I am reviewing this book because, to date, no one else has done so. That is a crime. "A Smile in His Lifetime" may be the best Gay book ever written.
It is certainly the best Bisexual one.
It is a story of obsession, as sensitive, married, impoverished writer Whit Miller goes off the deep end for his down-canyon neighbor, a seldom-available ne'er-do-well with "stud" written all over him.
Whit's wife Dell makes ends meet, simultaneously emasculating him and supporting him in his writing. He mustn't do physical labor around their dilapidated house, she warns; he must protect his hands so he can type.
So he types, sometimes, but no one cares; very few people, anyway. Whit knows he'd spend his days better patching the roof, but Dell insists he come down; so he does.
She eventually runs off with a "real" man Whit envies and despises, then a second tragedy strikes: Whit sells a book. Not only does it sell, it's a huge hit. He gets totally disoriented. Success makes it even harder for him to connect with another person. A sudden bigshot, he gets involved with a bunch of hippies, has a heterosexual tryst under a pier, but the only creature who really cares for him is his cat.
What makes this a great novel? That's a lot to claim, and I don't tout books lightly. This is art, in my opinion, because Mr. Hansen has captured the quintessence of Gay men: we are lovers. More than dickhounds or drag queens, we want to be husbands. To my knowledge, this is the first book to point that out. As throbbing and insistent as the sexual impulse is, our need and ability to love is stronger than sex. Whit is often foolish; he is never insincere. He thinks constantly of the best interests of others, and wears his heart on his sleeve, knowing it will be broken repeatedly. He's not a masochist, he just wants someone to belong to.
You can't help thinking, he deserves that.
He succeeds in his work, but wanders clueless in life. Sometimes success is worse than failure, especially in California. Have you ever known a happy movie star?
I've read "Smile" half a dozen times; my most recent reaction was more critical than before, as I finally got tired of all the anti-Gay epithets the author uses. But then, internalized homophobia is the Gay man's biggest problem, and Mr. Hansen seems to recognize that, without solving it. What would Whit's life have been if he hadn't gotten married, but found an emotionally open, available Gay guy to love? Maybe he'd have constantly lusted after the elusive rough trade; or maybe he'd have discovered something masculine in his lover, the decorator.
Stereotypes aside, love is a tricky and tragic business; for all Whit's talent, he succumbs like the rest of us. His heart not only gets broken, it stays that way. At least he's always got his cat--until a storm blows up...
Read this book with your highlighter pen nearby, as Hansen's phrase-making will put you in awe. He is a stylist of the first magnitude, who has never received the recognition he deserves from Gay readers. He puts the Lavender Quill crowd to shame; they yammer endlessly about pecs and pricey merchandise, obscure opera stars and viruses, while Whit Miller falls in love impossibly, stirring his coffee "little boy-style" with lots of cream and sugar to mask its bitterness. Maybe it's better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all; or maybe the most we can hope for is a loyal housepet.++