On Robert Ferro’s Second Son
Robert Ferro’s fourth novel, Second Son, was published in 1988, the year of the author’s death from AIDS, and is dedicated to his partner, the writer Michael Grumley, who predeceased him by just two months. It is now being reissued by Requeered Tales. Robert died at his father’s place in New Jersey, not far from the beach house where much of Second Son is set--a sprawling home that overlooks an ocean of undersea cities, familial drama, and the hopes of countless men stolen by a vast, cruel tide.
Mark Valerian, the second son in question, part of a large, complicated family, enters an affair exacerbated by AIDS while conversely elevated through the best that love has to offer: vibrant connection. Our lovers were introduced by Mark’s friend Matthew Black via letters to Rome, the eternal city, where Mark was working and Bill Macky was visiting. Matthew was sequestered in the balmy purgatory that is Florida to take care of his invalid mother –a story so reminiscent of the main character’s circumstances in Andrew Holleran’s 1996 novel The Beauty of Men as to more than hint at Matthew Black’s real-life inspiration. This is pure speculation on my part; however, both Ferro and Holleran were members of the storied yet short-lived gay writer’s group the Violet Quill.
Ten years after Second Son was published, I moved to New York City at the age of 28 to belatedly come out of the closet. I entered a wondrous and frightening maze of bookstores and nightclubs. As a ravenous reader, an entirely new world of gay books awaited me; as I read, lived, and loved, I also started to write, and to meet other gay authors. I would ask these writers for recommendations and often hear the same refrain, “If you can find it, it’s out of print.” Flummoxed that so many of the books I found so fascinating were only available as dusty, used, or remaindered copies, I set about editing The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, inviting gay writers I knew or had recently read to contribute an essay about a favorite novel or short story collection that had slipped out of print. Each in turn was asked to invite another writer to the project, which is how I met Stephen Greco and was introduced to the stellar, literary feat that is Robert Ferro’s third novel, The Blue Star. Stephen was friends with Robert and Michael, and a frequent guest at the aforementioned beach house. In his essay, he regales readers with a magical treasure hunt he left behind for the couple after a weekend stay; this is doubly fantastic as it replicates the secret, otherworldly voyages that exist in both The Blue Star and Second Son and their jointly authored nonfiction book Atlantis: Autobiography of a Search. Years later, Stephen invited me to serve as a judge for the Ferro-Grumley Award, a much-coveted annual prize he directs, that not only honors their namesake but energizes our literary heritage by celebrating the new and noteworthy.
I encourage readers who are curious about Robert Ferro to not only explore these magnificent reprints, but to dip into the powerful tribute, edited by Edmund White, Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, wherein contributors honor the lives and works of a devastating array of creative souls taken by that plague. In his essay on Robert Ferro, Felice Picano adds much personal depth and truly delicious literary gossip to the Ferro story, complete with a supposed haunting by Robert: when his family considered selling the beach house after his passing, Felice and Stephen helped reassure his restless spirit with a graveside picnic with both authors, who are laid to rest side-by-side.
The return of this indisputable gay classic allows new generations to marvel at Ferro’s virtuosity as a writer:
In the morning light they showed each other the spots on their bodies. Except for two in his neck, Bill’s were confined to his left arm and leg. All that remained on Mark were small scars from six or seven lesions that had been removed, and others on the bottom of his right foot that he intended to take care of at home.
“Why did you have them removed? Bill asked, touching Mark’s foot the way Dr. Thompson did, fearlessly, with tactile interest.
“They seemed like little factories to me. I shut them down. No one agrees.”
With sheets around their shoulders and cups of coffee, they went up to the terrace and sat where they had made love the night before, watching the birds dart in and out of a milky blue mist. Farther reaches of the city slowly came into focus. A single bell rang out with a clarity lacking in everything else . . . eight, nine, ten, eleven. You could see in the sound a little man in robes with a hammer . . . twelve, thirteen, fourteen.
“This is it,” Bill said. “Perfection, two thousand years later.”
After reading this passage, among the most poignant in AIDS literature, I found it was time to put down the book: seven o’clock, New York City, April 2020. I shifted from my bed and into the kitchen. Moving from one of the early great works of literature concerning an epidemic that is far from over to a new ritual during a pandemic that had just begun, I leaned out my open window in downtown Brooklyn and joined the multitudes clapping and hooting and hollering in honor of the first responders as Covid-19 ravaged my city. My formerly pristine hardback copy of Second Son lay open on gray sheets, open like brave tales told regardless of the outcome, open like the joy of a song sung at dusk in spite of how dark the coming night, open like the thousands of palms striking one another out of New York City windows, open like the pair of hands holding this new copy of Second Son, decades later.
This is how we persist.
Tom Cardamone is the editor of Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, and is the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb as well as the erotic fantasy The Lurid Sea and other works of fiction, including two short story collections. Additionally, he has edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered. You can read more about him and his writings at www.pumpkinteeth.net.