The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara
The House of Impossible Beauties delivers one of the most vital things a novel can offer: a vivid and personal glimpse into a subculture that existing media has yet to examine with in the depth it’s due. Joseph Cassara’s debut novel explores the drag queen scene throughout various phases of the eighties, complete with beauty balls, prostitution, drug addiction, and fractured families. The majority of American society rejects their lifestyle and makes no effort to understand, so naturally they take refuge with people of like-minded views on gender identity. This makes it all the more surprising, and tragically illuminating, that even within the ranks of the transgender community there is just as much identity confusion and mistrust. This is a story about the secrets that are kept, and the feelings left unspoken, which tear at the foundation of the familial unit at the novel’s heart. The characters emerge from fractured families that have largely disowned them, and the novel tracks their banding together as a new team to make an attempt toward attaining some version of their dreams. The obstacles and tragic flaws that plague the crew certainly stack the odds against them, and such a portrayal is an honest representation that bolsters the novel’s relevance.
The word transgender isn’t a key player in the narrative, but the inner workings of the drag queen community take center stage, and the narration uses the pronoun “she” to refer to biological males without hesitation. In seperate threads, we meet the four principal players who eventually come to form House Xtravaganza, an apartment of familial support led by their de facto “mother,” Angel. The house is the home base of advice and guidance for Venus, Juanito and Daniel, who make ends meet primarily by turning tricks down at the city’s piers. The house gradually recruits members and cultivates the skill sets and mental fortitude necessary to persevere in their sphere. Though they live within a profoundly difficult sector of society, the bond of love and spiritual advisement among the team helps them strive toward their personal goals through the gauntlet of 1980s New York City.
And what a vicious gauntlet they must run. New York doesn’t care who you are and doesn’t hesitate to chew you up, and each principal character feels its bite in their own way. Daily life involves dilapidated subways, seemingly mutant rats, a persistent piss smell, and combative drivers. A cornucopia of drugs is always available within a few blocks of anywhere, permeating the underworld in which Angel and her crew operate. Whoring in this district rough going, so the crew desperately needs any sanctuary the House offers. After all, life in this town is difficult enough for any person—try being a biological male who identifies and dresses as a female. House Xtravaganza speaks for the small segment of the population that is usually invisible except when they’re “in the way.” In various degrees the house members were each disowned by their families, and Xtravaganza provides a precious opportunity for a welcoming family they can opt into. Being the 1980s, HIV is another vicious antagonist in the army of fate that strikes at them. House has no shortage of unhappy endings as the disease snuffs out brightly shining candles all too soon. A lot of these unfortunate fates are a punch in the reader’s stomach, but to sugar coat this reality would have done a tremendous disservice to the depiction of this community’s real struggle.
Author Joseph Cassara effortlessly gets us to root for his heroines, who for all their complexity, are ultimately good-hearted people with benevolent intentions. This makes it all the more frustrating when they stumble along the way—not only under siege by their unforgiving city, but by their tragic tendency to take refuge in instant gratification. The house members have a great many worthy goals: leave the prostitution scene to get married, obtain a house with a picket fence (perhaps with a washer and dryer), get their sex change operation for real, and finally, raise children. We want to believe that all the rough hustling is a temporary means to an end, but the protagonists’ susceptibility to superficial, merely symbolic goals keeps them spinning their wheels for years. Angel plots to save up for ten months in order to buy a Chanel suit. In a personal moment of crisis, Venus decides to get a drastic haircut to be reborn as a “new me,” willfully ignoring the persistent chaos of her internal life. In lieu of making realistic progress toward the aforementioned picket fence, Junatio becomes obsessed with buying Daniel a two thousand dollar sofa; the desperate measures he employs in this attempt descends into Requiem for a Dream territory. It’s heartbreaking to watch these characters continually defer their progress toward safe and substantial stability. They believe they are making strides toward their destination, in denial of the persisting stasis of their squalor. Cassarra is under no illusions about this, and presents their plight with precision, awareness, and tragic elegance.
House of Impossible Beauties is bound to be labled as an entry into the “Latino voices” category, but in practice, what does this actually involve? Both dialogue and narration are peppered with Spanish vocabulary, largely limited to elementary sentence builders such as but, because, and why. Initially, the presentation may confuse readers without Spanish familiarity, but gradually there are enough sentences with sufficient context to deduce these words’ definitions, at which point congratulations, you deduced that pero = but. Unfortunately, Cassara never establishes why these extensively-used linguistic word games are justified in any foundation of substance—they read as little more than minority points for their own sake. In one moment of unintended irony, Junito begs his mother in English (please, please) followed by Spanish (por favor, por favor), with the narrator scoffing at the idea that begging might hold a different weight depending on the language(!). These linguistic distractions are unfortunate in particular because, rather than a narrow study on the unique experience of a specific racial group, House is the visceral, necessary human story of people struggling to tread water in a society that shuns them for their sexual identity and line of work. Once you do out the math, the ethnic box-ticking elements can be forgiven since this universally valid narrative is presented so elegantly from a place of truth and grit.
This third-person novel occasionally pauses for first-person sections by Dorian, a power player in the drag ball culture of the time. He serves as a voice-of-reason Greek chorus, dishing out broad sentiments a la Sex in the City voiceover, his portions serving as nonfiction mini-essays representing the drag zeitgeist. He explains that a biological man striving to attain certain levels of feminine beauty might be impossible, but that shouldn’t prevent someone from trying. By the novel’s conclusion, the jury’s still out as to whether this is sound advice, since the characters maintain lofty, largely symbolic goals and employ many self-destructive methods in their attempts to attain them. What is evident, however, is that these are no doubt benevolent humans who deserve happiness, and who make a conscious, communally-minded effort to strive for sustainable accomplishment. Even if their ultimate results may vary, the purity of their spirit makes for an engaging and imaginative portrait of their atypical experience among humanity.