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It’s not often that the gay community is gifted with a work of literature that doesn’t feel like a regurgitation of known facts and exaggerations. It’s certainly not that often that the work zeroes in on transgender and Latinx culture in New York with depth and sensitivity. Debut author Joseph Cassara’s novel The House of Impossible Beauties interweaves the tale of the notorious House of Xtravaganza — among the most celebrated “houses” of New York’s underground ballroom scene in the 1980s — with that of its co-founders, Venus and Angie Xtravaganza, countless other transgender individuals and drag queens who came and went, and the looming AIDS crisis.
Made famous by their role in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary of the scene, Paris Is Burning, Angie and Venus Xtravaganza arrived to New York City in their early teens. Both endured the hardship of walking the streets of 1980s New York, in and around Times Square or by the piers — the most reliable place to do business. Cassara’s universe is rich in opulence and flamboyance: “shirtless chulos in leather pants, feather headdresses, crystal-encrusted nipple tassels, a man dressed like an Egyptian pharaoh pushed up against the side wall getting a blow job from not one but two boys dressed like Cleopatra. […] A man in a neon-yellow thong walked over to Angel and grabbed her ass, smiled at her, and gave her a plastic cup filled with bubbling white wine and a strawberry slide that floated to the top.” This was the time of Harlem ball culture, when New York was buzzing with drag queens competing in the famed “walks” that have become a sensation today, when a young RuPaul was making a splash in the clubs. The House of Xtravaganza was the only Latinx house in the community
The House of Impossible Beauties isn’t strictly a work of nonfiction; it certainly is not a historical account of the era. Cassara fictionalizes Angie — renamed Angel — and Venus to allow them to shine with all their might in his universe. The novel begins with Angel in the process of transitioning from identifying as male to female, and longing for a group of people who understand her. Cassara writes, “All Angel wanted was someone to look up to. When she turned on her television, or went to the movies, or flipped the pages of a magazine, she never saw anyone that looked like who she was, who she had been, or who she wanted to be.” This brings her to the famed drag queen Dorian (based on the drag performer and designer Dorian Corey). She then meets Hector, with whom she falls in love, and who eventually founds the House of Xtravaganza. As “mother of the house,” Angel takes her responsibility very seriously and starts recruiting new members. This is how she meets Venus, alone and recovering from an assault by a predator. Swiftly, Angel takes her in.
Hector is the novel’s first AIDS casualty, though not its last. After Hector’s passing, the novel shifts to Venus’s and Angel’s struggles to keep the house afloat, along with their personal struggles. Their stories are punctuated by those of others, most prominently, Juanito and Daniel. Perhaps one of the book’s most tragic love stories, the relationship between Juanito and Daniel evokes James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, in which two men struggle through poverty and their evolving love for each other in 1950s Paris, as well as Hervé Guibert’s diaristic The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1992), documenting the deterioration of his body after testing positive for AIDS. Themes of addiction, recklessness, and heartbreak, and the hardships of life as gay men in 1980s New York, are underscored by a palpable sense of urgency.
The intertwining stories drive the novel. Cassara provides his characters with detailed backstories as he skillfully portrays the harrowing effects of AIDS on a community that was systematically dismissed and under-served by the city of New York. Through his mastery of language, he hooks in readers and enables us to empathize with the book’s protagonists, inhabiting the experiences and thoughts of his central and peripheral characters and witnessing their lives from beginning to end.
The film Paris is Burning provided essential insight a counterculture whose popularity has spread beyond the gay community. With The House of Impossible Beauties, Cassara offers us a vital update, using his voice to make the House of Xtravaganza resonate with readers today. Although the success of shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race might suggest that Latinx and gay communities do not face the same hardships and neglect today as in the 1970s and 1980s, Cassara shows that hardships persist. The threat of AIDS is still tangible in communities that lack access to proper health care and education about safe sex. And while New York has lost much of its 1980s grit, it remains dangerous for individuals who resist the homogeneous white masses. The House of Impossible Beauties gives today’s youth literary access to a history that has shaped and will shape many Latinx individuals. His characters exemplify how to adapt to the changing times while never forgetting a community’s roots and genesis. In the end, Cassara contributes not just an impression the Latinx experience during the AIDS crisis but a moving image of humanity in all its imperfections.