Who the Hell is Rachel Wells?
Drum roll, please! Ladies and gentlemen and everyone in between and beyond, it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Red State Trans-Gay Literature! They’re doing their makeup in a pickup truck as you step into that small-town gay bar and take a seat at the catwalk, where the queens striding down the line are fierce, and all because they have to be in these parts. It ain’t all about the coasts and a couple of Midwest strongholds anymore. Now there’s "Who the Hell is Rachel Wells?," the debut collection from J.R. Greenwell, a one-time headlining female illusionist in Dixie who now devotes his time to writing fiction and plays in central Kentucky.
The title story kicks off the anthology, where a whole lot of people are about to get in a whole mess of trouble when Danny, a little boy with a taste for cosmetics and J.C. Penney’s catalogues, discovers a purse full of drag and trinkets that’s been left for the dogs near a rest stop off I-65 at the Kentucky-Indiana border. Danny’s mother Linda sifts through the purse and finds a note: "The contents in this bag belong to Rachel Wells... Take care of these items and give them a good home..." The elusive drag queen’s purse has a hypnotic effect on Linda, who walks off with it, but then obsesses about whether, in doing so, she has just implicated herself in some capital crime. Linda abandons the purse, which then gets tossed like a hot potato from one batty character to the next, at times landing in just the wrong hands.
A slew of bizarre stories unfurls from there, some hilarious, some heartrending, and almost all of them as original as an Ionesco play with a good dose of David Lynch trompe l’oeil thrown in. "Silver Pumps and a Loose Nut" explores what happens when drag culture meets the criminal underworld and how a diva can still come out looking like Botticelli’s Venus -- or, better yet, Ursula Andress in "Dr. No" -- in the aftermath. Make sure your Puffs box is full when you read about the trials of the young gay and trans characters in "The Scent of Honeysuckle," "Spaghetti Kisses," and "A Colony of Barbies," as the protagonists attempt to stake whatever meager claim they can in a world that’s frozen them out. "Watch Me Walk" gives us the other side of the struggle when two gay seniors contemplate falling in love in a world that seems to belong to the young. "Starting Rumors" shows what happens when a bitter queen and his irascible hag at work stir the turd over lunch with the wrong colleague.
Yet while the stories in "Who the Hell is Rachel Wells?" couldn’t be more outlandish if they were from another solar system, the writing itself could use a lot of work. Greenwell’s book is missing what most indie books are missing -- an editor who’s not afraid to wield a red pen like a chainsaw. We can tell from the start that Greenwell is going for spare prose but, as we progress, we see cluttered verbiage and show-don’t-tell problems on nearly every page. The prose could be much, much sparer. In fact, the stories "Duplicity," "Watch Me Walk" and "Out of the Closet" (a sidesplitting yarn about dinner guests whose sexual orientations change when they each sit in a chair rumored to have belonged to Paul Lynde) would work much better as one-act plays -- and Greenwell is, after all, a playwright -- since the dialogue can pretty much stand on its own (though it too needs a lot of trimming) without all the useless narration strangling it like weeds.
That aside, today’s gay literature needs more voices from Greenwell’s South, and here’s hoping "Who the Hell is Rachel Wells?" will help bring them out of hiding.
"Who the Hell is Rachel Wells?"
By J.R. Greenwell
Chelsea Station Editions
ISBN 13: 978-1-937627-12-6
222 pages, paperback