From Hard by Wayne Hoffman

Each month, in coordination with our reading series in New York, the Forward publishes an excerpt from the work of that month’s series’ guest or guests. This month, we will feature readings by Aaron Hamburger and Forward managing editor Wayne Hoffman (for full details, please see sidebar). Below is an excerpt from Hoffman’s debut novel “Hard,” out next month from Carroll & Graf. For more information, please visit the new section of our Web site, www.forward.com/noveljews.

It was a small gathering — Carolyn, her parents, her brother and sister-in-law, and a college-aged cousin who was attending Barnard. Moe had known Carolyn Guttmacher for two years, had met her father Abe twice in the office at Footlights. Everyone else was new to him, but like any good Jewish family, they welcomed with open arms any Jewish acquaintance who was “orphaned” for the holiday.

At Moe’s parents’ house outside Baltimore — although he was now a “secular” Jew, he’d been raised Conservative — the Seder was a much bigger affair, with two dozen relatives and friends of the family, lasting many hours and including a broad assortment of prayers, songs, and recitations in English, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The Guttmachers were Reform, and their Seder was simpler. After a few quick readings in English, a handful of prayers in Hebrew (spelled out phonetically in their Haggadahs), they were ready for “the festive meal.” Moe’s family would have taken an hour and a half to get through the first half of the Seder; the Guttmachers took about 20 minutes. Not that Moe minded.

During the meal, the table split into two or three conversations. Moe was seated between Carolyn and her father, an old-school Upper West Side Jewish liberal who had worked in newspapers for 30 years. In addition to Footlights, he published the West Side Citizen, the East Side Report (which was mostly the same as the Citizen, with different ads and a different cover), and a dance-oriented magazine called Step.

With her shoulder-length, straight brown hair and angular face, Carolyn physically resembled her mother more than her father, with his wavy gray hair, chubby face, and teeth yellowed from smoking. In terms of attitude, however, she was clearly her father’s daughter — both were driven and direct, unlikely to suffer fools but quick to support anyone they favored — which was why they worked together well, even if they bickered.

“We’re glad you could join us, Moe,” Abe said as he passed Moe the sweet potatoes.

“Yeah, my parents always wanted me to bring home a nice Jewish boy,” Carolyn — over 30 and still single — said in Moe’s other ear.

“Mine, too,” said Moe.

She laughed.

“Carolyn tells me that you’ve been quite upset with the state of gay journalism in New York,” Abe said. “Is it that bad?”

“You’d be surprised,” said Moe. “We have a bar rag called The A-List — which is fine for what it is, but it’s not a newspaper — and then we have this one awful paper called Outrageous, run by an old-time activist named Frank DeSoto who’s so burned out, he thinks being radical means shouting the loudest. He’s arch-conservative in many ways, and nobody reads his paper or advertises in it. But it’s the only thing we’ve got right now.”

Carolyn piped in. “Don’t forget, Moe, that there are plenty of other publications with gay content, gay editors, and gay readers. Like the Voice.”

Abe nodded: “That’s true.”

Moe had heard this before. “It’s great that places like the Voice cover gay issues once in a while, but that’s not the same thing as having a community newspaper,” he said. He turned to Abe. “The Times does a lot of reporting on Jewish issues, and has dozens of Jewish writers and a ton of Jewish readers, but you wouldn’t say that means a Jewish press is obsolete, would you?”

“Good point,” said Abe, who read the Jewish press only occasionally, but subscribed to three or four Jewish publications nonetheless.

“Besides, sometimes those other papers are a bit hazy on where gay politics should be right now,” Moe continued. “For instance, Emmett Kane wrote a piece in the Voice last month…”

“I read that,” said Carolyn.

“Me, too,” said Abe. “Was there a problem with that? I know Emmett Kane is a well-respected gay activist. I’ve read his stuff in the Voice before, and in the Times, too. If I remember, this column was about fighting AIDS, right? What was the problem with that?”

Abe lit a cigarette, and Carolyn made coughing noises. Abe glowered for a moment, then shifted his cigarette to his other hand as Moe explained: Emmett Kane had a long history as an AIDS activist, and that was something that Moe couldn’t assail — not entirely, anyway. He’d been one of the first to rail against the Catholic Church, the United Nations, and the U.S. government for their inaction in the early years of the epidemic. But lately, he’d been siding with Frank DeSoto and the mayor over the crackdowns, and when he wrote about AIDS now, he didn’t find anyone to blame but gay men themselves. Blaming gay men for their own deaths, and siding with an anti-gay mayor who was closing down gay businesses by pretending it was in the name of public health was more than reprehensible, Moe argued — it was counterproductive from the perspective of AIDS prevention.

“AIDS activists are never going to succeed by forcing sex underground and shaming people into lying about their sexual behavior,” Moe said as Carolyn and Abe ate, listening attentively. “And gay activists are never going to succeed if they abandon the fundamental idea that consenting adults should be able to control their own bodies.”

Abe took a puff. “You should write all that down, Moe. You’ve got a very strong point of view.”

“That’s just it,” he replied. “I did write it down. But there’s nowhere to print it. The Voice rejected my column in favor of Emmett Kane’s. Outrageous is run by one of the leading proponents of the mayor’s crackdown — he wouldn’t even run a letter to the editor that I wrote because he disagreed with me. And The A-List doesn’t want to get into anything ‘political.’ This is why we need a real gay newspaper. Not just one man’s rant sheet, but a real newspaper where these things can get aired.”

Carolyn jumped in. “And then they can refuse to print articles by people they disagree with!”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Moe said.

“I was only kidding, Moe.”

“I’m sorry, Carolyn. You know I take this stuff seriously.”

Abe raised a finger of caution. “It’s not a sin to take things seriously. You’re talking about important issues.”

Carolyn’s mother stood behind them: “My, my, quite the heavy discussion at this end of the table. If I can interrupt, I’ll clear your plates and bring out dessert.”

Moe turned to Carolyn: “When do we start the second half of the Seder?” The second half was Moe’s favorite, with all the songs he learned as a child.

“We don’t do a second half,” she said. “We’re Reform.”

For a moment, Moe was disappointed. Then he realized he’d have more time later that night to play with Max, his current obsession, and he forgot about Emmett Kane, Frank DeSoto, and the Israelites wandering through the desert for 40 long years.

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From Hard by Wayne Hoffman

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