The House of Impossible Beauties: A Novel. By Joseph Cassara. Ecco; 416 pages; $26.99. Oneworld Publications; £14.99.

BEFORE the High Line and the new Whitney, the astronomical rents and gastropubs, Chelsea was a playground for queer misfits. The Christopher Street Pier was where they gathered, sauntered and made a quick buck. Diva elders taught fresh-faced runaways the art of turning a trick: how to spot the white men cruising for a taste; how to kneel on cement without cutting their knees; and, most important, how, in extremis, to “just bite it”—after getting the money up front.

This is the New York of Joseph Cassara’s vivid and engaging debut novel, “The House of Impossible Beauties”. It is a city of hustlers and mad men, strip clubs and graffiti, big rats and bigger dreams. Gritty yet glamorous, Manhattan from the late 1970s to the early 1990s was a rare place where “even the most outrageous people could have a home.”

That is what draws in Mr Cassara’s characters, “little flaco Boricua” (ie, skinny Puerto Rican) boys fleeing abusive single mothers in Jersey and the Bronx to become the perfumed women they were always meant to be, with marquee-ready names like Angel and Venus. But this is also a city haunted by death, where lifeless bums line the Bowery, murdered “trannies” crop up in hotel rooms and a mysterious virus terrorises gay men.

In search of love and acceptance, Mr Cassara’s Boricua castaways make homes with new cherry-picked families, live on rice and beans, learn how to sew, and aspire one day to afford a Chanel suit at Saks. They strut their stuff at drag balls in Harlem, where dark-skinned queens parade like peacocks. Jennie Livingston chronicled this subculture in her acclaimed documentary “Paris is Burning”, released in 1990. Mr Cassara takes some of her real-life subjects and imagines their fleshed-out stories, mapping their romances and addictions, their nightmarish pasts and fantastical plans for the future. For example, one “pre-op trans-sexual woman” daydreams of being whisked away by a rich, white husband to a house in Westchester.

The novel feels like an anthropological plunge into another era, enhanced by rhythmic, urban prose littered with slang and Spanglish. Some observations are unsubtle and the metaphors are occasionally overcooked. But these are forgivable blips in a book with the compassion to capture the loneliness of a trans woman with AIDS who rides the subway at rush hour to feel the warmth of “human bodies all against her”, and the sensuousness to convey the beauty of young gay lovers mimicking Fred and Ginger on a hot rooftop as the sun sets. The New York of “The House of Impossible Beauties” may not warrant much nostalgia, but it is a moving place to visit.