Review: Song of the Loon by Richard Amory

Loon coverPublished way ahead of its time in 1966 by Greenleaf Classics, republished in 2006 by Arsenal Pulp Press. A lusty gay frontier romance that tells the story of Ephraim McIver, a 19th century frontiersman, as he travels through the American wilderness. Ephraim meets a number of characters who share stories, wisdom and homosexual encounters. Unique among pulp novels of the time, the gay characters are strong and romantically drawn – traits that have earned the book a place in the canon of gay American literature.

“A groovy little curiosity piece”

Review by Lee Benoit

I was a toddler when the Stonewall Riots occurred, and it was really difficult to approach this book without being subconsciously aware of the enormous impact Song of the Loon had on the intervening generations of gay literature, erotica, and porn. If you’re anything like me (40 and queer) you’ll recognize no end of snippets that made their way into gay canon, or were drawn from pulp fiction. In other words, I had to turn off my camp meter, no mean feat when confronted with such passages as the one in which the protagonist composes a poem for his lover containing the following lines: “Seeking your chest, your loins, your hips / My hardened penis downward dips / Into your asshole darkly tight / Warmly endlessly lost from sight” (p. 132-3 in the Arsenal Pulp edition).

Deep purple moments aside, I found I enjoyed the book immensely on its own merits. These include a tone of earnest sweetness that overcomes the camp factor. I ended up feeling quite affectionately towards the characters, especially the protagonist, Ephraim MacIver, who falls in love with practically everyone he meets, including the putative villain. I became involved in his travails, and vicariously delighted in his triumphs over convention and ill will. That a post-Stonewall queer reader could experience Song of the Loon as so emphatically fresh, forty years after its publication, attests to the power of Amory’s work.

Amory’s message is, in essence, that being homosexual is inherently good, and only through honesty with oneself and unapologetic openness with the larger world can one escape the constraints and negativity of mainstream society. It’s about freedom and pride. Speaking of freedom, the book is also about free love, that old chestnut! In Amory’s hands, the sex is simultaneously earthy and reverent, and exuberant in a way we sadly have lost. The ideas that love is infinite, and that love shared is love multiplied (and, conversely, that jealousy is a sort of violence), seem almost quaint.

In the long, erudite introduction by Michael Bronski and in the series of contemporary interviews with and articles by Amory (from which the quote at the beginning of this review was taken and which include a delicious reproduction of the poster for the 1970 film based on the book but unendorsed by Amory), it becomes clear that Song of the Loon was unusual. It’s a pastoral in the classic sense, a bucolic piece that sharply contrasts the idylls of country (in this case wilderness) life with the miseries and harshness of “civilization.” It is easy to understand Ephraim’s behaviors and motivations if we remember that, “The characters in such works are often vehicles for the expression of the author’s moral [or] social views.” Something else I learned about pastorals while researching for this review was that, “the pastoral convention sometimes uses the device of ‘singing matches’ between two or more” characters. That explains all the poetry! (Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature [1995].) (To be fair, much of it is structurally quite complex and follows demanding forms.)

Is Song of the Loon realistic? No way. Historically accurate? Not by a long shot! But it’s not supposed to be. It can’t even be described as revisionist history for as Amory himself said, “…the most important element of the book … was its poetic distance from reality, which per se has little or nothing to do with the homosexual experience….” The book presents an idealized vision of a gay utopia, and the historical setting was necessary to drive home the contrast between the Society of the Loon and the intolerant townsfolk. As an example, consider Amory’s presentation of Indians as speaking “the Indian language,” a sort of universal symbolic code. A trained anthropologist, Amory declares in an epigraph that he has “taken certain very European characters from [Spanish pastoral novels], painted them a gay aesthetic red, and transplanted them to the American wilderness.”

As a homoerotic fantasy of freedom (to paraphrase Bronski’s introduction), as a pastoral novel, as an artifact of its time, and as an benchmark in gay literature it’s well worth strapping on your loin cloth, hopping into your canoe, and crossing a river of history, braving eddies of social movement and sandbars of camp, to experience it.

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8 Responses

  1. The sweet smell of gay pulp. The original cover can be found here: http://www.ianyoungbooks.com/GayPbks/SongLoon-ico.jpg

    Greenleaf books had the most impressive covers; their books were camp, sure, but they didn’t scream ‘erotic pulp’ in big neon letters like other publishers did at the time. Did you know that this was one of the first ‘gay pulps’ to be sold in grocery stores alongside romance novels? Those days were short and brief–but at least they existed. Does this edition contain all three novels in the Loon trilogy, or just the first?

  2. (Nods.) The Arsenal Pulp reprint has a black cover with an insert of the original cover art (see above, in review). The volume is “Loon” alone and not “Song of Aaron” or “Listen, the Loon Sings.” I hope Arsenal will reissue those as well, as these are very attractive editions on good paper, softcover but with those nifty little jacket flaps.

    And yes, the strong intro by Michael Bronski and some of the interviews (with Amory and other Greenleaf authors) reprinted from “Vector” magazine mention this tiny, bright window of gay pulps appearing in grocery stores. Talk about an impulse purchase!!

  3. I hate to say it, but I’d never heard of this (blushes mightily). Have now added it to my TBR list. Thanks!

  4. My pleasure. This book hovered at the edges of my TBR list for ages before this site gave me the nudge I needed to read it and review.

    Even though it looks like a hatchet job of the first order, I wish the film version was more readily available!

  5. […] Speak Its Name site has a good review of the book, which points out its many faults – historical […]

  6. Someone left this book in a desk where I worked in 1968. Finding it sort of changed my life at the time, and helped me inch closer to coming out. I got another copy of it a few years ago, just for nostalgia’s sake. THis week I read Amory’s second novel in the trilogy, “The Song of Aaron,” a charming love story. However, I have to complain that I find it a bit creepy that in both of these books of supposedly sort of idealized scenes, there are no women or children (zero), as if those people did not exist. I have to wonder if the author has some psychological hang-up about women and children.

    • Oh excellent! I’ve been unable to get hold of the Aaron one, so that’s interesting.

      I agree with you – too much gay fiction seems to ignore them, or they are just there to be bitches!

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