Bread & Wine: Fantagraphics reissues a timeless romantic masterpiece about a dystopian prophet and a homeless man
It all started with an act of kindness to a passer-by. A man saw a paperback copy of Norman Podheretz's Making It as part of a used book sale spread out on a blanket on the street, and asked the flith-smeared fellow who placed it there how much he wanted for it. It was just a couple of bucks, but when the buyer reached for his wallet, he found it wasn't there, he'd left it at home. He laughed about this to the homeless man selling the books, who let him take it then anyways, suggesting he drop by the money when he walked by the sidewalk dispayed later, as he had done in the past. The first man came back and paid, and visited again and again. Eventually, the first man would take the second man home and make him his lover of many decades. And they're still together.
Visionary science fiction author and professor emeritus Samuel R. Delany was the lucky book purchaser, and Dennis was the hard-drinking but also hard-working, homeless man. Without the former being a writer (and a truly excellent one at that), we might never have known this bizarre and touching story. Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books Inc. has just celebrated the men's long-running, happy relationship by putting back out Delany's graphic novel Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York, illustrated by Mia Wolff. I have often heard this story, and wondered about the particulars of it. The implicit mercy, compassion, empathy, and excitement is unavoidable to anyone who gets the shorthand version. But major props to Fantagraphics for reprinting the 44-page page personal history (in superbly produced hardcover treatment), as the nuances and negotiations of "Chip" Delany and Dennis starting a life together haven't been fully explored otherwise.
In the generous conversational afterwords in the back of the book, Delany himself questions what necessitated this autobiography to be a comic book. And his response makes perfect sense: Wolff's artwork, helps one put their mind around the idea of a mutual seduction between a cerebral, academic, privileged black man and a poor, psychically damaged, ill-of-health white man without housing or basic necessities. Though sketchy with profiles and shaky with psoses thoughout, Wolff delightfully de-abstracts the human connection being made. We see Dennis through Chip's eyes; instead of just thinking about the layers of dirt and grime we're often told about he had on him when they first started hanging out; we see the tender face and big, nail-bitten hands of a hard-scrabble romantic underneath. Chip comes to be a caring friend and lover, and the weeks and months of conversing and telling each other what they really wanted before continuing the relationship domestically helps one resist thoughts that this was simply some sort of Christ-like act of charity or sexual or economic exploitation. Oh, and back to the artwork: When it, say, focuses on the boot that had been worn by Dennis for months at a time and is then removed, you can smell from how it looks in Wolff's drawing of it. And when the men scramble together into a several-day long lovemaking after a couple of baths and a shower for Dennis, which is how they started things off, Wolff's lines convey all the erotic beauty and happy recognition that can happen when two very different people physically make this sort of connection.
For such a tight story, driven by the everyday suspense of possible seduction mingled with the fears and doubts of men alien to each other's worlds, there are a lot of little extras. Dennis's previous life back story is heart-shattering; I'd rather not exploit or give it away here, but it reminded me of people I'd known in housing for the homeless who had gotten that way by a singular horrible experience that exasperated a clusterfuck of deep cosmic blues. Let's say it's understandable why he felt traumatized enough to avoid his family completely and make his own living watching out for illegally parked cars for their owners and selling used tomes on the sidewalk.
Delany restrains himself from talking about his work, but is extremely open about the feelings of awkwardness he had working at a university where students' needs weren't always met by the politics of his position. He also, in one of the updates, sadly relays a situation early on in his relationship with Dennis in which he was inside a restaurant eating sushi while his lover, still dirty and homeless, was outside. It still bothers him deeply, but their romance hadn't completely flourished at that point yet, and Dennis says he understood at the time and barely remember it now, after years of happiness with Chip. Delany's regret about this reveals the thorns of his conscience though. And this is one of the reasons this book is so remarkable: In popular culture, relationships are often seen as strictly virtuous, without desire, or based on raw sex, compartmentalized into impulsive behavior. Bread & Wine successfully and sweetly crosses the boundaries not only of gender in romance between two main characters, but also how the classes can relate in the real world, and what we really mean to each other. Sure, Delany opened his home up to a man without one, after both confirmed attraction to each other -- but then later, Dennis nurses him through several health attacks, including prostate cancer.
Finishing the book, you are struck by how we really need each other in so many different ways, and sometimes awesomely all in the same person.