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Originally published Sunday, June 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Three gay and lesbian fiction gems defy orientation

What is gay and lesbian fiction? A cynic might say it's a "brand" most publishers are desperate to avoid these days because it confines...

Seattle Times book critic

What is gay and lesbian fiction?

A cynic might say it's a "brand" most publishers are desperate to avoid these days because it confines a book's potential sales to a niche market — and who wants to limit a book's sales in any way?

The unspoken message here is that straight readers rarely read gay and lesbian fiction. But this seems odd, given that gay and lesbian book lovers read straight fiction all the time. Indeed, the whole idea of reading, to the true book lover, is to transcend your own confines and inhabit another world, isn't it?

So ... for all true book lovers out there, here are three striking, risk-taking titles well worth investigating, whatever your background or sexual persuasion.

"The End of the World Book"

by Alistair McCartney

Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press, 306 pp., $26.95

Novel? Memoir? Encyclopedia? Fantasia?

"The End of the World Book" by Australian author Alistair McCartney is all these things at once. And it's brilliant.

Terrace Books has billed this as a novel — McCartney's first. But like the island continent's duckbill platypus, it's entirely its own creature. In 26 chapters (one for each letter of the alphabet) McCartney addresses random topics that catch his eye.

Under "M," for instance, he focuses on macramé, mad-cow disease, magpies, milk bottles, moans, mustaches and more (including tender recollections of sometimes-troubled McCartney family members). Each topic gets its own essay — sometimes a line or two, sometimes as much as two pages. On rare occasions, an entry falls flat. But most of the book is so sharp and alive that you feel as though bright, perverse balloons of insight are expanding — or exploding — inside your mind as you turn the pages.

The phrasing is a mix of conversational and faux-documentarian: "Bones are eerie, no? However, there's something undeniably elegant about them. They're like evening gowns compared to the rest of our bodies, which are clunky, and more like safari suits with big lapels and flared trousers."

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McCartney's likes (being X-rayed, having laryngitis) and his dislikes (the Beatles, storytelling) all have unexpected wrinkles to them. He has a morbid streak, a frank homoerotic sensibility, and he couldn't be more affectionate in portraying his chatty mum and taciturn dad, a former merchant navy man. ("He liked the waves and the hems of girls' dresses. He liked the ocean's ability to drown out everything.")

How do you structure a book like this? With recurring subject-motifs — the odor of geraniums, the Holocaust and more — that keep cropping up in varying contexts as he skips from one alphabetized topic to another. If you like Australian literary maverick Murray Bail ("Homesickness," "Eucalyptus") or the order-obsessed imaginative flights of writer-filmmaker Peter Greenaway, you won't want to miss this.

Biographical note: McCartney is the partner of performance artist Tim Miller, who turns up quite a bit in this "novel." Their ongoing fight to find a country where they can legally stay together has been a gay cause célèbre the last few years. With work this good to his credit, we should be honored to have McCartney here.

"The Open Door"

by Elizabeth Maguire

Other Press, 236 pp., $23.95

Halfway through this small gem of a novel, there's a passage that goes to the heart of the book's matter: "Is a friend the person who knows your darkest secrets, or the one from whom you feel obliged to hide the worst? Once you care about someone's good opinion, are you ever free to reveal the truth?"

The narrator is American author Constance Fenimore Woolson. The friend she has in mind is Henry James. And "The Open Door" is a precise and affecting study of the pleasures and hazards of candor in literary friendships.

The book comes with a sorrowful back story: Its author, editor-publisher Elizabeth Maguire, died at age 47 in 2006, survived by her partner of 10 years, Karen Wolny. This was Maguire's second and final novel.

The image of Woolson conveyed by most James biographers is of a half-deaf spinster of second-tier talent who ventured to Europe at age 39 to pursue James, perhaps with marriage in mind. The friendship had its ups and downs as the two followed an itinerant existence around the continent, sometimes together, more often apart. Woolson's death at 53, a possible suicide, shook James to the core.

Maguire upends this entirely. In our first glimpse of her Woolson, she's skinny-dipping as a teenager in Upper Michigan's lake country: one setting of her future fiction. Later, as the only unmarried sibling in her family, it falls to her to care for her ailing, widowed mother. But with her mother's death and with some literary success under her belt, she heads across the Atlantic to expand her horizons.

She's intent on meeting James: "Have you ever been heartbroken to finish a book? ... Did you ever long to meet that person who sees the world with your eyes, so that you can continue the conversation? That is how I felt about Harry."

In conversation with him, once they meet, she becomes "the Constance I most wanted to be." Marriage, however, is the last thing she wants after a lifetime of family duty. In Maguire's account, Woolson is a free woman and determined to stay that way.

Instead, it's socially self-conscious "Harry" who, for reasons he can scarcely bring himself to face, may be seeking marriage.

Maguire skirts the potential anachronistic notes that her liberated Constance might strike by convincing the reader of the tact it takes Woolson to carve out a breathing space for herself in her expatriate milieu. The book's subsidiary characters — particularly acerbic invalid Alice James and her patient companion Katherine Loring — bring some stinging humor and heartbreak to the proceedings.

As for Woolson's ambiguous death, Maguire introduces factors that make this tale not just sharp-eyed but doubly poignant — both in its portrait of its heroine, and in its echo of its author's fate. Maguire's bright talent was extinguished far too soon.

"Perpetual Care: Stories"

by James Nolan

Jefferson Press, 239 pp., $16.95

The ghost of Tennessee Williams — specifically, the openly gay Williams of such short-story classics as "One Arm" and "Hard Candy" — haunts this fine debut collection of stories. But it's New Orleans, in all its seamy, sultry, dilapidated glory, that is the book's protagonist. It provides the setting for most of the 16 tales in "Perpetual Care." And for fifth-generation native James Nolan, the city is a mother lode of memories and misgivings.

The collection won the $5,000 Jefferson Press Prize for 2007. (Jefferson Press, founded in Oxford, Miss., in 2002, aims to launch "strong, new voices and lasting literary careers" with this annual award.) It's easy to see what drew the judges to the book. Nolan's prose is both languid and biting. He has a tender-tough sympathy for even his most wayward and marginalized characters. He writes about the magnetic draw and suffocating confines of his hometown with an all-or-nothing honesty. And he's wildly inventive in how he launches a tale.

Take the title story. In it Miss Estelle Arceneaux ("As the last of the Arceneaux women who could both walk and see, she took her family duties seriously") is tidying the family crypt when she's unnerved to hear voices singing inside a neighboring tomb. There's a rational explanation — but it takes some time to emerge. Meanwhile, in the media circus that ensues, we get a top-to-bottom, multigenerational portrait of the city.

Nolan strikes quieter notes in "Knock Knock" (about a shy YMCA youngster submitting to excess attention from an old sailor) and "Why Isn't Everything Where It Used to Be?" (about an aging suburbanite who takes a disorienting, dementia-prompted tumble into the city of her youth).

Nolan's bawdier side surfaces in "La Vie en Rose Construction Co.," in which a transvestite plumber attempts to save a housing renovation from disaster, and "All Spiders, No Flies," in which the narrator gives shelter to a floundering male hustler ("Tricking's lonely") in a city where it's "too hot to touch. And too hot not to."

The book takes side excursions to San Francisco, where Bohemians who had their heyday in the 1960s find themselves clobbered by rising real-estate prices. But the best is saved for last. In "What Floats," an ex-New Orleanian in his 30s faces loss within loss when he returns to his city eight months after Hurricane Katrina devastates it. This beautiful, hard-hitting story is one for the anthologies.

Michael Upchurch,

Seattle Times book critic mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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