Anyone interested in recent Latinx fiction should add Joseph Cassara’s glittery, gritty debut novel, The House of Impossible Beauties
, to their to-be-read pile. A finalist for both the International Latino Book Award for Inspirational Fiction and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction, The House
is a novelistic expansion of the 1990 cult film Paris Is Burning
, about Harlem drag ball culture. In particular, Cassara takes a close look at the Latinx House of Xtravaganza, the first Latinx-specific house in the Harlem ball scene.
The House of Impossible Beauties
is set in 1980s New York City, and follows the lives of the House’s founders, the lightly fictionalized Angel and Hector Xtravaganza, and Angel’s retinue of LGBTQ+ youth, also based on real individuals: Venus, a trans girl; Juanito, a budding designer; and Daniel, a young gay performer who falls in love with Juanito. Given the time and place, it’s inevitable that the novel’s sweep includes the terrifying early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, as well as the prejudice, racism, poverty, abuse, and sex work many of the House of Xtravaganza’s performers were subject to and performed.
Cassara’s skill lies more in world-building than historical specificity; although the reader gets a decent impression of the sights, sounds, and events of mid-1980s Manhattan and the contemporary competitive drag scene, the novel truly sings in its evocation of the characters’ Spanish-English slang and the close-knit and difficult relationships that develop between the funny, smart, hurt, and ambitious people at the novel’s center.
Marrying the camp of Ru Paul’s Drag Race
with some of the seriousness of Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers
, The House of Impossible Beauties
offers a fascinating glimpse into an artistic community that few of us know intimately.
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