One of These Things First by Steven Gaines
A fellow bookgroup member whose taste I really trust read this, raved about it, and thought it would be something I would enjoy. And enjoy I did! This memoir of a young gay man who attempts suicide is oddly hilarious and touching. The most intriguing part of this book is the insight Gaines had about and the way he described so many of the truly eccentric characters in this tale of his childhood. The ladies at his grandparent's girdle store, his withholding father, his fellow patients at Payne Whitney... the author breathed life into these people as if I were meeting them in person. His knack for seeing the comedy in some rather sad and dark moments not only made for an excellent memoir, but I'm sure is what eventually led him to overcome his desire for suicide and to live as a gay man in a time that was not all that friendly and accomodating to homosexuals (I'm good at understatement).
"One of These Things First" is a wry and poignant reminiscence of a 15 year old gay Jewish boy in Brooklyn in the early sixties, and his unexpected trajectory from a life behind a rack of dresses in his grandmother's bra and girdle store, to Manhattan's fabled Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, a fashionable Charenton for wealthy neurotics and Ivy League alcoholics, whose famous alumni include writers, poets, madmen, Marilyn Monroe, and bestselling author Steven Gaines.
With a gimlet eye and a true gift for storytelling, Gaines captures his childhood shtetl in Brooklyn like an Edward Hopper tableau, with all its dramas and secrets: his philandering grandfather with his fleet of Cadillacs and Corvettes; a trio of harpy saleswomen; a giant, empty movie theater, his portal to the outside world; a shirtless teenage boy pushing a lawnmower in front of a house on Long Island; and a pair of tormenting bullies who own the corner candy store whose taunts drive him to a suicide attempt.
Steven Gaines also takes the reader behind the walls of Payne Whitney, the Harvard of psychiatric clinics, as Time magazine called it, populated by a captivating group of neurasthenics who subtly begin to change him in unexpected ways. The cast of characters includes a famous Broadway producer who becomes his unlikely mentor, an elegant woman who claimed to be the ex-mistress of newly elected president John F. Kennedy, a snooty, suicidal Harvard architect, and a seductive young Contessa. At the center of the story is a brilliant young psychiatrist who promises to cure a young boy of his homosexuality and give him the normalcy he so longs for. Through it all, Gaines weaves a tale that delights and disturbs with his trademark raconteur panache.