Where Angels Fear to Tread

In Wrestling With the Angel, a collection of essays he edited, author Brian Bouldrey explores faith and religion among gay men

The subject is marginalization, and writer Brian Bouldrey, whose literary identity seems as fused with Roman Catholicism as it is with being gay, has plenty to say. He's the author of a well-regarded first novel (The Genius of Desire; a second, Questions of Travel, is due in the fall), and the editor of Wrestling With the Angel: Faith and Religion in the Lives of Gay Men. Still, he accepts the "gay writer" mantle reluctantly, even as he seizes on the topic: "I like being in the margins," he says. "You see more. People who are on top of the heap have a very limited scope."

Bouldrey's scope could hardly be called limited. An at-tractive, slightly built man of 33 whose demeanor is unabashedly impish, he has a lot to say about virtually everything. On gays and lesbians: "We are different, and not just because of a trick of chemistry. African-Americans have the same experience. It's the marginal person's condition, [and the challenge is] whether to embrace it or to stand out." On his own rapid-fire conversational style: "I'm sorry, I talk really fast. Would you like coffee? I know, I tend to ramble." His laughter erupts frequently. "One of the students in my novel course [at UC Extension] wrote, 'A good teacher, but he tends to ramble.' "

He hastily refills his coffee mug and shepherds me through the comfortable Bernal Heights house he shares with his lover of some two years. As we settle into chairs on the rustic back deck, he jokes about the overgrown yard and simultaneously launches into a freewheeling discussion about how other writers have dealt with marginalization -- from Virginia Woolf in Orlando to Cynthia Ozick (Art and Ardor), from whom he takes particular comfort: "Ozick said that sooner or later she knew she'd be labeled a feminist writer or a Jewish writer, so she opted for Jewish writer."

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Which brings us to Wrestling With the Angel: Faith and Religion in the Lives of Gay Men, recently reissued in paperback (Riverhead Books) and nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Lambda Book Report, to be announced June 14 in Chicago. A compilation of some 21 essays -- including selections from Mark Doty (Heaven's Coast), Andrew Holleran (Dancer From the Dance), and Fenton Johnson (Geography of the Heart) -- the book offers unique slants on each contributor's spiritual practice.

Bouldrey's introduction is a quietly eloquent testimony to the need for spirituality that arises in the face of crisis and death. It begins with a simple declaration: "It has been almost a year and a half since I woke up that morning -- it was Memorial Day, of all days! -- to find Jeff gone." Nearly three years later, he again ponders the day his former lover died and the impulse to create this book. "It was an idea I had about the soul," he says. "I had thought that maybe it was the intellect, [since] I found that the more I read, the more my soul was being nourished. But Jeff's death was a challenge to that. That brain is gone. [The soul] isn't the body either. There's something else. It's sort of like the Trinity. That's what the freakout is: What's the soul?"

Bouldrey's fiction is also steeped in the mysteries of Catholicism. Michael Bellman, the young hero of The Genius of Desire, clearly revels in the images and sensibilities of the church. Everywhere he looks in the house where he lives with his grandmother and aunt are images of praying hands, pictures of Jesus and the Sacred Heart. He watches from the sidelines as his aunts pray the rosary. As a character, Michael is one step removed from someone who sees himself as marginalized: He simply is marginalized, and his desire to uncover the source of his own discomfort leads him to confess sins (like adultery), which he doesn't understand and which he couldn't possibly have committed. It is only gradually that he comes to realize the difference between himself and virtually everyone around him in his extended Catholic family.

Most interesting about Michael, however, and what lies at the heart of Bouldrey's impulse to collect the essays in Wrestling With the Angel, is that knowledge does not necessarily lead to comfort. Michael is still vaguely uneasy at the novel's end. Indeed, Genius is singularly accurate in its representation of the way gays and lesbians experience themselves in the world and in relation to organized religion: a disturbing sense that who they are is fundamentally wrong, and that coming to terms with their sexuality is an essential part of any spiritual journey they set out to make.

But what of the apparent incompatibility found in living both as an out-of-the-closet gay man and as a practicing Catholic? Bouldrey seems uncomfortable with the question, partly because he has opted to remain on the fringes of his religion: "I go to church often, but I'm not active in any particular parish. It's harder for me in San Francisco to talk about Catholicism than it is for me to talk about being gay."

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