LARS EIGHNER, gay novelist, memoirist, and chronicler of the lives of the homeless, passed away on December 23 in Austin, Texas. He was 73. Born in Corpus Christi in 1948, he grew up in Houston, attended Rice University, and spent time in Los Angeles before returning to Texas. Soon after gay marriage was legalized in 2015, he married his longtime companion Clint Hexamer.
Eighner came to prominence in 1991 with an article titled “On Dumpster Diving” that recounted his experience “foraging the refuse of others” after losing his job as a hospital attendant and finding that his own medical problems rendered him unemployable and homeless. Impressed by his wry analysis of how well the poor can survive on what middle-class society discards, St. Martin’s Press commissioned the memoir that became Travels with Lizbeth (1993), about his life on the road with his dog Lizbeth as his only companion. In 2017 the Times praised the book as “the finest first-person writing we have about the experience of being homeless in America. It is not a dirge … but an offbeat and plaintive hymn to life.” In 2019 a panel of book critics named it one of the fifty best memoirs of the last fifty years.
But Eighner may be remembered best by gay readers for his comic novel Pawn to Queen Four, which was written in the 1980s but didn’t find a publisher until 1995. Following the success of Travels with Lizbeth, St. Martin’s published it as one of Michael Denneny’s groundbreaking Stonewall Inn Editions. Moving between the drag culture of Austin and a homophobic evangelical university in Oklahoma, Pawn to Queen Four satirizes the backlash suffered by the gay and lesbian rights movement in the 1980s when religious conservatives rallied to reverse the progress made by gay people following Stonewall. But it also mocked the ideology of assimilationists within the gay movement who wanted to marginalize drag queens and leather enthusiasts in an attempt to make homosexuality less threatening to mainstream America.
Pawn to Queen Four remains—along with Edward Swift’s Splendora (1978) and Principia Martindale (1983)—one of the best examples of gay comic writing about Texas. Like Swift, Eighner enjoyed the contradiction in Texan discourse between the broad assertion of personal liberty and the right of evangelical authorities to police people’s behavior. The contradiction is made more outrageous by the claim that everything is bigger in Texas: big cars, big hair, and—as Swift and Eighner demonstrate—big bigotry.
In the novel, Agnes McKinney is a six-foot-seven, 300-pound drag artist who serves as Queen of the Imperial Court of the Jade Chimera. Dedicated to the preservation of her people, Agnes recruits a handsome young man named Jim to infiltrate Holy Word of God University and Technical Institute in neighboring Oklahoma, whose founder, Reverend Brother Earl Richards, is using his radio station to launch a particularly vicious campaign against gay people. Waves of comically outrageous mayhem ripple through the multiple layers of plot, climaxing when a cavalcade of motorcycle-riding Hell’s Fairies rescues Agnes, Jim, and their party from a posse of gun-toting evangelicals. “God save the nelly queen!” cries the Court at novel’s end, undercutting the deeply closeted Brother Earl’s earlier claim that “You can’t flout society’s standards. Whatever you think, whatever the theories, society will never, never permit men to be lovers. All you can do is rock the boat.”
Agnes triumphs because, in larger-than-life Texas fashion, she’s incapable of paying lip service to society’s standards; it’s by rocking the boat that she ensures that men are free to love other men. And that is, in part, the legacy of her creator, Lars Eighner, as well.
Raymond-Jean Frontain is professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas.