When I was doing my BA, a friend told me a story about her younger brother. As I remember it, while growing up, her brother loved Bette Midler and Patsy Cline despite the fact that they were performers from and for another generation. He’d collect photos, news stories, anything else he found, and paste them into elaborately decorated and carefully maintained scrapbooks. He was extremely proud of these books and showed them off to friends and family, who took them as signs of his creativity and individuality.
Eventually when he was older, the brother realized he was attracted to men, came out as gay, and it is at this point that the story of the scrapbooks takes a tragic turn.
Once out, the brother began to meet other gay men, and it wasn’t long before he realized that Bette and Patsy were common gay obsessions, both of them campy as hell. Learning this, he understood that his scrapbooks weren’t simply testaments to his creativity. They were billboards advertising his emerging sexuality to anyone with the sense to read the signs. He was in other words the the object of a painful irony, his scrapbooks were now embarrassments, and as I remember the story, he threw them out, although I’m less certain of that than the rest.
I thought of this story reading Halperin’s book because his object of study is precisely these odd, recognizably gay cultural obsessions. The book is wordy and overlong and, in chapter after chapter, Halperin finds reasons to discuss at length Joan Crawford, his own camp obsession. But despite the weakness of the writing and the seemingly impossible scope of his project, Halperin’s descriptions of experiences like those of my friend’s brother often ring true and his attempts to explain how they work are thoughtful and thought provoking.