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Feinberg melds personal & political post-9/11

Published Apr 13, 2006 9:01 PM

“Drag King Dreams” by Leslie Feinberg (Carroll & Graf, 2006, $15.95). Available at www.leftbooks.com..

*McCubbin uses the gender-neutral pronouns hir instead of his/her and ze instead of he/she throughout the review.

In hir newly published second novel, “Drag King Dreams,” transgender lesbian activist Leslie Feinberg continues to make sex, gender, sexuality and class important issues for the people of this story. But in this post-9/11 world, the overriding political issues of the day intrude in a big way. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this new anti-war novel is the successful melding of the very personal and the profoundly political, a literary challenge that few writers apparently feel up to the task of undertaking.

Feinberg, a managing editor of Workers World newspaper, brings hir communist worldwiew to all hir writing.

“Stone Butch Blues,” the groundbreaking and highly praised 1993 novel by Feinberg, stands as a germinal literary work that has exposed the life and struggles of a working-class transgender person to a wide audience in the U.S. and around the world. The novel has been translated into Chinese, Italian, German, Dutch, Slovenian and Hebrew, and plans for an Arabic edition are in the works.

Jess Goldberg, the central character of “Stone Butch Blues,” stands as a truly uni que figure in world literature. Hir struggle, comparable in a general way to that of Stephen Gordon in Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness,” is, however, more fully and honestly developed, and the story unfolds in the socially and culturally rich context of working-class Buffalo, N.Y., in the mid-20th century.

“Stone Butch Blues” brought a much-appreciated message of personal courage, development and triumph over the prevailing forces of class, sex, gender and sexual oppression.

In hir new novel, “Drag King Dreams,” the central character is Max Rabinowitz, a Jewish transgender worker. Ze works as a bouncer at a trans club in Man hattan and lives across the river in a working-class neighborhood in Jersey City. Almost as soon as we enter hir world, violence, death and illness inter vene. Returning early one morning from Manhattan on a PATH train, Max and hir cross-dressing friend Vickie/Victor are threatened by a trans-hating man. Then Max’s dear friend Ruby takes ill suddenly and is hospitalized.

Max’s life is full of difficulties. Ze reminisces early on:

“When I was a child, I pored over photographs and maps in my geography book, excitedly telling my Aunt Raisa how when I grew up I was going to row the length of the Amazon River, scale the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro. Now my little path leads from work to home. When did my world shrink so small?”

But geography aside, Max’s world is fully flavored with friends and experiences, and some of the real limitations on hir world, we learn, are based on Max’s feelings of powerlessness and fear of political commitment. It may be this same fear among contemporary fiction writers that makes an unabashedly political novel like this one so rare.

Max’s Yiddish-speaking, communist Aunt Raisa is the voice from the past that guides and goads Max to overcome hir fears. Raisa’s wise words elucidate Max’s personal experiences in the post-9/11 night mare of war and racist profiling.

Max befriends a Palestinian neighbor, Hatem Ashrawi, and Hatem’s friend Moham mad, an Egyptian shopkeeper in the neighborhood. Days later Max watches from hir tenement window as Hatem and Mohammad protest harassment that neighborhood youth are getting from the police:

“Mohammad is arguing with the police from the stoop of his store, ‘What did they do? Tell me! They are just children!’

“Hatem comes out of our apartment building waving his arms. ‘Wait, stop!’ he says with such authority that the officers look in his direction.

“I open the window further and lean out, straining to hear.

“Hatem points to the teenagers lined up against the wall, ‘I do not believe this is a legal search. You are going through their pockets.’”

Later, Max learns from Mohammad that:

“‘Hatem has disappeared, like many others.’ He whispers, in a quieter voice, ‘Like my brother-in-law.’”

The post-9/11 roundup of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians is in full swing. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is approaching. Everyone knows it. One of Max’s friends at work, Thor, is an anti-war activist who is putting out the word that no one should go to work the night after the attack begins. Max is at home:

“Suddenly, the television screen glows with a blazing image: shock and awe. Baghdad is aflame. I turn away from the television screen toward my window. The sky flashes with lightning. Thunder cracks. It looks and sounds like war. A cry pierces the air, an ancient wail. I pry my window open to listen: a muezzin’s call. Moham mad leans out his window and shouts: ‘Allah akbar! Allah akbar!’ His voice breaks with a sob….

“‘Stop the war!’ It isn’t until I hear the hoarse cry that I realize it is coming from my own throat. ‘Stop the war!’ I shout again, as shadows of neighbors appear at their windows.”

Max’s heart is with the targets of Bush’s war. But ze is afraid. Ze goes to the club despite the strike call, but there is a sign on the door saying the club is closed for the night. The next night at the club:

“I wear remorse like a shroud. My friends at work are circling me, eyeing me strangely.

“‘You okay, buddy?’ Thor asks.

“‘Sure,’ I wave him away, pointing to the line of people waiting to get into the club, ‘I’m just tired.’

“‘Okay,’ he says. But he puts his hand on my arm and leaves it there while he examines my eyes like an optometrist.

“I turn away and readjust the stanch ions. I’ve evaded everyone’s eyes tonight. But it’s not working. I feel worse hiding what I did.

“‘Listen,’ I say to Thor as he turns to go back inside to work. ‘I should have told you this before.’ I press my palms together in an entreaty. ‘Thor, I came to work last night.’

“He turns slowly, stiff with new knowledge. His lips press together until they turn white. ‘What would you have done if the club was open?’

“I shrug. ‘I wasn’t thinking that far ahead, Thor. I really wasn’t thinking at all. I was just scared. Losing a job is a big deal to me. Especially right now.’

“‘Well,’ he says finally, ‘it’s a good thing the club was shut down anyway, wasn’t it?’

“That’s all he says. Then he looks at me once more and goes inside. But in that final glance he reassessed me, did another calculation, and arrived at a different sum.”

Max will overcome hir fear and learn the meaning of solidarity. But you won’t find out how from this review.

There’s so much in this book: so many real people, so many real problems, and so much of the present-day world—the world, Feinberg reminds us, we must find the courage to change.

McCubbin is author of the ground-breaking book “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist Analysis,” available at www.leftbooks.com.