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.
Many thanks to Oneworld Publications for supplying an advance review copy of this title.
This is the second review I’ve come across of what appears to be an excellent novel and certainly one which is relevant to many current social discussions. I think it has the potential to be an excellent book group choice and I shall recommend it to my evening group, I think.
Yes, I’m sure it would be an excellent book group choice – as long as the members aren’t too prudish. I found myself really emotionally invested in the characters and they were fun people to be around: sassy and brave in the face of adversity. I also loved the Spanglish spoken by the Latino community!
This sounds so unique! I haven’t heard of this book but I definitely want to check it out. Lovely review! 😊
Thank you, Analee. I hope you enjoy as much as I did. ☺️
As social barriers keep falling books like this will continue to gain popularity, great review.
Thank you so much, Rosie. I so hope this happens! 😃
I hadn’t heard of this book but it sounds amazing. I’m requesting in right now. Great review and thanks for bringing it to my attention.
You’re very welcome, Ann. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Look forward to reading your review.
I hadn’t known anything about this book until I read this post — so thank you for putting it on my radar! 🙂
Thank you, Jessica. You’re very welcome. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 😊
I hadn’t heard of the book or the author before, but the title pulled me in and your review sealed the deal. I’ll have to add this to my list!
Thank you, Sarabi. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 😊