Book Reviews

The Book of Lies by Felice Picano at ReQueered Tales

Genre Gay / Contemporary / Artists/Actors/Musicians/Authors / Fiction
Reviewed by ParisDude on 09-November-2020

Book Blurb

Bright, ambitious, and handsome, Ross Ohrenstedt is a high flier in the fashionable field of queer studies. He has just taken a prestigious university position in Los Angeles and has been appointed to oversee the collection of papers and works of a leading light of the gay literary salon known as the Purple Circle. Ross stumbles across a lost work by an unknown author and his quest to identify the mystery writer and achieve the glory of scholastic tenure unveils increasingly bizarre and unbalanced facts about a group of writers who in the 1970s and 1980s broke new ground in the creation of a gay literary sensibility. But the dark truth contained within The Book of Lies is even more startling.

With biting wit and a lush sense of place and character, Felice Picano’s daring novel is at once a stylish mystery, a comical roman-à-clef, and a wicked send-up of the new Ivory Tower.

First published to acclaim in 1998, this new edition for 2020 features a foreword by David Bergman (The Violet Hour).


Book Review

I am no literary scholar and have no intention to ever become one (nor pretensions to doing so, either). Especially not after having read this book, where scholars and writers make up the bulk of the character cast. As those who are reading my reviews already know, my criteria for discussing a book aren’t very complicated; they go along the lines of “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”. I try to explain why, succinctly and quite simply, often throwing in the odd personal reason, and would never dream of overanalyzing any book I write about, not even if it has been released by someone as accomplished as Felice Picano, who, I understand, has had his share of scholarly attention. Whether to his pleasure or not, only he can tell. As for me, the truth is, scholarly reviews bore me to death. They often strike me as having but one goal: to impress fellow scholars rather than to inform potential readers about the actual book they are supposed to tackle.


That being said, it’s quite intriguing that reading about scholars was anything but boring. ‘The Book of Lies’—I wonder if the title has anything to do with Aleister Crowley’s epynomous book published in 1912/13—introduces young Ross Ohrenstedt, who under the guidance of renowned gay studies pioneer Irian St. George is writing his doctoral dissertation at UCLA. The focus of the thesis is the famous Purple Circle, a loose, mutually supportive grouping of New York-based gay authors in the seventies and eighties who brought about the birth of what can be called gay literature (in a scholarly sense). Of the initial nine members, many of whom have become very successful, three are still alive. And one of them, Damon Von Slyke, needs a helping hand to organize his papers, which have been purchased by the Henry Timrod Collection. Through St. George, Ross succeeds in being interviewed by Von Slyke and accepted for the job. While the writer leaves for Europe with his companion, Ross moves into his huge, old mansion. During the day he teaches a summer term class about modern American literature at university; the rest of the time, he goes through the papers, checking and sorting and cataloguing them according to modern library guidelines.


That’s when he stumbles upon an unknown fragment, a short piece really, the writing style of which doesn’t match Von Slyke’s. The text is unsigned, and when Ross asks Von Slyke about it on the phone, the writer doesn’t seem to remember where it could come from. St. George, Ross’s proctor, is intrigued by the discovery and urges Ross to dig deeper. The young man’s sniffing around, comparable to any amateur sleuth’s work, leads him toward the executors of those writers who have already died (Jeff Weber, Cameron Powers, Mitchell Leo, Frankie McKewen, Marc Dodge, Rowland Etheridge) as well as to the homes of the two others who are still alive: Aaron Axelfeld and Dominic De Petrie. More fragments are discovered, and little by little, the name of an unknown and unpublished writer named Len Sturgeon surfaces; probably the author of the fragments, and a man who has been central for at least a short while in each of the Purple Circle writers’ lives. Everybody whom Ross interviews tries to be helpful just like his proctor St. George. But things are not always as they seem, something which Ross finds out the hard way…


First, honesty forces me to say that there are a few things I’m not so keen on, things that even astonished me. Felice Picano’s habit of trying to cram in as many qualifiers as possible into one sentence can become somewhat wearying; luckily this fad of his is not consistent but only sparingly indulged in. The frequent wrong use of “whom” in subordinate clauses (“I don’t know whom they were”) is always a nasty surprise, no matter who the writer is or how immense his/her fame. Phrases in foreign languages should have been proofread by a native speaker, especially when they’re meant to be funny (the quip “Schüle für Schwüle” doesn't mean anything; it should read “Schwüle für Schwule”, or “dampness for faggots”, of course, which would even sound wittier in a German speaker’s ears as the alliterative “schw” sound is maintained).


