The House of Impossible Beauties is a work of unrestrained passion, a novel both unabashedly queer — flamboyant and proud, built out of chosen families, pulsating with club vibes whilst clouded in the haze of trauma — and unmistakably Latin. This is not a book that boasts of inclusion on the basis of mere identity markers; rather, it’s a full-on, transporting immersion. The ensemble’s speech patterns are breathtakingly specific. The way relationships unfold consistently surprises, if only because of how rarely we see LGBTQ people of color depicted with such texture, fleshed out and funny and flawed. The book helps to fill one of adult fiction’s deeper holes. This, here, is the exciting narrative and literary potential of intersectionality, realized on the page.
Joseph Cassara’s debut novel fictionalizes the Harlem queer ball scene of the 1980s, as memorably depicted in the 1991 doc Paris Is Burning, which serves as a sort of foundation here. The book begins by introducing Angel, a trans woman of Puerto Rican heritage drawn to drag and glamour. She emerges as the center of Cassara’s vibrant account of the House of Xtravaganza, which (in real life) welcomed black and Latinx queer folks in need of refuge and remains active to this day. The novel then expands to tell the stories of Venus, Daniel, and Juanito, all of whom orbit around Angel, and trace their coming-of-age through to the AIDS crisis of the decade’s end.
As Cassara seems intent on reminding, even the most buoyant of personalities couldn’t hide from a tragedy that rippled through an entire community. Tragedy and gay stories too often go hand-in-hand, admittedly, and House doesn’t exactly reverse the trend; the book follows the script without so much as a detour. Yet there’s a tenacity to these characters that prevents the despairing climax from turning too maudlin.
This is a definitive LGBTQ family story, of the sweep and intimacy that’s typical in family sagas while also steeped in the trauma and sass specific to its milieu. Cassara’s brash approach is big-hearted; he seamlessly blends Spanish and English in scenes that range from mundane to painful, and builds out his cast of performers with palpable empathy. Stylistically, the novel is a glorious mess: It swerves with melodramatic prose, and finds easy opportunities for exposition in its straight-talking queens. To be sure, the book is hardly perfect, at times galumphing in its story movements. But those rough edges might just be the key to The House of Impossible Beauties’ enthralling, invigorating success. B+