This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.
Every now and then a book appears that teaches me of a culture I had been unaware existed, perhaps because it has never been referred to by the tribe I mix with – proof of the echo chambers in which we often inadvertently live. This Brutal House introduced me to Voguing – a ‘style of dance or performance that arose from Harlem ballroom cultures, as danced by African-American and Latino drag queens and gay men, from the early 1960s’ (source: Wikipedia). The story is based in New York City and features people who compete in Vogue Balls for money and kudos amongst peers.
Opening on the steps of City Hall, five elders and mothers are beginning a silent protest at the inaction of the authorities in locating their children who have gone missing.
“it should not only be pageant queens whose faces grace the back of milk cartons but girls who are trapped inside the bodies of boys; those who break out of their incarceration by wearing make-up, boys who like boys”
Within City Hall is an employee, Teddy, who lived with the mothers for a number of years. Through his access to official records he now knows more about what happened to some of his missing siblings. He has not shared these truths with the mothers, wishing to protect them as they once offered him a home.
The mothers are not blood mothers but rather men who take in children needing shelter and who they may then enter in the Vogue Balls. Additional funds are raised by offering sexual favours. Although groomed by the mothers, the children are willing participants. Those who do not wish to dress up in drag and dance can help out in cloakrooms or take on other supporting roles. The children live with the mothers having been rejected elsewhere.
“They were wanted at home; needed until they failed to live up to expectations of manhood. Most were loved, even if they were seldom heard.”
Teddy is assigned by his employer to keep an eye on the growing protest. He is long used to looking out for the mothers’ practical wellbeing.
“Teddy, with better penmanship and turn of phrase, who could reply to the electric company and the rent control board in the language they wanted rather than the guttural tongue by which we were raised.”
The reader is offered glimpses of what is happening and why the situation has been created and then escalates.
“We are unwanted noise, not to be seen or heard”
“The city deems us rodents”
The story unfolds from the points of view of the mothers, the children, various City employees and, most of all, Teddy. He is well aware of the corruption that exists in government and aims to use it to the mothers’ advantage. He observes potential threats and suggests to his colleagues that visible support could be publicly advantageous. He walks the political tightrope carefully.
“When did our police force augment into a military mindset, after funds allowed purchase of the first armour-plated SUV, or the second?”
The chapters told from Teddy’s point of view provide interesting background to life in his mothers’ apartment where, as a boy, he was smitten by one of the now missing children.
“He knows that if Sherry had stayed around she would have moved on of her own volition, her attention mercurial, his dissatisfaction, ancestral and chronic. He would always be unable to mend what needed to be mended.”
When the police respond to reports of the missing, they question the children’s provenance and nature of relationships – why boys have been taken in by older men.
Underscoring the narrative is the question of what is being offered and what taken. Choices are made but by those whose circumstances lead to limited options.
The mothers regard their actions as philanthropic, at least on the surface.
“By nature we are crowd-pleasers, craving the approval of our own, wishing the children to be schooled in our ways, independent, but cut from our cloth. How else can any of the old ways survive?”
Within the various houses that the Vogue mothers run there is a hankering after baubles and couture which are regarded as signifiers of beauty at the balls. The children are trained in how to walk provocatively, dance and strike a pose. They seek attention and validation. The mothers compete to train the child who will win for their house. They beat and berate. I pondered how such behaviour differed from coercion applied by blood families to bring perceived honour above individuals being themselves.
On the steps of City Hall, the protesters seek support and acceptance by a mainstream that struggles to see beyond men wearing wigs, dresses and make-up.
As points of view shift each character is presented as both an emotive and rounded person with issues and sensitivities and then as a derided facsimile whose vision remains blinkered. No easy answers are provided to offset what are often flawed decisions. Family – blood and adopted – are shown to be as culpable as individuals, and government.
Two of the chapters are set at the Vogue Balls. The structure of these is repetitive and tiring to read but succeeds in getting across the intensity of the occasions.
The writing elsewhere is stiletto sharp yet with almost poetic insight in places, although some of Teddy’s later streams of thought may have benefitted from more succinctness.
Any Cop?: A layered tale with a poignant turning point that demonstrates how misunderstood most people are, even by themselves.
“They speak as children sending their parents away, only to wait anxiously at the door once the thrill of the first few nights has worn off. Willing mischief, but knowing they’ll tire of it.”
“Something crumbles in the knowledge that you are no longer needed”