Yet these are mere good-natured quibbles. Because for the rest, I was drawn in immediately by the mesmerising atmosphere of the book. See, I was supposed to become a scholar myself, my career supposedly being traced in a straight line after I finished my masters degree in Political Science and decided on the subject of an ensuing thesis. Lo and behold, the unforeseeable happened, I landed in Paris, France, and stayed there because of good ole “l’amour, l’amour”, as the Countess DeLave would have chirped, and started working as a graphic designer. Not for me the often sterile battles and struggles between scholars, not for me the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of research done and papers written about minor details with the sole goal of being noticed, lauded, and famed in the small circles of those interested in one’s works. I realized how glad I was not to experience all this when reading Picano’s book, which shows that world of professors and students very impressively.


Let’s speak about the Purple Circle, which can be called the main subject of the novel. Of course, I was immediately reminded of the Violet Quill, a group of seven gay male writers that, according to Wikipedia, “epitomizes the years between the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the AIDS pandemic” (you see how not scholarly I am? No doubt, a real scholar would rather be caught dead than quoting Wikipedia) and has “been linked to gay writing as a literary movement”. The members of the Violet Quill were Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, George Whitmore… and Felice Picano himself. Is this then a roman à clef, a novel where you should be looking for hints as to who is who? Do you need to know the works of the above-mentioned seven writers in order to understand and enjoy ‘The Book of Lies’?


The answer to the first question is, I still don’t know. In his afterword, Felice Picano slyly neither confirms nor denies this theory, urging me to find a biography of the group (and indeed I stumbled upon an interesting one, which I would have purchased if it weren’t so excessively, nigh obscenely overpriced, even the Kindle version). I did read books by some of these seven writers, with mixed pleasure. I liked many of them, some less—I won’t name names; suffice it to say that my favorite of the seven, without wanting to appear unduly flattering, is truthfully Mr. Picano himself. As to the second question, no, you can enjoy this book without any prior knowledge. It’s constructed like a classical whodunit (or rather, whowroteit) where sweet, handsome, sometimes naïve Ross, the first-person narrator, plunges forward in his quest for truth, unearthing little hint after little hint, with many twists and turns. He’s an endearing character, and from the short scenes where he is shown leading literary debates with his students, a man I would have loved to have as my literature professor (that he is described as hot and hunky would have been a major plus, of course).


What I particularly loved about this book was the atmospheric and strong evocation of a blessed time—after Stonewall, before the outbreak of the AIDS-crisis—where young gay men could own what they were for the first time in history and where those gifted enough were allowed to express their life experiences in writing. I admit there were certain scenes that made me discretely wipe my tear-glazed eyes (when one niece talks about her uncle, who was one of the writers, for instance). Others where I felt nurtured and warmed because of the beautiful friendship that, despite trifle jealousies, seems to have kept the nine men described in the novel together. I felt a real connection to that time and to those writers, albeit fictional ones, most certainly because Ross, the narrator, feels so connected to them—a connection that goes way beyond his scholarly fascination with them and becomes a very pseronal one, even though he… no, I won’t divulge any spoilers. Suffice it to say, Picano succeeds in weaving a fine web of lies (hence the title) and all sorts of ploys that not only drew me in but also dazzled me to a point where I assumed things I had no grounds for assuming. Very cleverly done, and very efficient for this sort of “detective”-like plot. By the way, I admit that the ending came as a complete surprise and had me gasping.


In short, I really enjoyed this book. I’ve already mentioned that we should cherish and uphold our gay history as best as we can. The Purple Circle and the Violet Quill are without any doubt part of that, and I urge anyone interested in gay literature to read this novel.





DISCLAIMER: Books reviewed on this site were usually provided at no cost by the publisher or author. This book has been provided by the editor for the purpose of a review.


Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Novel, 440 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 13-October-2020
Price $5.95 ebook, $19.95 paperback
Buy Link