by Joseph Cassara
New York’s underground drag ball scene flourished in the early 1980s. These glitzy, elaborately-themed events rose with meteoric intensity from the Harlem district, bringing with them an immense euphoria and camaraderie among the area’s prominent LGBT population.
The House of Impossible Beauties follows the often complicated lives of several homogeneous characters from their confused, abused, traumatic childhoods to the magnificent heydays of their in-your-face draggery and wild expressionism.
New Jersey born author, Joseph Cassara, readily acknowledges that several of his novel’s characters are based on historical figures (Venus Xtravaganza, Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey may be familiar names to some readers), and locations in which much of his narrative is set, such as Christopher Street Pier – a once vibrant cruising spot, which is still a popular gathering place for young gay people – are now legendary landmarks.
The House of Xtravaganza is one of the most famous and enduring ‘houses’ (a sort of surrogate family for individuals of mixed gender identities), brought to prominence in the groundbreaking 1990 film documentary, Paris is Burning. Cassara’s protagonist, Angel – the founding member and ‘Mother’ of this all-Latino collective – is quite obviously based on Angie Xtravaganza, the very real transgender star of the Harlem ball scene. Her drag daughter, Venus, and other members of the group are adopted ‘house children’, a close-knit coterie who engage in sex work in order to survive. They strive to defend, dignify and elevate one another, but are heartbreakingly vulnerable and can do nothing to protect their beloved hermanas from a mysterious sickness, often referred to by the predominantly unsympathetic and scaremongering media as a ‘gay plague’.
Cassara’s Hispanic trans-women and butch queens are sassy, charismatic and brave, and his exceptional debut novel is a humane microhistory of their uninhibited but precarious lives on the drag circuit of a bygone era.