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Before Stonewall, by Edward M. Cohen (Review)

(Note: This review will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide)

Before Stonewall, by Edward M. Cohen. Awst Press. $24.00

Review by Dale Boyer.

Before Stonewall is one of those books you find yourself stumbling upon in a book shop one day -- a book whose author you don’t know, issued by a press you’ve also never heard of. Still, it intrigues you, and you hope it will be surprisingly good.

Indeed, the book is special. Cohen’s stories all deal with being gay in the late 40s and 50s, and the world they evoke is elucidated fully and convincingly: indeed, they feel very lived in and honest. There are many familiar themes here: coming out despite the repressiveness of the culture, etc. Yet, the finest stories have a kind of subtle, Chekhovian bite. The opening selection (A Story of Early Love), for instance, tells of a young gay man who follows the straight romance of a boy he’s attracted to, and ends with the line: “I began to dream up new stories in which I, perhaps, could have a part.” The “perhaps” here, is masterful and devastating, as the narrator imagines a future world characterized by the type of love currently denied him. Two other standouts in the collection include The Surprise Hit of 1948, which beautifully and memorably depicts the moment a barber’s son is first pegged as gay by his customers, and Cream of Mushroom Soup, which depicts the attempts of two gay men to live and conduct a nonconformist life and relationship against a backdrop of McCarthyism and the Korean War. Other stories in the collection contain similar, wonderful little stabs of truth.

Oddly compact in size and content, but fully evocative of its era, Before Stonewall is a surprising and satisfying find.


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