It is the knack of any natural-born storyteller to engage our belief, so that with the very next sentence or flip of a page we might actually learn something about ourselves. And it's often the simplest of folk tales, the ones with equal measures of the horrific and fantastic, that rivet our attention the most. Adrian Brooks takes a child's delight in telling a good story and, with an appropriate mixture of innocence and fright, commands attention in The Glass Arcade.
A shy boy in rural Germany sees his parents gunned down by the Nazis and is carried away. It is 1934, a decade before the rest of the world will know of the fascist big lie. The boy keeps the truth of the experience deeply buried- a persistent wound- and is unable to express it or live fully with it, even 30 years later as a comfortable, married New York suburbanite. Only a chance encounter with a handsome young stranger pierces this numbing anguish, and slowly the man/boy unravels the story of his abduction and subsequent life under the fascists, that of a painted slave in a glittering palace catering to the sexual appetites of the Nazi elite. It is a tale of adolescent awakenings and historic undoings, of tenderness found in unexpected places and of that particularly human quality that the Nazis despise, and fear, the most. It is also a tale that, quite simply, is irresitable.
The book was released last summer by Pocket Books, an affiliate of Simon & Schuster. Like most first novels, it was expected to have a short life before heading off to the paper shredders. But word-of-mouth, that quirk of fate in any publisher's lexicon, quickly spread The Glass Arcade to a wide and appreciative audience. The novel is now in its second printing, a British edition has been released, and a Hollywood film is under serious consideration.
For many readers, the heart of the book's appeal lies with a young boy's coming of age in a fantastic- and perverse- setting. Forging an identity as an alien, yet sometimes seductive, environment is a perspective especially familiar to gay readers. That many of the characters in the book- good as well as bad- are homosexual seems incidental to the story. What's central is the search for freedom and self-recognition in the face of impossible odds. The book, quipped one reader, is best described as "Madam Kitty meets Hermann Hesse."
An unlikely pairing, but seemingly less so after a visit with Brooks in San Francisco, his home the past several years. Poet, playwright, burgeoning cabaret performer, and now novelist, Brooks somehow merges the trappings of a polite, upper crust establishment upbringing with the sensibilities of a globe-trotting wild child. His poetry has long been familiar to readers of Gay Sunshine. His work in the theater- both written and performed- is familiar as well to audience of The Angels of Light, a San Francisco troupe noted for their ingenuous blend of message and stage magic and the recent recipients of four Bay Area Critic Circle Awards, including one for best over-all production.
It is the dichotomy- the unresolved tension between knowing the best the material West has to offer and paying the price for it- that has, in part, sparked Brooks' creative spirit.
"My life has a double meaning, to be sure. But I have found that to be very helpful. I don't think you can create without a necessary impulse to heal or close a rift between subjective and objective reality." In growing up within the privileged environment of the Philadelphia Main Line, says Brooks, "There was always a duality between being spoiled brats and having it drilled into our minds that it wasn't enough being a spoiled brat- that you actually had to go out and do something, yet confining your views to upper middle-class ethics and the white ruling establishment."
Fortunate for him, he says, that there were two factors making this "terribly impossible." He was gay and a Quaker. "I knew I was gay as a child and was encouraged to go around the house in drag- kimonos, scarves, jewelry. I was a little theater object from the time I was three. My parents loved it- their generation couldn't indulge that- but they didn't realize that there were raising an artist. And because I was also raised Quaker, I heard from a very early age about Mahatma Gandhi, prejudice and bigotry against black people, which horrified me completely.
"I was told nonviolent action was necessary, there is no ultimate right and wrong, and that whatever you have to do, do it- because that's what Quakers call 'The Inner Light.' It's what will help in terms of the world."
Being trained in the role of "accomplished intellectual," while at the same time exposed to the arts and to "a moral life which had no clear form on the surface" left Brooks feeling confused and in need of some way to express all the aspects of his personality. He finished prep school "an academic washout" and began to travel, still believing "that if you didn;t have a Ph.D you'd fail and die in the gutter." About a year and a half later, he met someone who had attended the Friends World College, the international Quaker school whose centers all over the world aim to turn students into agents for social change. "Naturally," Brooks laughs, "the Quakers put their schools in the middle of the best dope routes in the world."
The central question raised by the college, he says, is how do educated people from the industrialized West reconcile their knowledge of materialistic society's limitations with the legitimate concerns of Third World countries and developing nations. "I went iinto this world under the context of being a nonviolent revolutionary. I wanted to change things. This is an artist's function. I think that's everyone's function, but when I say artist I don't mean people who just paint and dance. I think art takes many forms.
"The question is, 'How do we live on this planet and not exploit it? How do we all see ourselves as part of the solution to the long tradition of trashing whatever could be trashed for the quick buck?' I think that people whose lives take a recognizable form and meaning are part of the solution. Time is running out and yet, instead of political solutions, I see the only answer that means anything in human terms. I'm a humanist, and believe that people are much smarter than the systems that oppress them."
