Cassara's story chronicles New York City's drag culture and the Puerto Rican characters who became involved in it. Inspired by the documentary film Paris is Burning, Cassara's novel follows Angel, Venus, Jaime, Miguel, Juanito, and sweet-natured Daniel as they march through the decades to the end of the Golden Age of Manhattan's drag balls. Cassara's thoughtful melodrama focuses on race, class, gender, and sexuality. Painful wistfulness is combined with the mind of effeminate boys who ache for a world that rejects them. In the delicate exploration of growth and angst, the journey of adolescence into adulthood is laced with drugs, prostitution, violence, and the eventually specter of AIDS.
Angel lives with his mother, who wants him only when it's convenient. His life is fraught with struggle and heartache. His younger brother, drug-dealer Miguel, accepts Angel--glitter and nail polish and silver lame and all. This is Angel's style, that of a "flaco Boricua boy." Only in night's dark moments, when Angel is alone at home, can he allow himself to really indulge in his feminine beauty and his lust for Jaime, who has become a recurring daydream.
The novel deals with different gender identities, their varying forms of expression, and how people like Angel and Venus Xtravaganza deal with the adversity of racism, homophobia, AIDS, and poverty. In an effort to survive, the boys become sex workers; some shoplift the glamorous clothing they love. Some are thrown out of their homes by trans- and homophobic parents. One character is trying to save money for sex reassignment surgery. When Angel meets Jamie at The Saint nightclub, she's introduced to a world of shirtless chulos in leather pants, feather headdresses, and boys with crystal-encrusted nipple tassels. As the coke, drink, and lights swirl within her, sex seems a "language in which Jaime knows all the letters." Once a "little boy in sweatpants and a dirty t-shirt," Angel now wears her right clothes.
"You gotta learn how to protect yourself...if you wanna be a chica." That's the message from Angel to Venus, who comes from the Puerto Rican/Italian area of Jersey City. Venus is a survivor, hooking up with businessmen in the sleazy 25-cent sex shops that promise a good show. At 19, Venus lives at the Serenity House Shelter. The nuns are no joke, and her daily existence is defined by Sugar Cookie, a "total butch queen" who is either out dealing angel dust or blowing trials of it on whatever surface is in front of him. It seems to Venus that she has become "a master of leaving." The opportunity to build a life with Angel is a momentary pause in the perpetual hustle of street life. Angel tells her that "you gotta work in this city. Work or starve, legal or otherwise." There aren't many opportunities and doors open for a natural-born man to walk into a corporate office like a "fem queen." At least down at the piers in the Meatpacking District, she "can do something and get money for it."
Cassara structures the story as a series of contrasts between dreams and reality, pretending and being. The hopeful youth of Venus contrasts with disillusioned, middle-aged Dorian, who stands in front of a pitiless mirror. The stories that people tell speak loudly about who we are, where we are from, and who we wish to be. Drag is a complex performance of gender, class, and race, a way of life where one can express identity, desires, and aspirations. From ordinary gay men to butch queens to transgender men, everyone--especially Angel--knows the significance of the deep, purple mark, the bruise that suddenly appears, the bruise that lovers and friends talk about and dread.
As the plague takes hold and infects Hector, Angel's true love, unfamiliar thoughts and a sense of desperation cloud all of the characters. Dorian wanted to make her mark; Angel's hardscrabble years have obscured her thoughts and observations of the world around her. Angel's only solace seems to be shopping on Fifth Avenue--it's like walking into a Ralph Lauren ad--though she fears she will be seen for exactly who she is: a poor Puerto Rican boy who can barely afford a three-course meal in Midtown. Among the banjee boys, the butch queens, and the lesbians, Angel and Venus look out at the sea of blonde hair and thin bodies, aerosol perms and hoops and purses, heels and gowns and denim. Cassara captures all of this wonderful glamour, fully imbedding us in Angel and Venus's point of view.
Not for the lazy reader, the story is heavily dialogue-driven, with characters who appear as others disappear. Capturing the essence of drag queens, from their adolescent longings to their acceptance of AIDS, Cassara's heroines dance through the angst and reality of their hard circumstances, showing great strength and pride in their efforts to survive. In urgent, well-crafted chapters, Cassara posits a group often rejected by their families, finding comfort in the camaraderie of the balls and tulle and glamour--and in the notion that they can finally, truly belong.