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Stuck Rubber Baby. By Howard Cruse. New York: HarperPerennial/HarperCollins, 1995. 210p. $14.00. ISBN 0-06-097713-2.

Gay and lesbian; general fiction; African-American

Adults, teens; strong language, nudity, adult situations

This is a tough book to synopsize because so much happens in the course of 210 pages; keep in mind that what I'm presenting is a pretty sketchy outline.

Stuck Rubber Baby is the story of Toland Polk, a young white man growing up in the Southern town of Clayfield in the early 1960s. The adult Toland, comfortably settled in San Francisco with his partner, is telling the tale, with his partner offering gently acid comments and sympathy at the proper occasions. Raised by religious parents who were bigoted but not hostile toward blacks, Toland comes to his own conclusions about religion (he is an atheist) and race relations, but he cannot come to grips with his emerging homosexual preferences. He works extremely hard to appear and behave straight.

After Toland's parents are killed in an auto accident, he lives with his sister Melanie and her husband Orley in their parents' house. Later, he moves in with Riley Wheeler and his girlfriend Mavis at Riley's house, the "Wheelery." Through Mavis, he meets Sammy Noone, just returned from the Navy: acid-tongued, witty, musically gifted, and gay. (Toland is always careful to make it clear to Sammy that he is straight--a pose that will come back to haunt him later.) Orley is disgusted by Sammy and rails against homosexuals and blacks in general, which disturbs Melanie as well as the others.

Through Sammy, Toland becomes acquainted with Clayfield's "seedy underbelly" of "beatniks, anarchists, homosexuals, negroes, vegetarians, drunks, and poets" as expressed at parties and at the Rhombus, a gay bar, and Alleysax, a black nightclub. At his first "underbelly" party, Toland meets Ginger Raines, a white folk singer/guitarist very involved with civil rights issues. She is considerably different from the girls he's known, and they strike up a prickly but satisfying relationship. Because of her, he starts attending integrationist meetings and gets to know many of the major black civil rights activities, including Reverend Pepper, his gay son Les, and his wife Anna Dellyne, who had been a nightclub singer in her youth. Not that things haven't been hot in Clayfield before, with the "Chopper," an unashamed racist, as longtime Police Commissioner, but as Toland gets involved the skirmishes start in earnest with the murder of a black community organizer (a friend of Ginger's). Moreover, the Chopper is planning to close down a park that has been a favorite place for demonstrations by integrationists. Ginger is so upset and outraged that she has a tirade in front of the students (all white) at the college she attends. Afterwards, Toland attempts to make love to her, but the condom he's been carrying for years is all stuck to itself, and he cannot perform. He ends up confessing his sexual orientation to her. She is understanding but becomes somewhat ambivalent about their relationship, though he still loves her.

After a long, arduous day where Melanie and Toland (as well as Mavis, Riley, and Sammy) participate in a nonviolent protest by the black citizenry to prevent the destruction of the park, Toland has a series of unpleasant adventures, culminating in a stay in the police station for public drunkenness. Rescued by Melanie, he wakes up to find himself being prayed over by Orley, who believes the path Toland is taking is leading him to hell. Toland is disgusted, and Orley leaves in a huff. Toland is further shattered when Ginger informs him that she is going to be kicked out of school for her views and will be moving back north. For a while Toland stays away from the integrationist meetings, but he rejoin in time to attend the big protest march in Washington. Ginger is there, and she is returning to Clayfield.

The mood after that is ebullent for weeks--until a bomb goes off, killing several black children and badly injuring Shiloh, one of Ginger's best friends and one of the most popular black men in town. The bombing unhinges Sammy, who has a tirade on TV. As for Toland and Ginger, they are so depressed and lonely that they fall into one another's arms and make love.

That night, Sammy's car is torched, and the "Dixie Patriot, The Voice of Southern Sanity" plasters his face on the front page with the headline, "Pervert on Payroll of Racemixing Church." The frightened priest fires Sammy from his job as organist, and Sammy moves into the Wheelery. He pours his soul out to Toland and asks that they just hold one another for a few minutes, but Toland refuses. And not too long after that, Ginger phones with the news that she's pregnant. What to do? Ginger wants an abortion; Toland isn't sure. Finding out that Ginger spoke with Anna Dellyne about getting an abortion, Toland goes in search of her. During their discussion, in which Toland explains that he offered to marry Ginger, Anna reveals that she had recognized Toland as gay all along and counsels against marriage. Les Pepper shows up, and he and Toland go to the Alleysax for dinner--and Les also reveals that he knew Toland was gay. Toland cannot deny it any longer, and he and Les make love.

