New prose works take on the pandemic — and the rarefied world of a women’s studies program
"Crossing the Bridge"
By Ron Ramsay Hagg
(2021, 176 pp.)
What would happen if, under a deadly pandemic, lawlessness gripped American institutions, clans of neo-Nazi motorcyclists roamed the land and fear stalked every household? Where would you go to hide?
To Taos, of course.
The first-person protagonist of Hagg’s latest novel (after “Lost and Found”) has an excellent career in Los Angeles managing “facilities” that incarcerate immigrants for the government — let’s call them prisons — and under the Trump administration he has grown very rich indeed. Al’s much younger wife, Margaret, is perfect, and his house overlooking Los Angeles “practically a mansion.” Yet once he actually visits one of his “facilities” and is confronted by an immigrant with a heart-wrenching story, Al is sunk.
His world appears hollow, his marriage loveless. And everything caves in.
Al reemerges in Taos, though we are not quite sure why. It seems the order of the universe. He buys a small house, lets go of his L.A. life, allows his ex to have everything — and eight years roll by in Arroyo Hondo. “Which is worse,” Al wonders, now at age 68: “being totally alone or the loneliness that can grab you when you live with someone who doesn’t care for you?”
Then the pandemic hits, and super-imposed isolation. Just as Al finally figures out what song will encapsulate him when he dies (a sound of wind brushing up against him), he meets Angela, a distraught woman who knocks on his door late at night. Her car has broken down, and she is terrified of the marauding thugs on motorcycles who regularly prey on the vulnerable.
They trash her car, steal everything from her past life. Her family is dead from a gas fire in L.A. Angela has nothing left, and totters between giving up — and staying. And what begins as a tentative extension of mercy on the part of a decided hermit who likes his couple of beers and occasional weed, grows into a much-needed, warm human connection for them both.
In this straightforward, uncomplicated, gracious effort, author Hagg seems to float the question: How can you say no when the universe — fate, God, you name it — seems to be giving you exactly what you need?
"That Guy in Our Women’s Studies Class"
By Allan D. Hunter
Sunstone Press (2022, 262 pp.)
“Hi, I’m Derek Turner, I am interested in feminism and I want to take this course.”
So proceeds with great determination this young “sissy femme” who is male and heterosexual, yet with a feminine nature, as he describes himself in this “nonfiction memoir” which reads more like a novel. “I wasn’t a regular straight guy but neither was I gay or transsexual” — not exactly the classic feminist, especially in the fall 1985 as he signs up for classes in a State University of New York, Long Island branch.
The professors, not to mention the other students in his women’s studies classes, are slightly baffled by this new student, at 25 somewhat older than the others as this is Derek’s third attempt at college, having floundered back home in New Mexico. Coming out then, Derek hit a wall of misunderstanding and lack of support from his family, who considered him “mentally unstable” and a “loser.”
Hunter’s previous novel “GenderQueer” left off when Derek is incarcerated in a mental institution because he is simply too bizarre to categorize, and his parents in Los Alamos put him away rather than try to sort out his individual identity. Now, Derek knows that New York is the place for him, and there he eventually heads on a mission: “I want to explain to people what it is like to be a male feminine person … and to push for some social change that comes from making room for people like me to exist.”
Consequently, Derek’s determination to succeed and be heard is marvelous: he helps bring political awareness to the staff and residents of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, where he has managed, creatively, to find a place to live while attending school; inserts a fresh voice in classroom discussions about the abuses of patriarchy; and even shakes up the school’s Catalyst newspaper.
This era marked the blossoming of feminist theory, and readers will relish the roiling discussions about pornography, rape, power differentials, racism, sexual liberation versus feminism around works by writers then very much in vogue like Marilyn French, Vivian Gornick and Andrea Dworkin. Derek is constantly attacked for claiming he is a radical feminist although he is a man. His crowning success is publishing a groundbreaking essay in “Feminism and Psychology,” yet he does not complete his graduate degree.
A Reader’s Guide at the back offers provocative questions about themes that Derek is pursuing, how he adjusts his understanding over time and what a change agent is, e.g., “Do you perceive tensions between being radical, being pragmatic and being effective at producing social change?” Certainly this work will spur readers to go back and check out some of the inspired texts.