YOU’RE PRETTY GAY, a short story collection by Drew Pisarra, reviewed by Jarrod Campbell

The ease with which queer lives can, in the blink of an eye, turn from something mundane into a moment of incredulous absurdity becomes commonplace the moment a person accepts that truth about themselves. Many components add together and create complex formulae necessary for any concoction: childhood longing and distress, adolescent anxiety, adult damages, to name but a few. How difficult to explain the paradox of this life to the uninitiated, and often, how tiresome. Illustrations exist to offer a glimpse into this inanity—Drew Pisarra’s recent exemplary assembly of stories proves consummate.

In his book, You’re Pretty Gay, a procession of lives often takes unexpected turns. Though the people populating these terse yarns vary mostly and the outcomes shift outrageously from pleasing to disagreeable, often in the same story, a commonality pervades as a thread stitching the collection together. The uncertainties of existence, especially queer existence, prove just as hilarious, shocking, life-changing, or upsetting on the page as they are realistically. Reading this book inspired reminiscences of similar personal situations that evoked equally powerful reactions. If any of what is remembered ever really happened—bent minds tend to convince themselves otherwise if the evolution doesn’t go according to our dictates.

Don’t let the book’s brevity be any indication of just how heavy these very short stories are, weight here being measured in an entire cavalcade of sensations. Humor follows heartbreak with the same ease that a story’s certain trajectory experiences a fanciful divergence from the prepared path. A warning can be gleaned from the double-edged optimism of Gertrude Stein that opens the book: “If you are looking down while you are walking it is better to walk up hill the ground is nearer.” After a warning from the introduction of what to expect, the unexpected begins. In “Every Man For Myself,” the narrator’s evening of an intended sexual encounter turns sour at the discovery of various caged rodents in his trick’s house. Returning to the bar where he met “The Professor,” he then befriends an aging, very blunt actress who offers “… a series of unforgettable insights, insults, advice, asides, and free alcohol.” One need gets altered slightly into another by the end: “Oh, we all need something, don’t we? The question is, will we ever find it.” In the brilliantly allegorical “The Granny,” every action carries consequence. “He was aware of this pattern, this digestion of the past.” Swallowing pictures of the deceased, the survivors enter a game of one-upmanship that proves buried bodies (or in this case, a chair) unearth hidden secrets.

Uncertainty and unreliability figure profoundly into these stories, as well. What might have been often replaces what happened. Understandable and acceptable considering that by being queer, we’ve had to create our own myths to explain pasts we’ll never fully understand. Fractured memories are reconstructed into a unique jewelry worn around the necks we tend to protect. In “Fatherland,” a confusing but recognized “sameness” is sensed in another student, who the narrator therefor bullies until blood leads to dazzling admissions of self. “Holy Schtick” dares to display a few masks queer people knowingly wear in order to find safety in an identity, whether authentic or a parody. Gaudy presentations and satires of queerness with heels often raised to Jesus easily become customs. Not even the simple act of falling in love escapes the push and pull of selective memory. “Fickle,” the opening story, an initial comforting acceptance of the love-struck narrator grows hilariously ambiguous but endearing during his disordered recall of falling in love, which sounds suspiciously like another time … and is he doing it again …? “Sometimes someplace somewhere someone sees somebody else, some certain stranger, and suddenly something special happens.”

Desire also significantly manifests in myriad ways and like most everything else, isn’t free from the stains of being remembered with calculated ­­­inaccuracy. “The Window Inside” offers the narrator a private view of his neighbor who inspires the longing to both emulate and touch. “I wanted to be him if for no other reason than to look in the mirror with pleasure.” Oh how sad, our lot … forever wanting to be something other than the beautiful queers already perfectly formed by the deities. This personal discovery leads to an unforeseen detection from his parents, then “what followed was violent and spontaneous.” The three brilliant vignettes that comprise “Dating Games: Silver Edition” are about desire turned sour but all with revelatory flashes of understanding and acceptance for what they present as situations, even if they, like so much else, are also selectively retained. “Shadow of Myself” examines how when the human aspiration to be somebody else manifests into reality, the former self still haunts as specters, as mirrors, as unanswered questions eventually unable to be asked of oneself for fear of confronting uneasy truths. “I saw what must have been the ghost of myself, what I could have been, what I should have been, what I was.” After revelation, he goes on to state: “There is more to this story than I’ll ever tell and if memories are triggered by smells, I remember that the rest of this story stinks. After all it was me who spoke up when I should have been quiet … it was me who demanded more when he was full, and said, no thank you, even when the hunger hurt. It was me. It is me. it always will be me although lately, to be honest, I have not been myself.”

More can be said about these stories and still not much would be given away to ruin anybody’s enjoyment. A playful ambiguity permeates the collection to allow multiple interpretations for any sitting. Don’t ever take a reviewer’s word for anything. Encompassing both definitions of the word queer, Pisarra’s book can be a profound experience for any reader, gay or otherwise. Recognition of a universal incongruity is a common bond. A spell cast can be broken. Written in stimulating poetic prose, each story provides significant perception into the enchantment of queer lives replete with missed connections between family and lovers, failed understandings, murky pasts, but also the elation of an encounter or a discovery, of happier endings in spite of difficult circumstances. Some sort of response to these stories will occur once a shared understanding or event is recognized. Or at least whatever version of that perception or incident we care to remember and tell ourselves in order to sleep easier at night.

You’re Pretty Gay, by Drew Pisarra. Skerries, Dublin: Chaffinch Press, June 2021. 90 pages. $13.99, paper.

Jarrod Campbell is a writer living in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.  Mostly a writer of short stories, he has recently published his first novel, Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You. Often using current events to inform the situations and characters he writes about, he tackles subjects such as racism, marriage, homophobia and various other forms of urban malaise.

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