by Gary Indiana
As followers of this blog know, lately I´ve been re-reading a few books that I haven´t opened in years, in addition to reviewing newer titles that somehow relate to the erotic. The most recent was an autobiographical novel by Edmund White (you can read my review of that one here), which I hadn´t read in at least thirty years. The experience has inspired me to continue every now and again with different authors and their work. These books and authors definitely have had an influence on me in some way, and perhaps some of my thoughts on re-reading them will inspire you to check them out for the first time.
A couple of things come to mind. First, in terms of content, I find these books from the late eighties to early nineties to generally be more daring when it comes to sex, or to depicting the complicated and fascinating range of human sexual experience. Consequently, I feel as though they demand more of me as a reader, and I am curious as to why this is. Shouldn´t contemporary titles be "better"? The erotic fiction and sexual narratives I was consuming thirty years ago are products of a different time, written before the word "queer" was reclaimed from being a derogatory epithet, for example, and came to be used as an all-inclusive term for anyone who was not-straight. Some of the characters in White´s novel, for example, would be rejected today for their politically incorrect views; or, if not completely condemned, at the very least they would be considered confusing. A self-identifying lesbian who, though she energetically enjoys being with women, also yearns to have a meaningful relationship with a man someday? Young gay men salivating as they look at younger boys on public transportation? Gay people stating anti-semitic, racist, and transphobic comments? What!? The fictional people depicted in White´s novel, gay and straight, articulate fear and self-loathing felt in a pre-Stonewall midwestern environment, and sometimes is challenging to read. But being confronted by a work of fiction doesen´t mean that people don´t hold these views, never held these views, or that such scenes are not worth sharing. White eloquently describes these moments with the compassion of a doctor, part of his larger project of his book, which confesses his past with an almost unblinking surgical precision. As a writer, he is willing to show the guts of his characters (as well as himself), not just their faces (or their cocks). By doing so with such intimacy over so many pages, as a reader I get to travel through time and space. I don´t have to agree with or even like some of the people along the way, to make the book powerful and memorable. His art doesn´t care if I like it or not, and as such commands a different sort of attention. Even if it is uncomfortable to read at times, I appreciate the authenticity of the narrative´s realism. Part of its lasting beauty is that its characters possess some ugly traits, just like me. Just like you, just like all of us.
And then, on a purely personal level, picking up these books again after a thirty year interval returns me to an earlier phase of my own history, to the thoughts and feelings of m young adulthood. I´m transported back to New York at the beginning of the nineties, when I was living in downtown Manhattan and going to school. This was when I had come out as bi, and when the AIDS epidemic was still being largely ignored by the US government; these were the years when I worked with ACT UP and volunteered with the Pink Panther Patrol, as well. as become involved in the downtown performing arts scene, the same years I spiralled into addiction and mental illness. Many of the places that made up "my" New York from that time three decades ago are no longer there, and some of the people I knew and loved are gone, too. It was a different kind of time, back then, in New York: the Twin Towers still stood, there wasn´t an internet yet, and posters declaring "safe sex is hot sex" seemed to be plastered everywhere between 14th Street and Canal.
Rent Boy captures a lot of what New York during the early nineties was really like, at least on a reptile-brain level. Re-reading Gary Indiana´s 1994 novella is like looking at a mirror, darkly, with one´s head tilted at an angle, a cigarette dangling defiantly from a pouty lower lip. The book disturbs and seduces in equal measures, just like that feeling of doing a couple lines of coke after you´ve already had four shots of vodka (or so I´ve heard).
The story is told in the voice of Danny, only one of the names he goes by, depending on the situation. The reader eventually discovers that Rent Boy is actually a series of letters to someone known only as "J," and that these letters are not just snarky observations of those around him. These private epistles are a kind of confession from an unreliable narrator, the queer offspring of Holden Caulfield and one of Jim Thompson´s pulps.
Ostensibly an architecture student, Danny waits tables at the trendy Emerson Club and turns tricks with mostly older gay men. His acerbic observations of his customers--from dining rooms to seedy bedrooms--all seem equally shallow and desperate. Whether seeking proximity to celebrity or fulfilling some hidden homosexual desire, Indiana seems to imply, are all the same for Danny. He´s just trying to grab his slice of the pie, to make money so he can get out of the life and start fresh.
The depictions of sexuality here are shadowy and often lurid, frequently verging on the edge of being gross. But then, so are the scenes at the Emerson Club. In Rent Boy, everyone is using everyone else, and pretending that one is excited about it. Danny approaches his work on his back or on his knees with the same indifference that he does on his feet at the restaurant. The only thing that turns anyone on in this world is money.
When we meet Chip, another male hustler and the closest thing to a love interest for our protagonist, we understand the depths of Danny´s own desperation. When his sometime-lover announces that he´s met a sugar daddy, someone who is going to take care of him and set him up financially, Danny is initially skeptical. Then, when the man asks to meet with Danny, skepticism turns to suspicion. Turns out this wizened old doctor and his two sketchy colleagues have a gruesome plan to make some quick cash, and need a pair of hustlers to serve as the bait.
But for all the twists and surprises in the plot of Rent Boy, Gary Indiana´s strength is in his portrayal of character. Danny is selectively intelligent and casually charismatic, and through his observations of the people and world around him, the author provides us with a critique of New York´s obsession with greed, status, and power. Tightly controlled and wildly cynical, Rent Boy is also consistently sexy even when it plummets to the sewers of our own nature.