ARC, Books

Book 457: One of These Things First – Steven Gaines

Gaines, Steven - One of These Things FirstI had no idea who Steven Gaines was and after reading this, I don’t have that much more of an idea. I’d love to say I’ve done more research but I haven’t, but I may try to read Philistines at the Hedgerow later this fall as we’re going to a wedding in the Hamptons and it’s about property there.

All of this being said, my thoughts are not a bad thing, especially as I enjoyed his writing, but an observation of my usual lack of background knowledge going in to a book.

The lovely people at Open Road Media reached out to me with a copy of One of These Things First* as I had previously read In Youth Is Pleasure and I can see the similarities in story, style and experience even though they’re set in different countries and quite a bit apart temporally.

Gains story comes very close to becoming a stereotypical/archetypical gay man’s coming of age story. I think his humor keeps this from becoming another woe-is-me sob story, but it does push it closer to the other end of the spectrum of snarcastic (snarky sarcasm). It’s funny though, because he clearly says he doesn’t feel comfortable with other gay men

“I still do not feel entirely comfortable inside the gay world, despite its enormous strides toward equality. When I told a therapist that I didn’t think gay men on the whole liked me, he said that was because on the whole I didn’t like gay men. I have none of the stereotypical talents ascribed to gay people. I can’t arrange flowers, decorate houses, or cur hair, and I don’t know or care what the best hotel is in Positano. And yet, if you asked me my blessings, chief among them was that I was born gay. And a Jew.” (133)

And then Gaines proceeded to provide a how-to for becoming a “classic” gay man. From the drama,

“‘A good exit is even more important than a good entrance,’ he said to me. ‘An exit is the last impression a person has of you. More important I think than first impressions, because you can always change a first impression. But once you say goodbye, the court of appeals on you has closed.'” (79)

to the literature:

But what I found interesting was that he didn’t talk about anyone else’s sexuality—across the board. There was only one person he mentioned and that was in a derogatory way, but he did show remorse later.

The one thing I could’ve done without was the Freudian analysis. It was creepy. I’m glad I didn’t study more than in passing in undergrad.

“Depending on what you saw them doing, you could’ve thought your mother was being hurt by your father, or even killed. Groans of pleasure are very easily interpreted as pain by an infant. Oral sex can be seen as cannibalistic. An infant has no way to understand what the most important people in the world are doing to each other. It’s extremely traumatizing.” (90)

But I did appreciate Gaines going back to his therapist decades later and his sharing that conversation with the readers because it provided closure and a great end to the novel.

Recommendation: This is definitely a niche read, but if you are interested in LGBT rights, pre-Stonewall New York history or the history of psychology/mental institutions/therapy you might appreciate this book. The humor is an added bonus for a story that deals with pretty dark subjects.

* I received a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion without compensation.

Opening Line: “One brilliantly cold afternoon in March of 1962, three months past my fifteenth birthday, I set out on a course of action that would shake my world from its wobbly orbit and spin it off on an unanticipated new trajectory.”

Closing Line: “A week after that last session with him, I received a bill for $300. Some things never change.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)

Additional Quotes from One of These Things First
“We were the real melting pot. We had Italians, Jews and Irish living in equal and surprisingly harmonious distribution.” (12)

“So Brooklyn wasn’t exactly provincial, but I’d guess that most people in Borough Park in the 1950s and 1960s when i was growing up, didn’t know much about, say, international diplomacy, or fine wines, or haute couture. Or psychiatry. Or homosexuals.” (16)

“Rifka was a big-boned woman with a hook nose and bosoms that swayed in her full slip like cannonballs in a sling.” (20)

“All this counting and touching took up a lot of time, so when you hear about people with obsessive behavior and it seems colorfully eccentric, like Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, in which he’s a writer with OCD who has to hopscotch down the street so as not to step on a crack, the part that nobody mentions is that it can take ten minutes just to get out the front door.” (27)

“The counting, the crazy thoughts, they were all signs. Even if it was a horrible thing to be a homo, it made me unique.That horrible part of me also made me special. I saw the world differently. Maybe the way I saw it was askew from the way most people saw it, but I had a separate sensibility that only homos knew. In some convoluted way, this realization that my homosexuality gave me a gift was like the moment in the movie The Miracle Worker when Helen Keller realized that Annie Sullivan’s hand symbol meant ‘water.’ My curse in some ways made me…superior.” (73)

“Dr. Myers asked me if I wanted to be presented at Grand Rounds. I was thrilled. I was a prince at the monster’s ball. Being presented at Grand Rounds was like being nominated for an Oscar in the Academy of Mental Cases. I was so proud I told all the other patients as if I just had been notified I was class valedictorian. Only one person a month was chosen from the whole hospital, and it meant that there was a chance my case would be cited in a medical journal.” (116)

“I promise myself that I won’t go back there anymore. Nostalgia is dangerous. I continue to try to remember my childhood so I can understand it better, yet I don’t know what it is I’m trying to understand. Anyway, it’s not as if something particularly astounding happened there. We were just another frayed thread in an infinite tapestry. Every family has its eccentricities and stories. Every cabdriver thinks he should write a book. We all believe our lives are in some way special. We wouldn’t be us if we didn’t.” (124)

“And making love is not the same as lust. Even psychiatry didn’t claim to know how to make people lust. And lust is the glue of love. Oh yes it is. At least at first.” (132)


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