READ FOR FILTH: THE HOUSE OF IMPOSSIBLE BEAUTIES
Hello heauxs and hunties, I’m here to spill the tea on the June book club pick, The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara, which follows the lives of Latinx gay and transgender club kids in 1980’s New York City. First, let me get a few things out of the way—I’m a hetero, cisgender, married woman, and I am not Latina (I’m white and Filipina, the latter of which does somewhat feel Latinx-adjacent—both our cultures use the world ‘culo’). As a reader, I’m very much on the outside of the world covered in this book, which specifically focuses on the all-Latina House Xtravaganza, drag culture, Harlem ballrooms, and the looming threat of AIDS. I’m just a basic bish from Northbrook, IL who legitimately enjoys pumpkin spice, so I want to acknowledge from the get-go that I am tourist, peering in. In a post-Drag-Race-on-VH1 world, a culture that used to be an underground safe space for so many people is now co-opted by us breeders on a daily basis (even my dad now knows what “Sissy that walk” means), and it’s super important to understand what it was truly like to be a LGBTQIA+ person at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic—especially for People of Color who were living close to the poverty line with little to no access to affordable health care, which was the case for the ensemble at the heart of this novel.
The House of Impossible Beauties follows a house created by a seventeen-year-old trans girl named Angel, and her lover, Hector. It’s loosely based on the real House of Xtravaganza, which you can learn more about in the essential documentary Paris is Burning. The early ballroom scene of the 80s was a place where trans and queer people could come together to safely and freely express their sexuality, gender, artistry, creativity, and sickening dance skills; this is where Madonna stole voguing from. However, you shouldn’t dive into this book expecting a novelized account of a campy, fabulous, life-affirming dance party. Things get dark quickly.
First of all, there’s only a few brief scenes actually set during a ball. The vast majority of the book follows Angel and her house ‘rescues’: Venus, a young trans woman and drag performer; Juanito, a drag queen-in-training; and Daniel, a masculine-presenting gay man who makes all the girls thirsty. The novel vacillates between each character’s point of view in a loosely flowing narrative. The author Joseph Cassara is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop so I blame his professors and classmates for the artsy structure and lack of easily recognizable rising action leading to a satisfying climax. However, the characters Cassara created are instantly memorable, complex, and alluring. I instantly fell in love with each of them. And like most youthful, passion-fueled relationships, this love would only lead to a broken heart.
Early in the novel, Angel loses her lover Hector to AIDS, and she never quite recovers from her staggering grief. Venus longs for a rich Prince Charming to rescue her from her life as a sex worker. Juanito and Daniel’s flirtation turns into a touching romance, but they remain haunted and scarred by past traumas. We as the reader follow each member of House Xtravaganza through their lives and early 80’s New York, into cars with johns, along to shitty day jobs working for minimum wage, and on shopping excursions to worship at the altar of the Chanel suit. One of my favorite things about this book is the strength of its characters’ voices. Cassara peppers Spanish words and phrases throughout the text, along with slang popularized in the 80’s club and ball scenes. The language adds to the authentic feeling of the story, complementing the heart and craft poured into the characters.
There’s much tragedy to found in the stories of Angel, Venus, Juanito, and Daniel. However, you can tell that Cassara doesn’t intend for us to judge his characters’ choices. By stepping into their shoes, we understand the reasons that Angel pushes her girls into sex work, or that Venus turns to drugs to numb her pain. We feel compassion and love for them even as we scream into the page for them to stop heading towards danger. There isn’t much catharsis to be found in the ending, and I don’t blame people who choose another book rather than subject themselves to yet another story of trans and gay pain. But I do think it’s important that art like this exists. Maybe this is just me assuming that everyone else in the world is way, way younger than me (because they are, SOB), but it’s vital to know this history and that LGBTQIA+ culture is so much more than ‘purse first’ memes. We need to remember how hard fought this battle has been, and how many brothers and sisters didn’t make it through.