Published by Ecco
Publication date: February 6th 2018
Genres: Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Historical
“Passing is an art form, darling. It’s a craft. And just like any craft, the artistic ideal is always impossible to achieve. We can try and try and try as hard as possible to pass as a woman, but if I’m a biological man, I can only go up to a certain point. The rest is all imagination.”
John Cassara pumps up the beat from the very beginning of his debut novel, The House of Impossible Beauties. It’s 1980 in New York City and Angel is tired of living in her boy body. She’s sixteen and has been hiding herself from everyone (most especially her mother) until she finally meets Dorian, the living legend of queens in the ballroom scene. Like that, Angel flips the switch, leaving behind the body she was given to dress as the woman she knows she is. When she meets Hector, an older man who wants to be a dancer, they decide to start their own house—a place where other young men can live and be emotionally supported as they venture into the world of the drag. The novel follows their lives for the next decade as they try and make space for themselves in a world that does not accept them.
Initially in The House of Impossible Beauties, the shift from given names (male) to female makes for the illusion of a much larger cast and can be confusing. Once the sequins settle the novel centers around Angel, the mother of the house Xtravaganza and the three ‘children’ who live with her: Venus, a pre-op transsexual; Juanito, a young queen who wants to rule in the ballroom, and Daniel, the young man who falls in love with Juanito. Angel and Hector provide them with a home—a place to sleep, eat, and have the security their original families did not provide.
Angel, Juanito, Venus, and Daniel are similar in a number of ways. All are in their teens for much of the novel, are alienated from their families because of their sexuality, and so have been living on their own since they came out. Sadly, sex is the only currency they know and they use it to trade for the money they need to live. The other thing they all have in common, aside from wanting to be fierce, is their Latin background. Cassara highlights their ethnicity by using Spanish words throughout the narrative, not just in the dialogue, but in all of the narrative. Most of the time, he does so in a way that makes the meaning clear, but there are times when a word is repeatedly used and there’s no way (as a middle-aged white woman) to know that it is not just slang, but a slur. So, while it gives the novel a bold exuberance it can be distracting when the meaning isn’t clear.
The House of Impossible Beauties is one of those debuts where, as I’m reading I’m thinking, “There’s promise here, but not quite yet.” Cassara’s characters are brassy and beautiful, full of energy and hope despite facing both economic and social obstacles. They care, deeply, but the need to be who they are is stronger. In this way, the novel felt much like the characters themselves—wanting so much to be taken seriously, to be seen. This fervent desire often comes off as socially awkward with too much information being revealed and lost threads in characters’ lives. I hoped for a novel about the House of Xtravaganza and life at the clubs, but Cassara spends very little time in sharing the joy of the drag world. It didn’t need to be all glitter and love, but the graphic and often violent sex, the prostitution, drugs, deprivation, intolerance and abuse make it hard to understand why anyone would choose such a difficult life. Which may be the point, but without pleasure to balance out the pain The House of Impossible Beauties ends up feeling like grim non-fiction about the desperate lives of desperate people.