Book Review: FRANNY, THE QUEEN OF PROVINCETOWN by John Preston

franny queen of provincetown “Franny is the history of the development of the gay community.” -John Preston

Now if I had come across this statement before I had embarked on reading this short novel, I might have been tempted to abandon ship immediately. Not that I’m inherently against such an impulse behind an author or artist’s creative process, but in my experience when art is explicitly described in such terms my immediate impulse is to put my guard up, to expect didacticism and pedantry and “lessons”–and it is difficult not to start resisting immediately. Intentions are usually good, I fully admit, but it also seems to signal, well, a certain sense of limitedness that I can never quite seem to shake (I suspect this is the source of my ongoing indifference to Tony Kushner’s work, for instance).

Thankfully, however, the line quoted above only appears in the “Epilogue” that concludes the Little Sister’s Classics edition of Franny, the Queen of Provincetown (1983), and by that time I had already been utterly charmed by Preston’s vibrant portrait of the novella’s eponymous queen and and the many ways that this so-called “funny-looking queen with a round body that looked like an oversized avocado” manages to deeply imbricate herself into the life narratives of a number of other, often younger gay men she crosses paths with (56). With a unique combination of deadpan wit and no-holds-barred honesty as well as a seemingly limitless capacity for empathy, Franny often nudges the men she befriends to begin accepting themselves in a hostile society that is just beginning to start to change in the wake of the Stonewall riots, and to recognize a potential in themselves that nobody else–let alone themselves–manage to see. All of these stories are conveyed in a loose, off-the-cuff style bursting with spontaneous-seeming speech intonations and endearing vernacular quirks, and if Preston indeed started with didactic intentions, the end product reads less a dutiful history lesson and more akin to thumbing through a series of snapshots that capture a particular moment and place in time with an almost documentary-like precision.

franny queen of provincetown original cover

Cover of the first edition (1983)

In the end, what I most liked about Franny–and was pleased to find Preston directly address this in several of the interviews that are included in the appendix to this edition–is how it celebrates the type of individuals who are the unlikely, and often unsung and/or forgotten pioneers of the modern LGBT/queer movement. Preston also notes in the Epilogue that drag queens “are usually portrayed as tragic figures in the gay world, but they were often its heroes… they are the ones who settled our first ghettos and were often the ones who brought people together” (83). He also notes that just as there was a sudden proliferation of “evil homosexuals” as villains in mainstream culture in the 1970’s and into the 80’s (something persuasively documented in, say, Vitto Russo’s The Celluloid Closet), there was also at that time “a spate of books… where it became almost mandatory for the gay male author to kill the drag queen” (122). The character of Franny was intended to directly counter this insidious situation, and the project to reclaim the marginalized figures–particularly those that don’t necessarily fit neatly into the linear and triumphant march toward full equality–that deeply resonates with me as a reader, a scholar, and perhaps most importantly, as a young queer man.

In his lengthy introduction, Michael Lowenthal writes that “Franny fits within a category of gay books that sought in some ways to create their own obsolescence–and I think this is precisely what makes it anything but obsolete, but rather earns its place in the gay canon” (21). He goes on to argue that Franny now “serves as a gauge of exactly how far we have come from a time when our literature had to imagine into being the very community it simultaneously hoped to portray” (21). Well yes, perhaps, but I can’t help but feel that unintentionally undersells Preston’s novella, for I often feel that the work of Preston’s contemporaries–White, Holleran, and other members of the Violet Quill Club, for instance–seem more and more like the time capsules evoking worlds that seems more and more remote with each passing year.

John Preston (1991) by Robert Giard

John Preston (1991) by Robert Giard

I don’t mean to imply that Franny somehow miraculously able to avoid this situation completely–there is certainly many elements that are very specifically of its own time–but perhaps what made Preston’s book particularly vibrant and alive for me is that I recognize glimpses of Franny in many figures I seek out here in San Francisco, particularly the drag queens of a certain age at Aunt Charlie’s or The Stud and other venues nestled far away from the polished, tourist-oriented glitter of today’s Castro distract, who still manage to bring down the house with a Judy Garland lip sync that is simply PERFECTION or a cheeky and knowing performance of a current Top 40 hit that manages to outshine the young queens with most of their skin on display and accompanying “dancing” that evokes go-go dancing more than drag. And yet, just like Franny, most of them also seem to radiate a sense of affection and protectiveness for the younger generations, even when they appreciation is not always reciprocated–at least not to quite the same extent (though, happily, there does often seem a genuine intergenerational warmth and camaraderie on display in these spaces).

Since Franny, the Queen of Provincetown is constituted of a series of first-person fragments of text arranged almost like dramatic monologues or even as a script for a theatrical play, I will close this “review” with some thoughts I jotted down in my own journal after Pride weekend last month, which I wrote just shortly before I had picked up Preston’s text. Now looking back over it, it also captures something that reminds me of Franny and seems to trace a subtle yet tangible line between what is being rather erroneously characterized as now-past but which in many ways still proliferates within the present.

Saturday night: Aunt Charlie’s with H, J, S, and D.

Bar empty/emptier than usual at the beginning of the show; but just before the show starts a rowdy bachelorette party wearing too-tight dresses and too-high heels stumbles in and sits down directly across from us. Insistent on making the evening (of all evenings!) about them–incessant refrains of  “I’m getting married, woooooooo!!!” –the queens can hardly get in a word edgewise. The first queen weakly acknowledges them (“yes, yes, congratulations”), but the next queen responds to the screeching “I’m getting maaarriiieeed!!!” with a dramatic side-eye and tart “I’m very sorry.” Instant silence. The group gets up and leaves within several minutes.

Probably the only moment of the entire weekend that genuinely evoked queer pride.

Now perhaps this response lacks the type of expansive generosity that tends to characterize Franny, but one of the climactic moments in the narrative constitutes Franny’s ingenious reclamation of a queer space for the benefit of the queer people who are suddenly finding themselves marginalized within it. The contexts, admittedly, might be substantially different, and yet something fundamental remains the same.

Long live Franny, and all her sisters still out there fighting the good fight even when nobody seems to be watching.

aunt charlies

aunt charlies group

[Snapshots of spending Pride at Aunt Charlie’s, San Francisco, June 29, 2014]

WORKS CITED

Lowenthal, Michael. “Introduction.” Franny, the Queen of Provincetown. By John Preston. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2005. 9 – 25. Print.

Preston, John. Franny, the Queen of Provincetown. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2005. Print.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: FRANNY, THE QUEEN OF PROVINCETOWN by John Preston

  1. Pingback: Year in Review: Reading 2014 | queer modernisms

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