07 October 2011

Decoding Kirkwood’s ‘Good Times, Bad Times’

The love that dare not tell its story:
Something else lurks behind it.

The gift of a book may be intended to say any of a number of things, or none at all: about the giver, about the recipient. A book may indicate share interests and like minds, or it may suggest new ideas and unexplored territories. Or it may mean next-to nothing at all: that the giver felt the need to get you something and a book was the only item handy.

I don’t know why I received a copy of James Kirkwood’s Good Times, Bad Times as a gift in 1979, my first semester at Brown. My benefactor was an older student — I’ll call him Ben — to whom I turned for guidance on matters great and small during my first year in Providence. In giving me the book, was Ben trying to communicate a message? He said he thought I’d like it — I remember that — but he didn’t say why he thought so.

The novel is, after all, a fairly lurid spin on the conventions of the prep-school coming-of-age novel. Combine the homoerotic friendship of A Separate Peace with the creepy Mr. Antolini episode in Catcher in the Rye, then spread it out over an entire novel. Toss in an element of Grand Guignol, as the book’s antagonist, the prep-school headmaster, becomes more and more unhinged — picture Edward Herrmann playing Bette Davis as Baby Jane — and what you get is pretty much Good Times, Bad Times.

What’s striking is how much energy Kirkwood’s narrator expends in denying homosexuality. Despite whatever you may think, he says again and again, there was nothing sexual in his relationship with his best friend, a wealthy, dissolute older boy with a bum ticker and an enormous penis. No, seriously. Whatever you may have heard, there was nothing “funny” going on.

In 1968, the subject matter was still taboo — and Kirkwood’s story borrows certain elements from gay pulp fiction of the period, though that stuff was mostly set in reform school, not prep school. (Thanks to my friend Brooks Peters for periodically digging up this stuff and writing about it.) The only way to talk about some things, in those days, was to insist that you weren’t talking about them, or to discuss them primarily in terms of false accusations. (Consider the film adaptation of Toys in the Attic.) And a real-life boy in those days probably would have bent over backwards to deny that he and his best friend were lovers, just as Kirkwood’s narrator does. The Stonewall riots were still a year away.

Kirkwood went on to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning book to A Chorus Line and the Mary Martin–Carol Channing vehicle Legends (which played the Shubert in Boston just before Rags did), as well as successful novels of which I know only the titles: Some Kind of Hero and P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. As his plays demonstrate, he knew something about homosexuality and about camp, and it’s interesting that the narrator of Good Times, Bad Times shares with its author certain traits, including a father who’s a movie actor. But is this story autobiographical? I have no idea.

At 18, the tender age of Kirkwood’s protagonists, I read the book with a fevered mix of excitement and embarrassment. I kept it on a shelf, in plain view (it was a gift from a friend, after all), yet I read it furtively, as if it were pornography. What if somebody were to see it and get the wrong idea about me? Didn’t the picture on the cover look a little like a certain friend of mine? Supposing he saw it and made inferences about my feelings toward him?

The book was terrifying, it was thrilling, it was exhausting. After a few years, I got rid of it: I think, though I’m not sure, that I threw it away. Because it must not be linked to me in any way.

Years later, more comfortable perhaps in my own skin, or at least tortured by different matters, I remembered Good Times, Bad Times. The boy who gave me the book is a man now, but I’ve not seen him since he graduated college, and the only news I’ve had of him has been indirect. If he remembers me at all, does he remember his motive in giving me the book? Would my asking, if I could ask, yield any answer?

Kirkwood’s narrator rhapsodizes over the importance of “finding that one special friend,” and at the time I, too, was looking for a soul-mate. Platonic, of course. It seems unlikely that Ben saw himself as my soul-mate, or that the gift of the novel was in some way a proposal of a deeper friendship.

Had he spotted something in me that he hoped to address, through another man’s prose? Did he seek to reassure or to warn me? After all, Kirkwood’s narrator is the lone survivor of the fraught triangle he describes: it’s not exactly a happy ending. Gay desire is treated as shameful, possibly even more shameful than I believed it to be when I was 18; the headmaster’s recompense is death at the hands of the boy he craves.

Was Ben trying to tell me about one of our teachers who, I have since learned, was closeted and married, like the headmaster in the story? (That teacher always behaved himself impeccably with regard to me, I hasten to add.) What, if anything, was this book supposed to mean?

Good Times, Bad Times is out of print, and as I wander among the shelves of used-book stores, I don’t find a copy; at last I resorted to ordering from an Amazon dealer, whose modest shipping fees were more expensive than the book itself.

And so I read. I found no answers at all, really, and the book, no unjustly neglected classic, seems more quaint than thrilling to my grownup eyes. The relationship between the boys, which struck me as so titillating years ago, now seems either implausible or very sad.

Here, after all, are two bright, attractive boys who share a host of interests: opera, old movies, piano bars, campy remarks and bitchy gossip. Their closeness is physical, to the point of sharing (sexlessly, of course) a bed every night, but their emotional bond is greater. It’s a love story, and so far as the book has any strength at all, it is this: depicting great love between young people. And yet we are asked to believe that theirs is merely friendship.

