Whiskey and Robots

By Bucky Sinister. Gorsky Press, 80 pages, $8.95 (paper).

There's this whole huge debate in San Francisco about who's going to save poetry, or if poetry can be saved. We should just forget it, 'cause poetry is dead. But if anyone emerges as a bastard child of when poetry was alive in San Francisco, and resurrects it in full Exorcist splendor, it might be Bucky Sinister. In his new collection, Whiskey and Robots, poems are heavy on the whiskey, light on the robots. There are enough science-fiction and horror-movie allusions to whet those of us who get wet off the book's title. There's a story about a blind date with Wonder Woman (yes, there is a golden lasso involved), another about alternate realities. And Sinister riffs what is possibly the best who-I-am poem of the century, beating out every 15-year-old wannabe hustler MC in bad-ass self-identification verses:

The robotic toy of me

is the second least popular robotic toy in Japan.

The least popular robot toy

has a name that translates to

"The Low Self Esteemed Robot Turkey

Who Needs Lots of Hugs

and Whose Feathers Are Made from

Jagged Metal Bits."

Then there are the alcohol poems. They get heavy but never tedious and are leavened with humor and weirdness. The weight is most apparent when Sinister's third-generation drinking habit intersects with his childhood. (He's the son of an evangelical preacher.) "Saved" tells the story of moving from town to town with a tent ministry, seeing freaks and injury victims come seeking healing. "The Day the Angels Died" is a brutally sardonic take on collecting halos from fallen angels who wash up on Ocean Beach. These poems land somewhere between old world and new, the Bible Belt and San Francisco – the poem "Nascar and Nothingness" is as much a testament to both cultures as it is imbued with a feeling of thank-God-I-escaped – and what emerges is almost a tenderness, a fierce tenderness. (Matthue Roth)

Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love

By Will Roscoe. Suspect Thoughts, 224 pages, $16.95 (paper).

"Until recently," Will Roscoe writes near the beginning of his remarkably lucid and often poignant new study, Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love, "history has been written with the assumption that individuals in the past are heterosexual unless proven otherwise." Proving otherwise in the case of Jesus of Nazareth is for our purposes impossible – given not merely the remoteness in time of Jesus's life but the sketchiness of the historical record as to whether he actually lived and the immensity of the myth that bears his name – and the scholarly Roscoe wisely doesn't try. But, like many of us, he seems to have sensed something about Jesus, an outsider and friend to the downtrodden, a man devoted mainly and lovingly to other men, a man who seems to have kept chaste relations with prostitutes, and because Roscoe the historian does not wear convention's standard set of blinkers, he is able to discern what history has hidden in plain view.

The intellectual core of the book is Roscoe's discussion of the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, a document discovered in 1958 in a Greek Orthodox monastery near Jerusalem. The secret gospel includes a passage (evidently excised from the standard gospel for reasons not difficult to guess in light of Christianity's long struggles with human sexual nature in general and homosexuality in particular) that describes the central Christian ritual of baptism as involving not just a dab of holy water on the forehead but of "naked man with naked man" and, in at least one case, of Jesus's being naked with a naked youth while teaching him "the mystery of the kingdom of God." Is the secret gospel giving us a glimpse of a homoerotic initiation? Roscoe (who holds a Ph.D. in historical consciousness and anthropology) does not ask the suggestive evidence to carry more determinative weight than it can bear, but with wide-ranging rigor he does go on to show that homoerotic practice was hardly unknown in the religions and spiritual traditions from which early Christianity drew its shape and sustenance.

What raises the book above the level of academic treatise is that it has a heart as well as a head. Roscoe felt and saw the AIDS catastrophe at first hand (his longtime companion died of the disease in 1996), and for him, as the personal reflections that close the book make clear, the idea that Christian love might include the devotion of one man to another is not an abomination or intellectual abstraction but a living hope and comfort. (Paul Reidinger)

Harold's End

By JT LeRoy. Last Gasp, 99 pages, $19.95.

