On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives
of “Straight” Black Men who Sleep with Men
by J. L. King
Broadway Books. 208 pages, $21.95
Pausing to put a condom on is not something closeted black men living on the “down low” (DL) do, according to many of the men interviewed by the author, because they only “get with” men they meet at the gym, or perhaps at church, men like themselves, who lead “normal, straight lives.” King volleys these and other observations directly at African-American women, with a firm reminder that they should not succumb to the intense pressure society puts on them to get and keep a man. Drawing from his own life experiences—his wife caught him having an affair with a man from their church—as well as from hundreds of interviews, meetings, and panels led by the author, King reveals that men living on the DL do not consider themselves gay; in fact, many have passionate, fulfilling relationships with their wives or girlfriends. This is especially alarming in that these men rarely practice safe sex when indulging in a little “somethin’.” “To put on a condom is to think about what you are doing,” explains King. “It stops it from being a thoughtless, lustful act that they have no control over. If you wear a condom, it couldn’t be the liquor that made you have sex with another man.” King offers candid tips on how to spot DL flirting behavior, views on why some masculine men actually prefer the bottom (passive) role during gay sex, and a description of the distinguishing characteristics of the five DL “behavior types” (mature brother, thug brother, professional brother, I have a wife/girlfriend brother, and the I’m just curious brother). The writing, generously flecked with everyday urban vernacular (every black woman is referred to as a “sister,” every black man, a “brother”) is at times repetitive, but ultimately King’s street-wise, older-brother persona provides a comfortable way to couch this sensitive, complex subject matter.
Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould
by Kevin Bazzana
Oxford University Press. 528 pages, $35.
When Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to Toronto while on a 1974 tour he said he knew three things about Canada: it had great hockey teams, lots of wheat fields, and Glenn Gould. Drawing on twenty years of research, including unrestricted access to Gould’s private papers and interviews with friends and colleagues, many of them never interviewed before, Kevin Bazzana sheds new light on such topics as Gould’s family history, his secretive sexual life, and the mysterious problems that afflicted his hands in his later years. Gould was well known for both his eccentric musical interpretations and his garish onstage performances. He would show up in a plain business suit, often baggy and unpressed, wearing mismatched socks and untied shoes. There was his crouching over the keyboard, swaying forward and back, sweating copiously, his hair tossing back and forth. Sometimes he’d hum or sing along as he played. Seeing Gould in concert was considered a top ticket. He came from a religious, upper-middle-class background. His mother was a major influence, as was the one and only piano teacher he ever had. In 1964, Gould decided to perform only for recording sessions, radio, television, and film, a daring move for his career. Gould was always interested in new technologies, and helped to develop a new technique in radio documentary that he called “contrapuntal radio,” in which the voices of several speakers would be blended through careful editing.
Between The Palms: A Collection of Gay Travel Erotica
Edited by Michael Luongo
Haworth Press Inc. 176 pages, $16.95 (paper)
The rudder guiding this collection of erotic travel memoirs is cultural enlightenment, according to its editor, who claims that sex abroad is more than just sex; it’s about understanding difference. “After all, what more intimate way to discuss culture and country than in bed?” reasons Luongo (a travel writer and editor) in the book’s opening notes. And yet, Luongo’s experiential latitude and political longitude do not always intersect, at least on this map. Sure, it’s interesting to learn that African gay men refer to active and passive sexual positions as “king” and “queen” respectively, or that Ghanaians have small penises due to a lack of protein in their diet, but these observations do not qualify as epiphanies of cross-cultural understanding. The connection between sex and enlightenment is more fully realized when the contributors ponder issues beyond the bedroom. In “Desert Bloom: Memories of ‘Burning Man,’” Tim McKenzie carefully immerses himself in the free-love, “no spectators” world of the famed Black Rock festival in Nevada, only to discover that “queer space” doesn’t always have to be “physically defined.” Between the Palms features true-life stories of sexual adventures from the deserts and jungles of all six inhabited continents. The pyramids of Giza, the toilet of a German cabaret, an outdoor market in Ghana—these and other locales offer unusual and inspired settings for these engaging narratives about sex with strangers in strange lands.