Drag King Dreams
Writer/activist Leslie Feinberg emerged a leading voice in transgender fiction with 1993’s Stone Butch Blues, which became an instant classic of the nascent genre and a staple in gender-studies courses. Set against the backdrop of the turbulent late ’60s and early ’70s, the loosely autobiographical novel tells the story of Jess Goldberg, a working-class transgendered lesbian, and her struggle for identity, community, and peace. With the new Drag King Dreams, Feinberg fast-forwards to post-Sept. 11 New York with a new protagonist, Max Rabinowitz.
Max lives a shadowy existence, both literally and figuratively. A bouncer at a drag cabaret, she works nights, seeing the sun only on her way home from a long night’s shift. Like all in her small circle of friends, she inhabits an ambiguous space, gender-wise. Max does not take hormones, but Feinberg makes clear that she presents as a man, and straight society, even in these relatively enlightened days, is having none of it. Her apartment is described as a shadowy, cavelike space in which Max isolates herself, painting Yiddish poetry on the walls and eschewing lamps for the more comforting light of candles. The desire to keep light from being shed on her life is a recurrent theme here—Max used to be an activist, a warrior, but these days she isolates herself. It is not hard to see why. In the first few pages of the book Max’s friend Vickie, a cross-dressing man who lives a straight life as a married lawyer, is brutally murdered on the way home from a night out. Max is subjected to constant jeers and harassment. The Bush administration’s bloodlust is reaching a fever pitch as it mounts the invasion of Iraq. Max is tired, her spirit broken.
For Feinberg, a member of the World Workers Party, the personal is absolutely inextricable from the political. This sentiment, laudable though it might be, interferes with her efforts to create believable, fully realized characters—for someone so vested in ambiguity in terms of gender she sees things in awfully stark black and white. Feinberg’s tenderness for the downtrodden leads to their depictions as saints, while a disaffection for authority and straight society leaves no room there for anything but monsters. At times Feinberg’s politics stray into the faintly ridiculous: in mentioning the 2003 New York blackout comes references to its disastrous 1977 counterpart, where “in the darkness, people went into stores and took what they needed but couldn’t afford,” giving wholesale destruction a righteous spin weakens the book’s idealistic underpinnings. As Max slowly comes out of her shell and reinvests herself in her activist roots, it feels less like an invigorating call to arms and more like a long communist parable. That’s a shame, because Feinberg has created an unexpectedly sympathetic character in Max, dour and prickly though she might be, and the bones of a good novel are struggling to break through the clunky Soviet-era political structure grafted onto it.