Toland confesses everything to Melanie, who surprises him by getting angry--not at him but at her inability to get pregnant. She insists that the baby not be aborted. Some days later, she offers to adopt the baby. Ginger refuses, explaining that she would rather have the baby far away than so tantalizingly near. She will, however, carry the baby to term and give it up for adoption.

Meanwhile, Sammy is brooding and broke, and in an act of desperation goes to see his father to request money, bringing Toland and Mavis with him for moral support. His father had disowned him and ignored the many letters and postcards Sammy sent him during his term in the Navy, and is now completely paralyzed. Sammy doesn't help his own case by threatening to tip over the old man and yelling abuse at him, and they leave with no more money than they'd started with. Sammy and Toland both get drunk; Mavis and Riley go off to a movie. Sammy wants Toland to make love to him, but Toland is still leery of revealing his sexual orientation to Sammy and refuses. Instead, Sammy has Toland drive him to a mysterious address that turns out to be the publisher of the "Dixie Patriot." Sammy screams abuse and tries to get into the house as Toland desperately tries to drag him away. The publisher throws Sammy out, and Toland gets him into the car. However, later that evening, Toland hears a noise in the back yard, and when he goes outside to investigate, someone hits him on the back of the head. He wakes up and staggers into the forest behind the Wheelery, and his forehead hits a pair of feet dangling in mid-air...

Tony Kushner, Tony-award-winning playwright of Angels in America, supplied an elegantly written introduction; Cruse supplied an afterword in which he detailed his research and acknowledged all the people who helped make the book possible.

This is an amazing, moving story that I have read at least six times now and still cry over. Although this is by no means an autobiograpy of Howard Cruse, as some people apparently believe, he did grow up in Birmingham, AL, during the civil rights movement, and he did draw material from many friends and news accounts of the period. (The amount of research he did for this book was impressive and ought to serve as an object lesson to comics creators writing about what they don't know.) Cruse weaves past, present, and more recent past together very nicely as Toland recalls not only the "Kennedy Time" of the main story but of events in his childhood and in later years. The characters are extremely well drawn and sympathetic (except for the hardcore racists, of course). Toland could have been bland, as so many leading men are, but he comes off as a real person with good and bad traits, confused about many things yet eager to do the right thing and willing to take some risks (but unfortunately not all). And Cruse does a nice job with the "casual" racists of Clayfield, the people like Toland's parents who are serenly convinced of white superiority but who refuse to use the N-word or read the "Dixie Patriot."

The story is surprisingly sad in the whole; few victories are won, and because the racist forces have the backing of the police force, little or nothing is done when someone is killed. The major victory in the book is Toland's self-acceptance, which comes in full mainly because of Sammy Noone's death. Even when the park protesters win an injunction against the Chopper and preserve their park, official distaste prevents the fence around the park from coming down for months. Still, the ultimate message is positive. Toland has settled into a happy life with his partner; Ginger is performing around the country; and the Chopper is a pathetic old relic of the segregationist era. Even Orley, embodiment of all the nastiness inherent in the Clayfield culture, is partially redeemed.

Cruse is the best-known gay cartoonist and has won numerous awards for this and other titles. His black-and-white art is inherently cartoonish, but in Stuck Rubber Baby he employs a more realistic style. It's exceptionally detailed and shows his mastery of the form, with many cinematic angles and creative uses of text and panels. Another pleasure was that the characters are very distinctly drawn; even the similar-looking Riley and Sammy were noticeably different. (One way you can see Cruse's skill in this department is to look at the cover after you've read the book and see how many of the characters you recognize.) The only artistic problem I noted was that on occasion a white character looked black--too much cross-hatching.

Only a few little things detracted from my complete enjoyment of the book. There are a number of scenes where two characters, usually Toland and Ginger or Toland and Anna Dellyne, just sit and talk. These are not especially interesting scenes. Also, the minor character Raeburn, a black man who is hostile and suspicious about Toland when he first comes to Les's party, seems to be set up to cause trouble later, but nothing much is done with his character afterwards.

This book has been compared favorably to Maus, and while I can't say that it is the equal of that venerable title, it's definitely one of the Great Graphic Novels--a book that tells a terrific story via the comics format in a way that a "straight" novel cannot equal. A must-read and a must-own, and an essential part of a graphic novel collection.

Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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