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Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever

February 20, 2010
Swish by Joel Derfner
published by Broadway June 16, 2009

I recently won a random drawing at the GLBT Reading Blog and was offered my choice from a long list of excellent books. šŸ™‚ I saw several novels on the list which I already wanted to read. However, I thought the point of a reading challenge — and of a giveaway like this — was to pick up something I might never have looked at otherwise. I had never heard of Joel Derfner, but his website made me laugh. Anybody who can make me laugh is someone whose company I want to share for a few evenings, even if it’s through the pages of a book. šŸ™‚ So I took a chance on his memoir, Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead.

Joel is a gifted composer and author with a background in linguistics. He has a delightfully rich vocabulary, a gorgeous writing style, and a magnificent, edgy sense of humor that made me want to invite him over to share a pitcher of margaritas. There were parts of the book I loved, other parts I was lukewarm about, and a few bits that made me go “huh?” šŸ˜€ But let’s face it, when a man can write like that, there’s no way I’m putting the book down.

He starts each chapter by delving into one of his vocations or hobbies —Ā  whether it be knitting, aerobics, cheerleading or being a go-go dancer in a gay bar. Then he segues into other aspects of his life, including his relationship with his parents, his feelings about Judaism, and his experience of coming out as a homosexual. At moments, we’re sharing his awe and passion when creating music, at others we’re tagging along on his adventures in casual sex, via an online hook-up site. It’s a colorful, unpredictable ride.

If this were a work of fiction, I’d be lauding the author for his complex character development. Joel Derfner, as he appears in this book, runs the gamut. At times, he appears agonizingly insecure, the soul of a ninth grader — perpetually humiliated and longing to fit in — in a man’s body. I imagine we all have a sliver of that. At moments he seems judgmental and petty, with a secret sense of superiority over people who can’t punctuate. šŸ™‚ At other times he is incredibly insightful and compassionate. I love the fact that he was fearless in showing us these many facets of himself. I got to know the whole person, and I came to care about him more deeply than I’d expected.

The thing I liked most about this book, as I’ve mentioned, was the writing. I loved the fact that it sent me to the dictionary, multiple times, because that doesn’t happen often lately. (Maybe I should be reading more challenging books?) There are luminous moments, and I love the way they’re carelessly tangled with silly, mundane things — life is like that. This passage describes Joel’s life after he had to give up singing, for health reasons, and began composing music instead:

Because the glee I feel when I surprise myself composing is real, but I feel it only because I have lulled to sleep the memory of what infinity feels like, and I am afraid of what might happen if I woke that memory up. I love my life because a part of me has learned how to give up hope, and that, I suspect, is a dangerous lesson to unlearn.

As I sat at my friends’ piano my fingers eventually assumed a position they had not held for years, and then I opened my mouth: “Gentle airs, melodious strains,” I sang, picturing the dust motes shimmering in a Boston chapel. But when I got to the next part, when I was supposed to sing “call for raptures out of woe,” neither my hands nor my throat could remember what to do.

Another thing that captivated me about this book was his brief story of living with a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. This illness has touched my family profoundly, as some of you know, and Joel’s description of his struggle broke my heart. “I was able to wrench about 5 percent of my attention to eating and bathing … while the rest of my brain was devouring itself like an ouroboros.” That may be the single most wonderful metaphor I have ever read.

I was also fascinated with his exploration of his sexuality. This includes his tongue-in-cheek odyssey to live a quintessentially gay lifestyle — complete with teaching aerobics, cheerleading, and go-go dancing as well as being a musical theater composer. But it goes deeper, and it eventually leads him to go undercover to a conservative Christian conference for ex-gays — people who have given up “the lifestyle” for Jesus. This environment seemed foreign to him in every way. I was afraid he wouldn’t look past this one-dimensional image of the Christian faith, which is so much more than that, not to mention the ludicrous, heart-wrenching position in which these individuals found themselves. However, he sought to compassionately understand the men he met at the conference and used the opportunity to reflect on the similarities and differences between their beliefs and his own Jewish faith and on his own journey toward self-acceptance as a gay man.

This memoir is beautifully written, thought-provoking and funny — I highly recommend it to adult readers. It is definitely rated NC-17 for some of the themes explored and for some explicit sexuality. In other words, you might learn more than you want to know about Joel Derfner’s sex life. If you’re cool with that, go for it!

Thank you again to GLBT Reading Blog and to Joel Derfner for generously giving me a copy of this book.

Read More Reviews at The Book Pirate and A Striped Armchair

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2010 5:05 am

    I’m so, so glad you liked the book!

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