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Book Review: Dirk Vanden Gives His All

Pre-Stonewall Novel Broke the “Fag-Hot” Mold

When is the last time you read a stroke-book twice?

Have you ever even finished a stroke-book once? Did you then display it on your bookshelf in the permanent collection, or did you tear it to shreds and toss it in the landfill before your mom, your wife or your lover found it?

In 1969, a few months before the Stonewall Riots broke out in June, a fly-by-night publisher issued a title by Dirk Vanden called “I Want It All” as part of a throwaway series called Frenchy’s Gay Line, sold only in dirty bookstores, two bucks a pop. But “I Want It All” turned out to be a real novel, winning a respected place in the history of Gay Lit. The wonder is, it’s just as hot and every bit as readable today.

I’ve just finished my second read of the 1995 reprint from Brass Ring Books; it’s a remarkable little piece. Yes, it will get you hard, but it also takes you on a young man’s 1200-mile journey of self-discovery, love and affirmation.

Through Richard Nixon’s America! “I Want It All” is quite an achievement.

Vanden knows how to tell a story as Aristotle taught: starting in the right place, where the action must start; through the middle on to the end, where it must stop. The hero Warren Miller, a 27-year-old Colorado cowboy (who mostly shovels manure for a living), transforms by becoming true to himself. It’s Gay Liberation, baby, before the Stonewall drag queens invented it.

The violent opening chapter, featuring a gang rape, not only sets the action in motion, it begins Warren’s transformation. A second reading actually makes the scene less repulsive than this description, as Vanden provides clear signals of the characters’ motives and reactions. There’s more than one layer here, which makes the reader want to find out what’s going on.

The book also ends with seeming violence, but the participants get off, understand each other better (and trade phone numbers).

Along the way we get treated to Warren’s unhappy experiences with hustling, the hostility between old-school “sweater girls” and Leather-Levi Marlboro Men, a mild pup-play 3-way, interracial tearoom highjinks, a toss in the sling, a psychedelic mushroom-and-piss orgy and Warren’s first fuck by the man of his dreams in a San Francisco bathhouse.

Through it all Vanden wrestles with the Gay self-destructive impulse we now call internalized homophobia. Warren notices it in every Gay guy he meets—and rejects it. The novel isn’t preachy in the least, but it does probe real issues we haven’t yet resolved: how, in a homophobic world, do we undo the hateful programming we grew up with and come to an understanding of what it means to be human?

Don’t miss the Preface; Neil Armstrong had just landed on the Moon after a superhuman, multi-billion-dollar effort, and Vanden wonders why we can’t spend the same kind of money to figure out Homo sapiens.

“I Want It All” is ultimately a love story by one Gay guy to all Gay guys. I disagree with his ending, but many will find it understandable and satisfying; Warren gets the guy, but not on the terms dictated by The World.

What’s amazing about this book is that it isn’t a period piece, though it is very much of a certain flower-power time. It reads today like a modern movie, set in the past, that’s still contemporary. We’re still working through many of these issues, politically, psychologically, spiritually and in our physical health. Much has changed but much has not. This visionary author even invokes Gay marriage.

For Vanden to produce a work like this in 1969, on stroke-book wages, is a singular achievement. The main character doesn’t kill himself, he fucks his way across the West and falls in love. Wow.

Get in early for “I Want It All’s” 40th anniversary next year. Buy it today, starting here.++

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