I’d heard for years that I should watch Paris is Burning, the groundbreaking documentary about the New York’s drag ball scene in the 1980’s, but I never quite got around to it for one reason or another. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when a friend told me just how much that movie influenced Rupaul’s Drag Race, that I finally forced myself to sit down and watch it. Needless to say, it’s brilliant and unforgettable, and shame on me for not watching it sooner. So when I heard that Joseph Cassara’s novel, The House of Impossible Beauties, was based on the same drag ball scene, I knew I had to read it.
The story begins in the early 1980’s when “Angel the he became Angel the she”, asserted her independence, discovered the drag ball scene, and fell hard for dancer Hector. They decided to start the first all-Latinx drag house — the House of Xtravaganza — but Angel finds herself suddenly alone again after Hector’s brief losing battle with AIDS. As she mourns, she also sets about building their house by adopting Venus, Juanito, and Daniel, each impossibly beautiful, each running away from similar but uniquely brutal and damaged circumstances. Too young and uneducated to find real jobs, they support themselves the only way they know how by selling themselves for sex on the streets, risking their lives for a few dollars at a time, hoping that tomorrow will be the day that everything starts to get better.
I’d best describe this book as flawed but compelling. Based on the marketing blurbs, I expected much more emphasis on the drag balls themselves, but that scene was never the focus but instead the backdrop, always there but never fully visible (aside from one fabulous episode involving a literal boa), used more as a vehicle to bring the four main characters together into a literal and figurative house, loving and arguing and laughing and struggling. The story is a bit too unfocused, the structure too unbalanced to satisfy by itself, but Cassara makes up for it with atmosphere and humor and these wonderfully flamboyant, hopeful, tragic characters. For all of their faults, I found myself emotionally invested, rooting for them even as I knew they were mostly likely doomed. Cassara is a talented writer, and though his debut novel is ambitious and messy, I’ll take that over nice and safe every time, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.