A Short Jew in the Body of A Tall W.A.S.P. (A Gay Melodrama in 13 Acts)
Mark Okun’s memoir is billed as a "Gay Melodrama," but it’s just as much a comedy. The tall, blond Okun grew up, in his own words, "rebellious and wild," the adopted son of diminutive, dark-complected Jewish parents. If he broke his parents’ hearts, he wasn’t alone: It was the 1960s, the time of the wild child and youth power.
Among the psychedelica, social unrest, and tragedies of the era, Okun had a whole separate, and personal, crisis to deal with as he came to realize that he was gay.
The signs are there pretty early on. On the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah, at age 12, Okun recounts, his father did up the entire house in wood paneling, "so the whole place looked like everyone else’s den. Then they got all new furniture. Unfortunately, they didn’t share my sense of style; for the same money, I could have made the place really fabulous." Clearly, small town life isn’t what this boy needs. It’s hardly surprising when he runs off to California for a month or so, funding his adventures with rare coins stolen from his father; it’s almost a given that he’s going to hang around with some of the massively influential rock bands of the dy. By the time he becomes a big name hairdresser and Fire Island A-Gay, his arc feels predetermined. This is "Almost Famous" with a much sassier attitude.
Okun relates starting to have sexual experiences with other boys his own age as early as eight; whether these were actually sexual experience or simply play that involved sexual behavior might be a distinction without a difference, given that Okun relates his sexual career in pretty generic terms. He’s not interested in detailing hot and heavy action; he’s more intent on explaining two things to us. One, he was searching for true, deep, and abiding love; two, he thought he was going to find it in a sexy, handsome package wrapped up in tasteful clothing.
Enter the melodrama, as Okun spends the next couple of decades having amazing sexual relationships with a cast of characters so innately filmic that they seem to have stepped out of the memoirist’s version of central casting. And they aren’t the only ones who see too utterly fabulous to be believed; Okun gives the reader to understand that he drew his clientele from a similarly rarefied pool. Even the non-glamorous people who fill these pages have a certain air of the familiar about them, from Okun’s doting grandmother to the biological family he eventually meets and with whom he bonds.
That’s not to say that anything in the book feels fabricated. It all has exactly the genuine feel that you’d expect from a memoirist of Okun’s dry and self-deprecating voice. His life falls so naturally into the flamboyant groove it follows that you almost imagine you’ve lived his hard-partying life, with all of its drama, right alongside him. (I found myself nodding in rueful sagacity when I reached the moment in the book when a friend tells Okun, "Even back in our Max’s Kansas City days you were the only one they carried in to the parties. Most people just got carried out.")
In certain respects, this memoir is like any coming-of-age (and, eventually, coming-of-middle-age) gay story. Boy flees small town, heads to New York City, looks for love in the usual wrong places, becomes a fixture on the scene. But the scene isn’t all he’d hoped it would be: Though Okun became a renowned hairdresser working at some of New York’s trendiest salons, he was left dissatisfied and empty. Cocaine and alcohol served as substitutes, or perhaps bandages, for year after year, until finally Okun realized he had to make a change. By then, the AIDS crisis was in full swing; Okun writes about this passage with the same straightforward, almost artless, style that make his earlier chapters so effective as comedy / melodrama, only now the effect is tragic.
The book could have used a good editorial makeover. This isn’t a critique of Okun’s prose style, which is plain and heartfelt and often very funny; rather, it’s a matter of inconsistent tenses, some formatting issues, and the occasional slip (Okun gets the title of a famous off-Broadway play wrong; all these issues could easily have been fixed with some editorial oversight and some copy-editing).
What’s Okun said in this book that others have not said before? Nothing, really, except for this: He’s told his own particular, and in some ways peculiar, story in a way no one else could have. Fortunately, though the younger self he describes is something of a shallow twink, the storyteller he’s turned into since then is good company.