JT LeRoy's unwillingness to veer beyond his own tortured past in his fiction is literary stubbornness at its most rewarding. Like LeRoy's first two novels, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things, Harold's End (an extended revision of a short story published in McSweeney's three years ago) draws largely from LeRoy's drug- and abuse-filled youth. Any skepticism that the enigmatic author is merely mining old work to quell his anxious fans is quickly buried, though. The book begins along a grimy stretch of Polk Street, where homeless kids nurture and compare their exotic pets while they wait to fuck for heroin. LeRoy's ability to shine a light on the darkest corners of hell to expose the humanity in society's most depraved, neglected castoffs – this time by showing that having been loved isn't a necessary prerequisite for the ability to share love – has evolved indisputably. Harold's End is his most optimistic work yet.

The 25-year-old author's work has been rewarded with a Palm d'Or at Cannes (he wrote the first draft of Gus Van Zant's Elephant), studied in prestigious universities, and lauded with superlative-filled praise by everyone from Dave Eggers to Lou Reed. The widespread highbrow and academic appeal may stem from LeRoy's authentically desperate but resigned brand of hope; vultures of abandonment and guilt constantly haunt his protagonists. But the reason dog-eared copies of his bestsellers are treasured by such a diverse cross-section of our confused nation is because of his skill in vividly manifesting the distress that tugs at each of our souls so clearly and unforgettably.

The struggle to want to keep surviving is the core of Harold's End. In one scene, after weeks of living as a pampered pet of his sugar daddy, Oliver, the narrator, has entered a perceived ambush at the hands of his trusted benefactor. Disarmed and helpless, he lies on the ground, awaiting a violent doom. "This is how pain always comes on, from a vague distance before revealing the detailed facts," LeRoy writes. "I lie there and wait to know how bad it will be. I feel his ragged breath above me."

LeRoy's authority in crafting this determined, deserted little boy, combined with illustrator Cherry Hood's heart-wrenching watercolor portraits, makes a deep empathy with the narrator's plight inevitable. On the book's cover, Oliver's frizzy, dishwater-blond hair and weathered cheeks recall the lost youths memorialized by a thousand milk cartons, but staring into his deep, lucid eyes is like looking into a dirty mirror. Knowing that no one else loves him makes you want to love him even more. (Liam O'Donoghue)

God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories

By Tom Bissell. Pantheon, 224 pages, $20.

Tom Bissell is the best of the Believer's formidably ingenious staff of essayists, but in God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories he has turned to writing fiction about tiny former Soviet Central Asian countries you've probably never thought about. Bissell was a Peace Corps English instructor in Uzbekistan until he had a culture shock-induced breakdown and shipped out early, only to later return as a reporter for Harper's Magazine. As the United States began its attack on Afghanistan in autumn 2001, Bissell was stranded there, held back by what he describes as the bribe-hungry Uzbek border patrol. As one of Bissell's characters, the spoiled son of a U.S. ambassador, puts it in one of his stories, it was "the kind of place that was so corrupt you had to bribe yourself to get out of bed in the morning."

Bissell, himself the son of a U.S. ambassador, examines the region through the eyes of visiting Americans in all of their various guises: North Face-clad outdoor adventure tourists, war correspondents, Christian missionaries, and United Nations scientists. These are tales about American privilege abroad, and perhaps first and foremost among these privileges is the ability to leave when things get the least bit unpleasant. The reader is linked with the protagonists in mutual naïveté about the region, and we learn its rules and systems through violating them as the characters commit blunder after blunder. Wounded in a car wreck and stranded at the mercy of an Afghan warlord, an American and an English war correspondent busy themselves by demonstrating their cringe-inducing paternalism and incapacity for gratitude before learning the full implications of losing their status as observers. Bissell's writing is full of uncomfortable truths, brilliant wit, and dexterous language, skeptical of any and all political ideology. The collection is hit-and-miss, but also ambitious and likable enough to compensate for it. (Ben Bush)