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."

He has been accused of hypocrisy by those who feel that the term "gay Catholic" is an oxymoron akin to, say, "gay Republican." But one of the aspects of Catholicism that holds enormous appeal for Bouldrey is the distinction it draws between spirituality that is comforting and spirituality that simply makes people feel comfortable.

New Age people, he believes, espouse the latter: "a thinking that is easy, merely consoling -- Louise Hay, creative visualization, and so forth. It's an American fallacy [to believe] that human life is perfectible. When people are told that and then it doesn't work, it's worse. What was it Toni Morrison said? 'Happiness isn't what I seek, I seek joy.' "

Bouldrey dismisses the current popular obsession with angels: "It's a New Age trick. Angels are not gauzy, soft-focus creatures. Angels are fierce! Angels wrestle with Jacob, they put a foot to Mohammed's head, they cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. They're not nice!"

As a college student coming to terms with his sexuality, he somewhat predictably allowed his faith to lapse. "I had moments in church where I'd just openly shake my head and say, 'You can't make me listen to this! This is not very loving or very holy!' But when I walked away, it was not out of being injured. It was more because I wanted to sleep in."

His journey back toward faith came via the path of reading and books: the works of Iris Murdoch, for example, in which Bouldrey feels that "suffering creates images of beauty and eroticism," as well as other great writers associated with Catholicism -- Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene, and Dante, "who consigned several popes to hell."

His own search is reflected in the essays in Wrestling With the Angel. There's an unmistakable tone of relief in virtually all of them, as though their writers had been waiting for a reason to put all this down on paper and were literally disgorging themselves.

Bouldrey agrees. "Some of them have been carrying so much around. Like the Mormon bishop [Antonio Feliz] who cast out a member for being gay. The kid later committed suicide. [Feliz] has to live with that. There's so much pain, but relief is the right word.

"Also a sense of wonder that they've uncovered this. Mark Doty's essay ["Sweet Chariot"] actually says, 'I can't believe I'm writing this.' "

As chapters came in, Bouldrey admits being amazed over and over, not only with how different they were, one from the other, but how alike: "The book's a kind of a confederacy. It maybe sticks together for a few minutes and then flies apart. What holds the essays together is the community that writing is. [The result] is a chemistry that's very surprising. You couldn't plan it.

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