One of the central characters in Brooks' recent novel is the aloof, majestic, and ultimately compassionate Frederich Lorken. Lorken had been a famous cabaret performer in Berlin, then the gayest city in the world. With the Nazis' rise to power he is scooped up and transported to the Glass Arcade, a palatial estate turned male brothel, where he is expected to ply his powers as a consumate illusionist for the price of his life. One suspects a strong connection between the character and Brooks' own psyche.
"At an early age," says Brooks, "I chose illusion over reality. I used to come home from school and make tiny little villages and monasteries behind a hydrangea plant in our backyard. I had a whole concept of a nonviolent, well-ordered little world. The games were my illusions and I had an enormous peace while playing with them, an incredible feeling of sanity- my own. Frederich is a dreamer, but because he is an artist he actualizes his dreams. The Nazis profit from his power, but he finds out how to restore his honor by investing more in truth and love, as he sees it.
"Still, at a very early age he thought he might be immune to the political activity around him because he was an artist. He was much more cavalier towards life. When he slipped, he saw immediately that protection, isolation, does not work for anybody."
Brooks based his novel on a story by film director Paul Aaronm who had attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the man in charge of the "Final Solution"- the concentration camps.
"I had originally set the novel during the closing moments of the war, but after reading about the persecution of homosexuals under the National Socialists, Ernst Rohm and 'the Night of the Long Knives,' I changed the focus to an earlier period. Because until Hitler killed Rohm, assuming command of Germany by eliminating his only rival, homosexuals still felt that they were immune from persecution. In Mein Kampf, I don;t think that Hitler had marked homosexuals as fit targets for persecution. In fact, there was a longstanding tradition of homosexuality in the German military and in 1928, shortly after the National Socialists did say that homosexuals were unfit people, the Reichstag passed a law making homosexuality legal. Immediately after this the stock market crashed and that liberal law was never enacted."
Are there any lessons to be learned from this today? "In Germany, which after all was a very civilized country, homosexuals didn't see themselves as an oppressed minority until, in one fell swoop, they realized how precarious their position was. There was a certain myopia within the general body politic which thought, 'Things are very complicated right now, but if only we had a strong man in there it'll be all right.' Aside from the fact that the Nazis were lying to the German people, the people wanted a simplistic answer for a complicated situation.
"Today, in this country, certainly in recent years, the same thing is going on. When homosexuals came out of the closet in the Stonewall riots there was an initial period of flash and exuberance and a sense that society was going to be shaken up. But as in any minority movement, after a certain period of attention-getting and achievement of immediate goals and priorities there is a real schism between people who want to be content with minimal acceptance and the people who realize that the fight and need for social integration isn't done until there is no longer any issue. The conservative drift in the gay community- particularly in so many peoples' conformity- is so highly obvious right now. But the danger is that this safety is completely illusionary.
How is Brooks dealing with those issues in his art? "There is a basic choice that every artist makes between personal concerns and an overriding view of society. The worst art to me is political art. I don't believe in it. I'm not into slogans. I'm much more interested in seductions. In all my work there is a concealed message. When you get to the end of something you can say, that showed a woman taking responsibility for her life, or that showed old people capable in the face of a society that denies their existence, or, that showed a homosexual who wasn't so insatiable that he wouldn't be responsible. While I would like to entertain and tell wonderful stories- my priority in life is to become a performer- those ideas are my concerns.
"My thinking isn't dictated by the fact that I'm a homosexual. To me, it's an endless source source of wealth, but I'm not a gay writer. I'm a writer who happens to be gay. If The Glass Arcade is successful it has to do with the fact that there is a fully human, interesting gay character who cares about art, life, people, politics and values- who is also trapped.
"One of the most powerful answers that gay people have to offer is how life can be lived not for material gain or territorial protection, but how a heterogeneous society can value more than just breeding grounds or the economics that support biological renewal. There are bigger things at stake."
In The Glass Arcade Brooks has used the disparate elements of his life- adventursome play in a glitter-theater of the absurd and fantastic, the awareness of social privilege, the insight that comes from conscious seeking- to reveal some of mankind's darkest repressions. Yet the book titillates more than it expounds, captivating with charm, sometimes by way of our prurient curiosities. Brooks knows all too well the use of the veil- a device used here not to disguise, but to prolong the pleasures of a singular tale well told.
"I feel articulate and capable of disciplining myself after 33 years- something I thought I'd never master. Part of my urge to write is necessary proof to myself that I'm capable of maintaining form. And there is a need for people who can create- on any level- to do that. It helps other people.
"It's difficult enough to make sense out of the world. The only sense I find is in people who inspect their own hearts and decide what is meaningful to them. Not taking form was the most terrifying prospect for me. Tennessee Williams says that being a writer is like trying to construct a new reality before the old one becomes untenable. I feel that way too. Each time I begin a project, I'm changing my life. I'm moving forward and trying to heal some fractures within myself."
by Mark Thompson
May 28, 1981