My Queer War
"My Queer War," author James Lord suggests, is patterned to some extent after "The Divine Comedy," and though his posthumously-published memoir has a loose-limbed flow about it, the comparison is actually rather apt.
As a young man, Lord enlists in the army and is shipped off to fight in World War II. He does less fighting with the enemy (hardly any, in fact) than with the homophobes in the service, who can see right through him. Most of all, however, Lord is at war with himself, having vowed as a boy never to give in to the evil temptations of homosexuality.
But as Lord’s story progresses and he’s shifted from place to place -- Boston, Heidelberg, England, France -- he gains a worldly knowledge that is, if not a form a wisdom, at least enough to make him into something of a wise guy. His superiors come to see Lord as a screwup and a wastrel, but he’s no worse than most of his peers. Not that it matters much anyway. Lady Luck, and some of his superiors too, seem to take a liking to Lord, and his walkabout adventures lead him from orgies in opulent private homes (from which he flees) to brushes with influential figures such as Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Thomas Mann.
It’s against the contrasting grime of war and Army life and the backdrop of brilliance that these acquaintanceships provide that Lord starts to develop and blossom, though not in a straight line. He fakes a war injury at one point to gain access to Picasso; he dresses down Gertrude Stein in a fit of pique; he lies about his parentage. In the midst of this immature behavior, though, are the seeds of an emerging artists who asks himself what the meaning of truth and facts really might be, when, in the grandest sense, things like truth and reality fall far outside of human competence.
Lord also falls in love, and the fact that he does nothing about it -- though he’s presented with more than one opportunity -- haunts him for years afterwards. Regret tinges the pages here, but so does humor.
"My Queer War" serves as a counterbalance to the image of the Greatest Generation as uniformly lantern-jawed, duty-bound, and heterosexual. To hear Lord tell it, even straight soldiers were as likely as not to dip into same-sex intimacy now and again; one close friend shrugs off Lord’s surprise at his sexual exploits with other men by saying, essentially, that men and women alike enjoy his sexual prowess, so why not be generous about it?
Lord, who dies in 2009, also appreciates the irony of being a gay soldier (to this day that remains an oxymoron to some) in a war, a situation that mocks the very notion of normalcy. Gay or straight, Lord notes, war is such an overwhelming force that it exceeds its participants, becoming something greater than a human activity -- becoming, in fact, a force of nature, something both primal and demonic.
"The war was incredible," Lord writes in one passage. "It had made me its creature, a dreamer pretending to have his wits about him, having fired one shot at an unbegotten enemy. Oh, yes. The was was that queer."
The book’s free-form structure is riverlike (one of Lord’s early influences, he notes in the book, was James Joyce), and it is rather like a rafting trip through the river of time to read Lord’s descriptions of his youthful adventures: The pretty English woman he all but courted even though she was married and he was gay; the companions, some rough and some all too urbane, who flirted and sparred with him; moments of terror (if not his own, then those of others, such as a panicked soldier who sobs in his arms one night at sea).
Lord seems to drift from one encounter and into the next, taking the reader along without effort. The war’s planners may sense an overall structure to the conflict and its many moving parts, but to the men on the ground it all seems more than a little random, if not utterly absurd. This is, of course, not such a bad metaphor for life itself. Who doesn’t ask whether it has any meaning? Whether one is "winning" in life, or "losing," or about to stumble into some fatal happenstance?
One might complain a little about the book’s prose style, which sometimes is a little too purple and choked with adjectives, but just when this starts to get aggravating Lord will use his excesses to brilliant comic effect. This is a comedy, of sorts, and if it’s not divine, it is earthly to a transcendent degree.
by James Lord
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Publication Date: May 10, 2011. Pages: 352, Price: $16. Format: Trade paperback first edition. ISBN-13: 978-0-374-532-758