How sad! Or so it would be, in that alternate universe where all fiction is real truth. If the boys’ story had continued, would they have gone beyond the single kiss they exchange, one New Year’s Eve in New York? Would they have admitted their love? Or would they have continued to deny it?

Ultimately, Good Times, Bad Times is a product of its own times — just as my first reading of the book was — and I’m glad I don’t live there any more.


Anonymous said...

I read the book as a teenager too.
Yes, I believe if Peter and Jordan had been able to graduate and move on with their lives, they would have become lovers. Probably during that Europe trip they were planning.
What woman could ever compete?

Mark Bringelson said...

Hi - found your blog by chance and look forward to reading lots more of it! I have linked to your post, and discussed Good Times/ Bad Times, at my own blog, this morning --

Wanted to let you know.
Best Wishes -

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Mark! I read your essay with great interest, too. Kirkwood appears in James Gavin's Intimate Nights, the indispensable history of New York's nightclub scene, which I've been rereading lately as part of my ongoing research for my biography of Madeline Kahn. While, as you observe, Kirkwood's homosexuality is no surprise, I was intrigued to learn of his background in a nightclub comedy duo.

petit gars said...

I'm so glad I came across this entry! I'm reading the book for the second time right now. I found out about it back in the spring when I was looking for gay-themed books to read (being young, in Texas, and in a smaller city, so that's about the only gay culture I'll get!). I feel conflicted, too, about how the book treats homosexuality, but at least it talks about it, and openly.

That said, I love Peter and Jordan's friendship. Jordan's character in particular I adore. I was actually seeing a guy I was head-over-heels for when I first read the book, and the way Kirkwood described Jordan reminded me of him. Then I looked up a picture of Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the similarity is very striking! So, when I picture Jordan, I think of this guy. Good memories I enjoy reliving.

I also think, I want a friend like that. Actually, I have one, and I want it to move beyond this stage, like you and your the other commentators want to happen with Peter and Jordan. It only makes sense for it to.

No, this book isn't a neglected classic, but it's wonderful reading and so comforting to me. I know I'll come back to it for the rest of my life as I think back to my 20s.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see others enjoyed this book too. Sure, it's dated and a bit coy but it is fascinating - and to some extent autobiographical, apparently. Have you read William Russo's book "Riding James Kirkwood's Pony"? Russo, a friend of Kirkwood's, argues that Peter in the book is "rough trade" and Jordan his "sugar daddy" and that Peter did in fact murder Mr Hoyt - he uses a complex decoding of symbols eg the name JORDAN, the river on which Sodom and Gomorrah were located, Jordan "coming out of the closet" in one scene etc. I liked the book a lot and still do. I read it at university too but nobody gave it to me: I read about it somewhere and found it in the library.
best wishes, Ron

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Ron. It sounds as if William Russo is working exceedingly hard to make Good Times, Bad Times more interesting than it really is — but if I have a chance to look at the book, I shall.

odysseus said...

although I live at the back of beyond , The Great Joker one day put on my way this book ,which stay with me for the rest of my life, anyway the same as "Catcher in the Rye", "Other Country" by James Baldwin( which I read being 15 years old ) , movie "Barton Fink" or "Midnight Cowboy" ...some values are universal , especially if somebody appears it in his own life ( not only by the same name as main hero ...)
every my visit in New York - this is like solemn visit to the Opera where I know that sometimes I will not hold back tears

Jordan (odysseus)

Anonymous said...

There is a new biography of James Kirkwood out called "Ponies & Rainbows:the Life of James Kirkwood" by Sean Egan which is interesting.


In 9th or 10th grade English Lit., we were given the choice to read one of three books: Catcher in the Rye, A Seperate Peace or Good Times, Bad Times. After we read it, we had to give a small dramatic presentation on part of the book. Suprisingly, and to my dismay, I was the only one in the class who chose Kirkwood's book. I say dismay, because I had to give a solo performance (the others got to do scenes together) with several of the characters in a passage from the novel.
Classroom stage fright aside, I loved the book and it had become one of my favorites, to the extent that I bought a copy and gave it to a buddy of mine in the Navy, years later. At the time I first read it, I was a total innocent-I didn't even know what a homosexual was. A few years later, I was accosted by a pervert in a movie theater (no, it wasn't a porno movie-it was in a theater showing The French Connection) and I didn't understand why a grown man would be attracted to and hit on a 17-year-old boy. Fortunately, the experience didn't turn me into a homophobe.
The sentiments, the friendship in Good Times, Bad Times stuck with me over the years, and I've grown nostalgic to read the book again for what will be a fourth time. I'm not sure why the book isn't currently in print-I suspect it has to do with some asinine publication rights-but I hope to see it come out again, and in e-book form, so I can have a copy on my Kindle.
Thanks so much for having this blog on this much loved book.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks so much for sharing your perspectives on Good Times. I suspect the book is out of print because prospective publishers think there's no market for it, but if the comments on this essay are any indication of reader interest, then maybe someone will get the bright idea to reissue the novel after all.

EricMontreal22 said...

And just a heads up to anyone who stumbled across this blog rather late like me--the book was reprinted back in 2013 and seems to be still in print...

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Eric! I wonder whether there's some way for me to take credit for the reissue, two years after I posted this essay....