Kevin Killian. Photo: Peter E. Hanff.
Every time I feel fascination
I just can’t stand still.
—David Bowie, “Fascination”
Born on Christmas Eve, 1952, in a hamlet on Long Island, Kevin Killian began his first novel, Shy, in June 1974, after he graduated from Fordham Lincoln Center, a small liberal arts college in Midtown Manhattan. It wasn’t released for another fifteen years, until the Crossing Press—based in Freedom, California—published a small edition in 1989. That same year also saw the publication of Killian’s first memoir, Bedrooms Have Windows. “Freedom,” George Michael crooned a few months later. “I think there’s something you should know.” What? Didn’t everything happen in 1989? The year the world began and the year it ended, too. Where had Killian been in those intervening fifteen years? Both books place him near his hometown: “I lived in the upstairs flat of a summer bungalow on the North Shore of Long Island,” Shy opens. It concludes with a place and a date, what might even be read as a declaration: “San Francisco, September 18, 1988.” “I grew up in Smithtown,” he begins in Bedrooms, “a suburb of New York, a town so invidious that I still speak of it in Proustian terms—or Miltonic terms, a kind of paradise I feel evicted from.”
By the beginning of 1991, Killian was living at the edge of the Mission District on Minna Street. He was a poet. He was married to the writer Dodie Bellamy. A friend and collaborator of many artists, writers, and actors in the city, he helped found the New Narrative movement—a loose arrangement of poets and novelists centered around Robert Glück’s writing workshops at Small Press Traffic. New Narrative, with its emphasis on critical theory and identity politics, offered a fiction and poetry that took itself apart in order to make its inner and outer workings—and worker—transparent: a writing about the writer who’s doing the writing, a kind of authorial heroism, the splaying of the self. (Derrida was a touchstone.) In a conversation with Bruce Boone, the Language poet Charles Bernstein noted that Boone, like his counterparts, foregrounded the author through repeated interventions of a writerly interest in text qua text: “It would be as if Stephen King made [some of the] comments … that you’re making to me, within the novel, and talked about its links with the high and the low European [literature], to French philosophy, and so on.” If the author died in the late sixties, New Narrative attempted to account for the causes of their demise in order to resurrect the corpse in a poetry and prose of flesh and blood—stitched together and electroshocked back to life. The poet Cole Swensen once said that Killian’s work is about the “palpability of being alive.” One lives with it.
Fascination: Memoirs brings together Killian’s two early memoirs: Bedrooms Have Windows, a choppy autobiographical story about an aspiring writer named Kevin Killian who endeavors to find his place in the sexed-up, boozy worlds of Long Island and New York in the seventies and eighties, before and in the midst of the AIDS crisis, and its planned but ultimately unpublished sequel, Bachelors Get Lonely, sections of which Killian included in subsequent fiction collections (1996’s Little Men and 2001’s I Cry like a Baby). Fascination concludes with Triangles in the Sand, a new, previously unpublished memoir of Killian’s brief affair in the seventies with the composer Arthur Russell. Used or remaindered, Killian’s early writing—including Shy and his little-known novella Desiree (1986)—has long been difficult to find in the wild (the wild, not the Web, being its rightful place, really) and has since accrued an almost cult status among readers of experimental and gay prose writing, like that of the early works of Killian’s peers: Steve Abbott, Dennis Cooper, Dodie Bellamy, Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, and others. Cooper once described Shy as “mind-bending, trashy, and Dickensian.” The novel “drove me wild.” James Purdy, who Killian has long cited as an influence, called it “a book of sparklers.” Boone wrote that Bedrooms would cement Killian’s place as one of “the brightest stars in the sex/experimental writing firmament.” Holding this two-part volume of such writing, a new reader, perhaps one more familiar with Killian’s poetry (of which he has published four volumes, two in recent years), might wonder how exactly his nonfiction plots along the axis Boone describes. Read More