being re-opened that week by the authorities.) For me, a fan of Sondheim 's music, I was greatly disappointed that his voice was missing from the report.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

For The Ticket--Watcher On The "Marilena"

He dozed over his work; it was a role he played, a whole lifestyle built on directing people from third to second class, telling third classes who entered, wittingly or otherwise, second class, to go back "go back and be where you must be, where you were destined to be when you boarded this ferry boat. I have your ticket. I can read it. This ferry boat is mine. This is where you belong. I have your tickets."--from Sonnets of Love by V. J. Robinson Reeb; edited and published by Michalis, (c) 2003, Velma Jean Reeb (published in Nicosia, Cyprus).

On Reading

"For the man who cannot read, Shakespeare might as well have lived on another planet. Aristotle and Aquinas might as well have never been born."--Steve Allen, humorist/philosopher, from Reflections by Steve Allen (Prometheus Books, 1994).