Better Davis and Other Stories
by Philip Dean Walker
Squares & Rebels

Reviewed by John Francis Leonard

One of the most powerful tools used by an author is their imagination and knowing how to effectively apply it to their writing. They bring characters and worlds to life with their words. Even more challenging is bringing a famous character to life, as we already know the framework of their lives and legends in our own imagination. In this follow up to his well received collections, At Danceteria and Other Stories and Read by Strangers, Philip Dean Walker accomplishes this feat with wit, color, and great skill. These characters and the early eighties are brought to life by Walker with a deft hand and an uncanny perception of these public figures’ temperaments and inner lives that make it seem, at times, as if you’re reading factual accounts.

The central themes to Walkers book are the famous and infamous and how they, and our communities in general, dealt with the nascent scourge of AIDS, long before it had that name. Walker deals with the disease’s earliest onslaught aptly and with great sensitivity: still managing to render wry and witty stories with his signature storytelling skills making this a highly readable collection.

Many famous characters take a bow in these works. What gay man of the period can forget Jim J. Bullock and his star turn as Monroe Ficus in the period’s popular sitcom, Too Close for Comfort? As a young teen, I was transfixed by that performance, it being a role brought to life by a gay man. Bullock is just receiving his HIV diagnosis in this story and is overwhelmed by the certainty that his young life and early success as an actor will be cut short. Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor take their bows as well as legendary drinker Maureen Stapleton. Stapleton and Taylor descend on a drag bar after an evening on stage where they encounter the book’s eponymous character, Better Davis, performing her comedy routine in a nod to the classic drag queens of the past. They don’t make them like that anymore, certainly.

I have rarely read short stories after college and so I feel fortunate to review the work of some of its newest and most talented purveyors. Walker has taught me a new appreciation for its art. He is able to construct a world that is both believable and compelling, breathing life into characters both known and unknown to history and popular culture. At the top of my list, he’s a talent to watch and a joy to read.

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.