By Gregg Shapiro $14.95; Squares & Rebels Press; 91 pages
The main character in "Lunch with a Porn Star," a short story included in author Gregg Shapiro's new collection, Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories, encounters adult-film legend Billy Bigg several times, first on the El, then a few times at a Loop lunch spot.
"When his naked face and body began appearing in all-male porno magazines and movies, the story was that although he made movies in L.A. and New York, he actually lived at home with his parents," he says.
That Biggwhom the narrator, a recovering porn addict, idolizesstill lives at home with the folks won't come as any surprise within the context of Lincoln Avenue. Most of Shapiro's characters here are trying to navigate the difficulties of being young, gay and horny in the late '70s and early '80s, at an age where they still feel intense burning from the proverbial home fires.
Shapiro, an entertainment journalist and poet now based in Florida, is a native of the Chicago area, and his collection is set mainly in the city's suburbs and its North Side. Many of the stories are culled from other anthologies and publications such as Christopher Street.
Suburban teens of Shapiro's generation often defined themselves by what they drove, or, more precisely, what their parents used to drive. When the family car needed an upgrade, and no longer had any measureable Blue Book value, it was given over to the oldest teenager. Shapiro bookends Lincoln Avenue with two second-person stories, "Your Father's Car" and "Your Mother's Car," both testimonials to the anticipation that precedes an evening of men, dancing and, of course, sex. Many of these stories are about the anxiety of anticipation more than anything elsethe Billy Bigg story ends just as the narrator sits down to lunch with him. Shapiro doesn't ruin the build-up with lunch conversation that likely was about work and living at home.
Indeed, most of Shapiro's tales are tied together thematically by cars, as the characters cruise the streets on their way to cruise for something else. In the title story, a young man named Andrew recounts a slow ride down Lincoln Avenue as his bad-boy boyfriend, whose name dots the bathroom walls at his neighborhood IHOP, takes him for a tryst at a shack-up motel. It's appropriate that Shapiro chose that streetstretching from the 'burbs these characters grew up in to the parts of the city where they would have begun to come of age as gay menas the title to his collection.
Although mothers and fathersespecially the formerplay important roles throughout Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories, Shapiro largely spares us clichéd dramas of familial coming out revelations. The parents he introduces us to are self-absorbed and dotty, such as one mother who sublimates her own fascination with Marilyn Monroe through her gay son, but they also are vaguely aware of changing times and mores. Shapiro offers stark contrast to this in "Like Family," a brutal account of a neighbor's abuse at the hands of her parents.
Readers living in Chicago and its environs in the '70s and '80s will find much they recognize as characters wander past the Gold Coast Bar or take in the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For other readers, Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories offers compelling glimpses of a time before hookups were the province of Grindr and Scruff, when men met in bars reeking of smoke, beer and Aramis. Although Shapiro does set a few of his stories in contemporary times, Lincoln Avenue is ultimately a loving tribute to gay Chicago as it will never be again.
Shapiro will read from and speak about Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories, on Sunday, Oct. 5, at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St.