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The Book of Lies.

The Book of Lies * Felice Picano * Alyson * $24.95

Novelist Felice Picano sends up the same gay literary history he helped create

To review a book that lampoons literary criticism--a work of gay fiction penned by one of the founders of that genre--is to participate in the very lunacy that Felice Picano spoofs in his new novel, The Book of Lies. Part mystery, part send-up, Picano's latest is a sharp-witted, sharper-tongued parody of the ivory tower and the pretenses of the pedagogues within. This witty roman a, clef also pays homage to the Violet Quill Club, the Manhattan-based writers' salon that Picano founded in 1980 with, among others, Andrew Holleran and Edmund White.

Set in the near future, The Book of Lies concerns Ross Ohrenstedt, an ambitious young queer studies professor who stumbles on an unpublished manuscript by an unidentified member of the renowned Purple Circle, as it's called here. Ross's search for the author uncovers vaguely sinister facts about the members of the circle and lands him in the crosshairs of a group of meanies who want to disrupt his investigation.

It's a captivating and untold story (The Violet Quill Reader, a 1994 collection of the actual club's writings edited by David Bergman, doesn't count) that also allows Picano to explore the vagaries of sexual identity. But for all its shrewd plot twists and clever musings on what makes a man gay--and despite its appeal as a brainy mystery novel peopled with sexy young fellows--it's the gay history we're here for. We want Picano's insider's take on a group of men who have become the voice of our collective past. A quarrelsome, gossipy lot, these writers are the real focus of our interest as we read, partly because Picano has gleefully cast his colleagues--men we've come to know as heroic messengers of the good gay word--as slightly smarmy old queens.

If Ross is sometimes little more than our guide into this compelling literary past, he's also a likable and entertaining observer of our social ecology. He knows his queer history, and his wry asides about the men who helped forge that history (not to mention his bumbling response to a sexy ethical dilemma brought on by one of his lunkhead lit students) animate these little lessons considerably.

The Book of Lies is always smart and often amusing, though some of the best punch lines are geared toward gay historians and fans of queer literature. But if half the fun of the story is in guessing which character is based on which real-life litterateur, there's also plenty of enjoyment for readers who like a stylish mystery novel peopled by engaging personalities. Regardless of whether we want an entertaining read or a provocative history lesson, what lingers in our minds is the novel's final, startling twist, which slowly dismantles its satire and casts a long shadow over everything that has come before.

Pela is the Arizona arts correspondent for National Public Radio.

If you'd like to learn more about Felice Picano, his earlier fiction and nonfiction, and the history and works of the Violet Quill Club, visit www.advocate.com
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Pela, Robrt L.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 21, 1999
Words:519
Previous Article:Witty woman.
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