Wednesday, May 31st, 2023

A mordant fictionalized memoir of growing up in Lexington, Virginia during the 1990s


by Mike Albo

Published by Harper

Published October 2, 2000
Fiction (autofiction)
256 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

May 8, 2003

Stand-up comic Mike Albo’s seemingly autobiographical novel (or fictionalized memoir) takes place Lexington, Virginia, the same place as Kirk Read’s How I Learned to Snap, though many of the memories laid out on the pages of Hornito are more about the recent past in New York City than events of the narrator’s visit “home” or memories of growing up trying to be a “proper” (that is masculine) boy.

Like Kirk Read, Mike Albo was the youngest son of a father with a military background. Mike’s older brother served as the self-appointed policeman of Mike’s masculine deportment. Both played soccer, a more approved masculine pursuit than dancing, but less approved than football in the local, paternal, and fraternal view.

There is a lot on the horror of trying to hide the character Mike Albo’s sexual orientation in the harshly hierarchical world of high school (see sociologist C. J. Pascoe’s recent book on that, Dude, You’re a Fag). The status hierarchy of the Manhattan gay club scene to which he later gravitates is not all that different than the suburban high school one: looking masculine, being properly coifed and dressed, knowing and commanding what is fashionable, etc. are crucial in both.

Desperate quests for acceptance and love are both fueled and punished in both narrow and in-grown societies. The narrator managed to rise to the second tier in both. As he explains, those in the second tier reflect the light of the most favored rather than emitting any themselves. I’d add that they are not warmed by acceptance that can be relaxed into: it is provisional and must be maintained by continuous effort, and, thus, is the source of chronic anxiety about falling from (relative) favor (again, see Pascoe on this enduring reality).

The character Mike Albo (and presumably the author Mike Albo) wonder why he is so excessively obsessed with surfaces. He does not answer the question. In his (or their) view, the blame seems to devolve to the superficiality of the (sub)culture(s) in which he wants to be admired. He believes he has to know about pop culture ephemera, has to look a certain way, and affect nonchalance to be popular, and he believes that to find love—or to get laid—he needs to be popular. He amuses some of his social superiors and sometimes get laid, but does not find either “success” all that satisfying.

There is also the cold comfort of the schadenfreude he feels for the less fashionable—whom he cannot conceive might not be as absorbed as he is with their status in the hierarchy of fashionability. It does not seem to occur to him that he might be at the bottom of the hierarchy of those who care about the sort of popularity he craves, that at least some of those he looks down on are not interested in playing the games that preoccupy him.

(Albo’s references to 1990s pop culture and teen fashions are considerably more intrusive and tedious than Read’s, perhaps because Read was more interested in his elders than in his age-mates. The youth and fashionability of “Generation X” has come and gone. Are we to Z yet?)

I guess that it’s not just gay novels but most novels that involve frustrated desire for an unworthy and unattainable beloved that makes readers want to shake moonstruck narrators! One does not need to be gay to needlessly complicate one’s life or to yearn for unobtainable love objects. Internalized homophobia just exacerbates these tendencies

The elusive quarry on which Mike Albo fixates on is not a prostitute with a heart of lead but plies an occupation similarly based on being desired by many men. Eric is a go-go dancer in a gay club. To further frustrate Mike obtaining a monopoly on sexual access to him, Eric is in a relationship with someone else already. Mike’s passion does not go altogether unrequited or even unreciprocated: he does have sex with Eric a couple of times, but Eric is not prepared to settle to living happily and monogamously ever after with Mike—or even to break with his current significant other. Similarly, Mike managed eventually to bed but definitely not to wed or become the primary partner of the main object of the longings of his high school years, Jeff.

Mike is frustrated at not being able to carry off Eric. And to add insult to injury, Mike not only has crab lice but knows that their route to him involves a particularly annoying vector (one that surprised me, so that I cannot specify it and spoil the fun).

Unlike Kirk Read, Michael Thomas Ford, or David Sedaris—or even Bob Smith— Albo has integrated his ironic take on past and present absurdities into an organic whole. If it is fiction, it is a novel. Hornito is not a set of short stories or essays with recurring characters.

I don’t think that Hornito provides much in the way of new insights about growing up gay, either in the (early 1990s) closeted teenage part or in the (late 1990s) openly gay but dissatisfied young urbanite part, but it goes down easily. The family and friends and frustrating love objects are perilously close to being generic, but Albo controls the novelist’s craft and provides an entertaining few hours without the condescension of Sedaris or Ford but without the charm and insightfulness of Smith.

+ + +

One must not judge a book by its cover, but I have to say that the cover of the paperback edition of Hornito is far inferior to the intriguing silver cover of the hardcover edition (that included a hornito), pictured above. I also want to note that I like the title. I’m not sure how a hornito differs from a fumarole, but the first two syllables of hornito are an appropriate homonym for the condition of young males, particularly those whose erotic life was repressed and/or suppressed through the years of high school.

This is a revision of a review first posted on epinions, 8 May 2003
©2003, 2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.