Peck, Dale 1967-
Peck, Dale 1967-
Born July 13 (one source lists June 13), 1967, in Bay Shore, NY; son of Dale (a plumber) and Eileen Peck. Education: Drew University, B.A., 1989.
Agent—Irene Skolnick, 121 W. 27th St., Ste. 601, New York, NY 10001.
Novelist. Out magazine, former staff member; AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), member.
Guggenheim fellow, 1994; O. Henry Prize, 2005, for the short story "Dues."
Martin and John: A Novel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1993, published as Fucking Martin, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1993.
The Law of Enclosures (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1996.
Now It's Time to Say Goodbye (novel), Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1998.
What We Lost: Based on a True Story, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction, New Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Drift House: The First Voyage (young adult novel), Bloomsbury Children's Books (New York, NY), 2005.
The Lost Cities: A Drift House Voyage (young adult novel), Bloomsbury Children's Books (New York, NY), 2007.
The Garden of Lost and Found (novel), Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 2007.
(Author of foreword) Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction, edited by Richard Canning, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor of short fiction to periodicals, including Threepenny Review.
The appearance of Martin and John: A Novel catapulted young writer Dale Peck to the forefront of contemporary American gay fiction. Before the publication of his first novel, Peck was a member of ACT UP in New York City, an AIDS activist group known for their controversial tactics—Peck was the man who disrupted an on-air television newscast in 1990. Martin and John developed in part out of Peck's own experiences and relationships, and many reviewers of the book discussed its intensely confessional tone, part autobiography, part anti-autobiography. Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Richard Eder termed it "a dazzling explosion of voices and stories that hide behind and emerge out of each other. It is a book of theatrical quick changes."
Because of its layers, its hidden corners, its repetitiveness, Martin and John resists an easy description of plot. It is narrated by John, a young man who has fled an abusive household. His lover is Martin, who eventually becomes ill with AIDS, and the sequence of events between them takes place primarily in New York City and Kansas. Interspersed into the sparse narrative action are a legion of smaller stories, each one also involving characters named Martin and John. Sometimes Martin is a rich man who showers young John with love, jewelry, and affection; in other instances he is a fellow security guard in Kansas, a teenage runaway found in a barn, or a sadistic New York pimp. John changes character as well, as he recounts an upbringing fraught with conflict and abuse. Most of his recollections involve a widowed father with a drinking problem who savagely beats John when the teenager admits his homosexuality; other vignettes recount his father dressing up in his dead wife's clothes. In some stories the death of John's mother occurred when he was still young, in other instances she lingers in a nursing home for years or is perfectly healthy, happy, and divorced—but then one of her boyfriends is a man named Martin who seduces the teenage John. "It can be hard to make out, and I had to go back over it a second time," wrote Eder of Martin and John's complicated structure; "and it changed color and shape somewhat when I did. But the darkness, glitteringly backlit or spotlit … prevails almost entirely."
In an interview published in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Peck explained the genesis of Martin and John: "There are autobiographical themes in the book but no autobiography. The only ‘real life’ aspects of the novel are the settings based on places I've lived…. There are similarities in the character of the father to my father, there are similarities in the character of John to my own character, and there are similarities in the female characters to my stepmothers…. None of them, however, are actually based on real people." Later in the interview, Peck explained how the structure developed: "The novel originally began with a short story—the story ‘Transformations’ was the first Martin and John story I wrote. Then, when I wrote another story dealing with the same issues, I couldn't think of character names and so I used the [names Martin and John again]. After writing those two stories, I conceived of the whole project of Martin and John. I worked on the book for about four years, and when it was finished I had five hundred pages of manuscript from which I cut 300 pages of stories."
Voice Literary Supplement writer Vince Aletti discussed the novel's spiraling effect between Martin and John's real relationship in the traditional narrative and the fantasy episodes that John writes of in the parallel text, comparing it to a puzzle. "Attempting to transform his history into fiction—something healing, revealing, and ‘true’—John can only shuffle things around. And no matter how many times he reinvents his story, he keeps coming back to a few ugly, sad facts: abuse, abandonment, lost love, death." Aletti faulted the approach that Peck undertook, suggesting that by "teasing his story every which way—whipping up raw tragedy, offhand comedy, and lots of hallucinated melodrama with a very small constellation of characters—he's playing author in a showy, postmodern way." In the end Martin dies of AIDS, cared for by John until a terrible demise in a bathtub. The reader next finds the surviving John in his room, writing, and waiting for his own illness to develop.
