A Book by its Cover
Recently, while participating in a conversation about gay young adult books, someone asked me what the first gay book I remember reading was. Immediately, I was transported back to 1981. Me at 12-going-on-13, deeply anxious and afraid of who I knew I was. I saw myself standing in the fiction section of the Waldenbooks store at the mall, looking at covers, trying to decide what to get. My father, impatient to get home, was waiting for me to pick something.
Back then, I read randomly, selecting things based on their covers and the descriptions on the backs. I didn’t yet have favorite authors, or know who most of the writers were apart from Stephen King, Jean M. Auel, and a few others I recognized from the bestseller piles that dotted the front part of the store. So when I came across the books of Gordon Merrick, I didn’t stop because I knew his name, I stopped because of the mostly-naked men on the covers. Men who were touching one another in a way that suggested something more.
I picked one out and read the back. I quickly put it back. The novels really were about gay men. I had never seen such a thing, hadn’t even imagined that they existed. Certainly not in the Waldenbooks in our little rural mall. But there they were.
I picked out another one. I still remember the cover image: A dark-haired, shirtless man reclining on a boat while another man stands behind him, a hand on his shoulder. I scanned the back-cover copy. Then, before I could lose my nerve, I hid the paperback beneath the two fantasy novels I’d already chosen and walked to the counter.
Just as I vividly recall the details of the book’s cover, I remember how the clerk, a young man, smirked as he rang up my purchases and handed me the bag. I mumbled a thank you and left, eager to get out of there and get home. The whole ride home, I clutched the bag in my lap, afraid it might spontaneously open itself and reveal the secret within.
Up in my room, I devoured Now Let’s Talk About Music. Oddly, I can remember almost nothing about the book’s plot. I had to look it up, and the description was nothing that I recall from the half a dozen times I read the book over the next months. Probably because I was mostly focused on the sex scenes, of which there were many. From these, I developed a vivid and (I would later discover) completely unrealistic idea of what lovemaking between men was like. At the time, though, they were a revelation. Gay men were real.
I hadn’t thought about Gordon Merrick in years, so I researched him and was surprised to discover that his breakout book, The Lord Won’t Mind, had been published by the same upstart publisher (Bernard Geis Associates) that had made waves with Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, and that it was on the New York Times best seller list for 16 weeks in 1970. Even more interesting, his first novel, The Strumpet Wind, published way back in 1947 and based in part on his own experiences as a gay counterintelligence officer in World War II, had been both critically praised and widely-read.
Merrick died at 71 in 1988, the year before I moved to New York and started my life as an out gay man. By then, novels featuring gay characters were nothing new, and we even had our own bookstore, A Different Light, which was one of the very first places I went after moving into my apartment in the West Village. When my own first book came out, in 1992, seeing it on a table at A Different Light made me feel that, finally, I had found my place in the world.
Since remembering Merrick and rediscovering his books, I’ve found myself wondering who was reading him back in 1970, when he was riding the best seller list. The other most popular books that summer included Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Updike’s Bech: A Book, James Dickey’s Deliverance, and especially Erich Segal’s Love Story, which occupied the top spot on the list for the better part of a year. Trust me, you don’t become a Times best seller by selling your book only to gay readers, which means that non-gay readers had to have been buying The Lord Won’t Mind in large numbers. But were they reading it while lying on their blankets at the beach, or were they devouring it in secret, locked in their bedrooms and turning the pages with abandon to get to the racy parts?
The jacket of the original hardcover edition of The Lord Won’t Mind is black, with the silhouettes of two muscular figures in red and yellow. The back features an excerpt from a 1969 New York Times article by Ronald Forsythe (the pseudonym of gay activist/historian Donn Teal) with the headline “Why Can’t ‘We’ Live Happily Ever After, Too?” It’s a stark, unappealing design, looking more like a textbook than what is essentially a gay romance. I suspect it was purposefully done so that anyone seen reading it and questioned as to why they were doing so could say something about trying to understand “those poor people."
The paperback edition of that novel issued around the time that I encountered its sibling is much more appealing, depicting two blond men with feathered hair and sporting sweaters (hey, it was the ‘80s), facing one another and about to touch. “The famous bestseller of men in love” it proclaims beneath the title. It looks like any of the numerous romance novels Avon (who took over as Merrick’s publisher) put out at that time, except that it features two men.
I have no idea how many copies Merrick’s novels sold. I’m assuming they did well, as Avon published half a dozen of them. But really, the only copy that matters is the one of Now Let’s Talk About Music that found its way into my hands at a time when I desperately needed it. Although the story itself faded from memory, the impact remained. My own gay-themed novels probably owe a debt to Merrick that I wasn’t even aware of while writing them. I wish I’d had a chance to talk to him about all of this while he was alive. Instead, during this time when many of us around the world are celebrating Pride and remembering the people and events that shaped us, I think fondly of that cover that caught my attention 36 years ago and thank the man who wrote the book inside of it for letting me know that I wasn’t the only one.
Michael Thomas Ford is happy that the fireflies have returned for the summer. More Michael Thomas Ford