In 2007, Joel Derfner’s boyfriend stuns him with a Christmas time proposal. It was a time when gay marriage was struggling to take hold and there were few places where Joel and Mike could legally wed. As the couple sets out on the path to a legal marriage, Joel and Mike encounter a multitude of obstacles, including ones that Joel creates himself, before they can say “I do” legally before family and friends. It includes ailing parents that move in, a reality show that has little to do with reality, wedding planning nightmares to make Bridezilla cringe, arguments, Ouija boards, and the very definition of marriage itself.
When I picked up Lawfully Wedded Husband, I realized I was already familiar with Joel Derfner. No, it wasn’t from his previous books (Gay Haiku and Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever) but from the cringe inducing reality show he mentions in his story, starting with the Introduction. Yes, I watched that show he and his best friend were a part of, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, filmed in 2010 for the Sundance Channel. The author had, along with his best friend Sarah, and his then fiance Mike, appeared on the show which filmed their marriage in Iowa. It had that stilted, painful feel to it that low budget reality shows can have. And I ended up feeling bad for everyone who appeared on it, including Joel, Mike, and Sarah, who later bore the brunt of vicious comments due to the editing by the director who seemed to have her own agenda.
I admit, I like Derfner’s version far better than the scripted, awkward one that managed to make its way to cable. And it’s not just because of the behind the scenes manipulations and headache pounding repetition that Derfner reveals as standard operating procedure, but the unique, dramatic, hilarious voice that Derfner brings to the proceedings and beyond.
Derfner muses, rants, and hilariously relates his path to the altar and wedded bliss with his husband Mike in Lawfully Wedded Husband. He is alternately introspective, musing upon the institution of marriage, its history, and redefining it in today’s cultural reality. He takes on his colorful, and somewhat alarming, ancestry and stacks it along side Mike’s in order to make observations about the differences in upbringing and their ideas of family. But while he is doing that, there are momentary asides into gay shopping venues, couple counseling, and Joel’s past sex life. Lawfully Wedded Husband is a veritable explosion of clever quips, thoughtful introspection, and hilarious soliloquies on living in Brooklyn mixed with meaningful forays into gay history and the meaning of marriage. And I suspect how you relate to Derfner and his outlook on life will affect your feelings about this book and its author.
High maintenance. Those are just two of the words I would use to describe the narrator. I would also throw in clever, intelligent, manipulative, and, at times, throughly exhausting. I really came away feeling for Mike at times, especially when Joel is blindsiding him with his participation in this reality show or decreeing that morning clothes with the de rigueur gray top hat (of which the clothier only has one and it’s the wrong size) is the way to go for their wedding apparel or even at the beginning, stopping Mike’s proposal to run and check on his (Joel’s) horoscope for the day before saying “yes.” But there is also a balance here, each side, warts and all, is revealed. Derfner doesn’t hide the bad times, the lack of communication that almost derails the couple; it’s there too. In fact, the whole relationship sink is thrown into this story, along with gay history, wedding planning, Jewish marriage rituals, and the search for the perfect Ketubah. Talk about the proverbial box busting at the seams!
I suspect that the author has no inner editor, no real gates between the brain and the mouth. I kind of appreciate that. This books sounds like the way I imagine he talks in real life. If he thinks it, out it comes, whether in person or on the page, except of course when he is deciding not to tell Mike about the portable dishwasher he just bought or something similar. The pages are full of Z Gallerie, the “gayest online store ever,” as well as the fact that Joel decides that he is going to win their new home via the HGTV’s Urban Oasis Giveaway for that condo in Manhattan. OK, I admit to doing that too, but definitely not on the scale Derfner did. I am talking about 5000 handwritten entries! I am not sure anyone does anything on the scale Derfner does. That is both part of his charm and part of his annoyance factor.
It’s this “overstuffed” aspect that kept Lawfully Wedded Husband from a perfect five. There is just too much here to take in. But take it in you should, as it’s marvelous in so many ways. It flows with the rhythm of a man who loves words and knows how to use them. The history lessons that go along with the histrionic scenes, the quiet reflection to go along with the manic maneuverings of a man intent on getting married his way, the legal way, and making it feel as it should for both him and Mike. A right that should have been theirs all along.
This is how the Introduction starts:
What are you guys wearing tomorrow?” asked the assistant director of Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, the reality show my fiancé, Mike, and I were being filmed for in May of 2010.
“I’m wearing jeans and a nice vest,” I said, “and Mike will be in shorts and a T-shirt.”
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. “Joel,” the assistant director said, “this Iowa wedding is the culmination of your story arc.”
“If you’re not dressed up, people will think you’re not taking it seriously.”
“Look,” I said. “I promised Mike that this would be as low-key an event as we could possibly manage, and I’ve already broken that promise in more ways than I can count. Not dressing up is the one shred of evidence left that I actually care about his feelings.”
“This is bad,” the assistant director said, and waited.
“Okay,” I said finally. “I’ll talk to him about it.”
“Great,” said the assistant director. “It’ll really help the audience understand what a special thing you’re doing.”
I put my cell phone in my pocket, went back to the table at the restaurant where Mike and I were having lunch with his cousin DJ and DJ’s boyfriend, Kevin, and promptly did not talk to him about it, because Mike’s fury was already just shy of the boiling point, and the last thing I needed was for it to get any hotter less than twenty-four hours before our nuptials.
Consider Lawfully Wedded Husband highly recommended. And now I am off to find Gay Haiku and Swish to see how the romance started. Don’t let this author and his book get away!