Many critics praised the first-time novelist and his tour-de-force work. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani noted that "if this fiercely written novel offers an indelible portrait of gay life during the plague years, it also opens out to become a universal story about love and loss and the redemptive powers of fiction. It is a story about the cycles of pain and grief that spiral through people's lives, and the efforts an artist makes to reorder and transcend that hurt." Kakutani commended the young author's level of compassion and insight, concluding that "his wisdom about human feelings, his talent for translating those feelings into prose and his sophisticated mastery of literary form all speak to a maturity that belies his twenty-five years. In short, a stunning debut." Times Literary Supplement reviewer Gregory Woods faulted Peck for "at times sounding as if he had just been given a thesaurus," yet termed the instances "minor faults in a fascinating first novel." In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Eder asserted that "Peck's first novel has a dark brilliance and moments of real beauty, but it is a book that is shocking, hard to accept fully, and hard to ignore. It is impassioned in its identification with the gay condition, yet it rides fiercely athwart any common notion of political correctness."
Peck's novel The Law of Enclosures, according to Victoria Stagg Elliott in Gay and Lesbian Literature, consists of "two novellas about heterosexual couples…. Their stories of marriage gone bad are told in alternating chapters interrupted by an autobiographical interlude about Peck's mother and the three stepmothers he acquired as a result of his father's frequent marrying." John Brenkman in the Nation noted: "There is an extraordinary sense of the risk and adventure of writing in every page of this novel." "Peck's talent," wrote Nancy Pearl in Booklist, "is undeniable, and readers willing to take on an unconventional novel will find much to admire. It is filled with powerful writing, unforgettable sentences … and perceptions on love and betrayal that are so painfully acute it is hard to believe Peck is only in his late twenties." A critic for Publishers Weekly called The Law of Enclosures a "lyrical and boldly constructed novel" and "not only an unblinking look at the dark chambers of the human heart, [but] a brave artistic gamble—one that, ultimately, comes up spades."
Now It's Time to Say Goodbye is set in a small Kansas town where Colin Newman and his boyfriend, Justin Time, after they realize they know 500 fellow New Yorkers who have died of AIDS, decide to settle. Vanessa Bush stated in Booklist: "The pair brings with them a conceit that their complicated lives of wealth, betrayal, and cruelty are beyond the comprehension of the rural town." "They soon discover, however, that even here human passions and prejudice run deep," noted David W. Henderson in Library Journal. When a local girl is abducted and killed, and Justin is attacked, Colin uncovers dark motives and racial antagonisms among the town's social elite. "Peck is a powerful stylist, capable of incandescent descriptions of the unforgiving flatlands from which the town emerged," wrote the critic for Publishers Weekly. "Peck's novel," concluded Bush, "is a compelling thriller with subtle and informed knowledge of race relations in the U.S."
Lambda Book Report critic Paul Lisicky described Peck's 2003 book, What We Lost: Based on a True Story, as "the author's attempt to understand his father through an imaginative projection into his childhood experience." Lisicky argued that while there may be flaws in the work, they are the result of an ambitious attempt. The author combines elements of both fiction and memoir in the work, making it impossible to decipher which moments of the story actually occurred and which were added for the book's development. Lisicky argued that the mix of genres at times detracts from the work: "At its weakest, the book forgets the central pleasures of both the novel and the memoir: the transformative spark of the former and the impelled inquiry of the latter." Lisicky concluded: "Still a flawed book I will take, especially when its sentence-making is consistently rich, imbued with intellect and deep feeling."
While Peck's reputation as a fiction writer has grown over the years, he is also known as a literary critic and theorist. Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction focuses on analyzing novels produced by a selection of contemporary writers he believes have restricted themselves to producing works that seek to alienate the majority of readers, thus making their work seem more exclusive and intellectually relevant. In his review of the book for Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz remarked on what he considered to be Peck's "meticulous attention to diction, his savage wit, … and—of course—his disdain for pseudo-intellectual flatulence." Organized as a series of essays that highlight what he refers to as overrated novels and their authors, Peck argues that contemporary writing has become an exclusive set of schools that exclude both readers and new writing talent. Donna Seaman, who reviewed the book for Booklist, observed: "Peck brings his experiences as a skilled novelist and memoirist to his criticism, and consequently his essays possess true moxie."
In the early 2000s Peck turned to yet another literary form, the young adult novel. As he explained on his home page, he visited Cape Cod shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and there had a dream in which a shipbuilder's house was floating out into the ocean. Inspired by that image, and by the C.S. Lewis children's novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he sketched out a story that became the novel Drift House: The First Voyage. The story centers on three siblings from New York City—Susan, Charles, and Murray Oakenfield—who are sent to live with their Uncle Farley in Canada after 9/11. After a gigantic rainstorm, Uncle Farley's house—with the family inside—floats out to sea. The children encounter mermaids, time pirates, a giant whale, and many other fascinating creatures.
