Friday, August 29, 2014

Baltimore, Baseball and Gay Love—'Queen Henry' Touches all the Bases


Begin with a straight, homophobic, narcissistic, womanizer who happens to play for the Baltimore Orioles.  Add to that his out-of-the-blue discovery he is gay, which is followed by his falling head over spikes for a man.  Toss in the swirling rumors of a gay player on the Orioles and the inherent clubhouse homophobia from his manager, some of his teammates, and his father, and you have the recipe for a glorious, deliciously written work of fiction, Queen Henry, by local author Linda Fausnet, a lifetime Orioles fan.

A successful screenwriter and a professed ally for LGBT rights, Fausnet announced that all proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the Harvey Milk Foundation. 
Set in Baltimore, Henry Vaughn, Jr., who has a thing for Peach Schnapps, is a rather fun-loving outfielder who is immensely popular with the fans mainly because, as a self-described “attention whore,” he leads them in the seventh inning sing-along to Y-M-C-A while standing atop the dugout.  After a game, Henry carouses with his teammates, and since he is attractive, famous and single, he effortlessly finds a different woman to take home each night.

Despite his macho image, Henry secretly longs to be a Broadway performer.  His homophobic father, manager and teammates instill the anti-gay dogma in him, and he frequently uses the f-word primarily because this is the environment in which it is expected and accepted. 

Weakness or the perception of same is one of the greatest fears of a male athlete.  That is why Henry hides the use of an inhaler to deal with his asthma and instead decides to participate in a clinical drug trial at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  After taking the drug, administered by a medical technician named Sam, a gay man, Henry finds out shockingly while jogging the next morning he is attracted to men and lost his desires for women.  Just like that.
Panicky and confused, Henry tries to explain the situation to Sam who vehemently denies the drug had anything to do with this condition and that Henry must have been suppressing his true sexuality all along.  They don’t hit it off well as Henry’s homophobia comes through loud and clear; the tension between the two remains throughout a good portion of the book.

Nonetheless, Sam introduces Henry to a close friend and colleague at Hopkins, Thomas, who has helped people come to grips with their sexuality.  They experience a deep attraction to one another and ultimately fall in love. 
Like any good author, Fausnet seductively draws the reader into the romance and sexual steaminess with great skill, describing the relationship between Henry and Thomas with sensitivity and emotion. To her credit, the passionate sexual scenes are tastefully conveyed—full of affection and heat without seeming tawdry.

The underlying question is: was Henry gay all along and the career and family choices he will be confronted with or will the drug wear off and he returns to being straight?
Without proceeding further to reveal the outcome, I can say that some readers may be disappointed with the ending (as I was initially) but others may like the ending (as I did eventually). 

Fausnet’s writing is extraordinary in this fluid, fast-paced tale.  Narrated in the first person by Henry, the story reads like his own journal as he reflects upon each conversation he has and reveals his inner thoughts.  We get to delve into Henry’s psyche enabling us to not only understand the challenges and quandaries he faces, but also to enthusiastically root for him.  He wins us over.
Fausnet demonstrates an uncanny understanding of gay male emotions and sexual desires (she is a happily married heterosexual mother of two) and will keep you absorbed as Henry and the other characters in the novel navigate through the events shaping their lives.

Her character development is splendid.  You feel that you know each one intimately, and most of the characters are endearing and sweet.  This is especially true of Alice, an attractive bartender at a bar Henry frequented to pick up women, sidestepping Alice by not recognizing her myriad appealing qualities.    
The underlying question is: was Henry gay all along ... or will the drug wear off and he returns to being straight?
I suspect Fausnet purposely left out specific physical descriptions of the characters other than vague images such as beautiful eyes, muscular arms, etc. so as not to distract the reader from the underlying messages in the novel.  But I think it would have been fun and would have added context to be able to visualize each person as we turn the pages.

Fausnet’s references to Baltimore provided additional enjoyment to the storyline especially for us locals.  Besides Hopkins and Camden Yards, the Hippo is frequently mentioned throughout.  The Pride parade is a turning point scene.  The Baltimore Sun plays a vital role, and even Baltimore OUTloud is mentioned albeit as a support group marching in the Pride parade, not the wildly popular LGBT newspaper that it is!
Though there are many cleverly written light moments throughout Queen Henry—one that is particularly hilarious is when the Orioles players were speculating as to whom the gay player may be—Fausnet touches upon key social messages that are in play today. 

Despite the revelations by Jason Collins, Michael Sam and other athletes that they are gay, there is still great concern by gay male athletes to come out and face the potential hostilities.  Fausnet effectively describes the homophobia that exists in the locker room and the pressures that result. 

She began writing the novel a few years back when the environment for gays and lesbians was not as favorable as today. Therefore, I don’t think the current local media would be in the “gotcha mode” as portrayed in Queen Henry.  The same is true for the teammates who now would be wise not to publicly utter the f-word in dealing with the subject.  Moreover, the real Orioles today would not be inclined to openly express any anti-gay epithets as owner Peter Angelos, who was a substantial contributor in the fight for marriage equality in Maryland, would put the kibosh on that.
The other main theme is how Henry recognized his own homophobia, and once he learned he was gay understood how other gays and lesbians can be easily hurt and their lives wrecked by this bigotry and hatred.  He transformed his attitude once he saw himself as a victim.  It is a powerful message.

Queen Henry is a truly well-written novel with potent drama with campy humor laced throughout.  Though it contains important messages to LGBT folks and others, it is also a gorgeous love story and one that should not be missed.  Fausnet swung and hit a home run.
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Queen Henry, Linda Fausnet, published by Wannabe Pride; July 2014; 360 pages; paperback (ISBN: 978-0-9916525-0-1); $10.62 on Amazon.com or wannabepride.com, her website to promote writers and books; $2.99 on Kindle.

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