Noting the similarities between Drift House and Lewis's book, New York Times Book Review contributor Sam Swope wrote that the stock fantasy elements that Peck uses in his novel are, in his "gifted hands … so warmly and fully imagined that they seem brand-new." Yet the critic found the novel's allegorical theme about time confusing. Most of the action takes place in the Sea of Time, where inhabitants exist outside of real time and do not age or change. Yet, as Swope pointed out, Peck "breaks his own rules" by making time seem to pass and by having his characters experience various changes, such as hunger, satiety, and exhaustion. Debbie Lewis O'Donnell, writing in School Library Journal, also noted Peck's "convoluted discourse on metaphysics and complex explanations of temporality," which the reviewer found an overly didactic distraction in an otherwise exciting narrative.
The second "Drift House Voyage," according to New York Times Book Review writer Regina Marler, tightens up some of the weaknesses in the series's first installment. The Lost Cities: A Drift House Voyage finds the siblings returning to the Sea of Time, where they meet Huron Indians, Vikings, and plenty of villains before Charles sails off to the Tower of Babel and Susan intervenes to save New York City from being sucked into a time jetty and becoming lost. In an admiring review in Booklist, Todd Morning observed that the book is "nearly overwhelmed by its own wild inventiveness" at times. Eva Mitnick, writing in School Library Journal, felt that though the novel contains some confusing elements, its plot is "so thrilling that readers won't mind that the principles behind the magic are a bit fuzzy." Marler, however, wrote that "Peck has gained his sea legs" in this book and presents a story that is completely and fully imagined. The "Drift House Voyage" series, she concluded, "will inspire any reader to reflect on time and its spiraling possibilities."
The Garden of Lost and Found returns to the gay themes that established Peck's literary reputation. The novel, described by Booklist writer Brad Hooper as a "beautifully articulated" and "deeply human and humanizing book," tells the story of a James Ramsay, a young drifter and orphan who, to his utter surprise, inherits a substantial townhouse in Manhattan from his estranged mother. Taking up residence in the city and believing himself to be suffering from AIDS, James encounters a multitude of diverse people as he attempts to learn more about his mother and, he hopes, discover the identity of his father.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 81, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Gay and Lesbian Literature, Volume 2, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Atlantic Monthly, July-August, 2004, Benjamin Schwarz, review of Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction, p. 144.
Booklist, December 15, 1995, Nancy Pearl, review of The Law of Enclosures, p. 686; February 15, 1998, Vanessa Bush, review of Now It's Time to Say Goodbye, p. 948; May 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Hatchet Jobs, p. 159; October 1, 2005, Morning Todd, review of Drift House: The First Voyage, p. 50; April 1, 2006, Patricia Austin, review of Drift House, p. 74; April 1, 2007, Todd Morning, review of The Lost Cities: A Drift House Voyage, p. 41; July 1, 2007, Brad Hooper, review of The Garden of Lost and Found, p. 28.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February 1, 2006, Karen Coats, review of Drift House, p. 281.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2005, review of Drift House, p. 920; January 15, 2007, review of The Lost Cities, p. 79.
Lambda Book Report, June-July, 2004, Paul Lisicky, "Strangeness and Beauty," review of What We Lost: Based on a True Story, p. 26.
Library Journal, April 15, 1998, David W. Henderson, review of Now It's Time to Say Goodbye, p. 115.
Library Media Connection, April 1, 2006, Rose Kent Soloman, review of Drift House, p. 68.
Literary Review, summer, 2004, Albry Montalbano, review of What We Lost, p. 154.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 24, 1993, Richard Eder, review of Martin and John: A Novel, pp. 3, 7.
Nation, January 29, 1996, John Brenkman, review of The Law of Enclosures, p. 31.
New York Times, February 9, 1993, Michiko Kakutani, review of Martin and John, p. C15.
New York Times Book Review, November 13, 2005, Sam Swope, "Moonlighting"; November 27, 2005, "Dale Peck: The Lost Books?," p. 31; June 3, 2007, Regina Marler, "Children's Books," p. 34.
Publishers Weekly, October 16, 1995, review of The Law of Enclosures, p. 40; March 16, 1998, review of Now It's Time to Say Goodbye, p. 51; September 12, 2005, review of Drift House, p. 69.
School Library Journal, November 1, 2005, Debbie Lewis O'Donnell, review of Drift House, p. 144; April 1, 2006, Charli Osborne, review of Drift House, p. 78; April 1, 2007, Eva Mitnick, review of The Lost Cities, p. 146.
Times Literary Supplement, March 26, 1993, Gregory Woods, review of Martin and John, p. 20.
Voice Literary Supplement, February, 1993, Vince Aletti, review of Martin and John, pp. 5-6.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October 1, 2005, review of Drift House, p. 327; December 1, 2006, Mary Ann Darby, review of The Lost Cities, p. 448.
Collected Miscellany,http://collectedmiscellany.com/ (March 5, 2008), Kevin Holtsberry, review of Drift House.
Drift House Web site,http://www.drifthouse.com (March 5, 2008).
Morning Edition,http://www.npr.org/ (March 5, 2008), "Profile: Controversy over Novelist and Critic Dale Peck."