Sunday, September 23, 2007

Pollyanna Karenina

Selfish and Perverse
by Bob Smith
New York
: Carroll and Graf, 2007
376 pp.

When I first noticed the title of Bob Smith’s new novel, I thought someone had written an unauthorized biography of me. But it had laudatory blurbs by writers I respected, such as Armistead Maupin, so I checked it out of the library anyway. And you know something? It was a pretty good read.

Smith was a founding member of Funny Gay Males, a gay male standup comedy group, and the author of Openly Bob, one of those recyclings of bar autobiography and slightly stale standup material that are all over the place nowadays. I guess they’re not really a new phenomenon, though: from Mark Twain through Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I to Jack Douglas’s My Brother Was an Only Child and Cynthia Heimel’s If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?, such books are a publishing standby. But there’s a difference: the books of MacDonald, Douglas, et al. could render me helpless with laughter. The new, young-ish, gay writers like Smith or David Sedaris or Michael Thomas Ford leave me cold, and a bit bewildered. Where’s the laugh? There’s a certain smugness in Ford and Sedaris that I find off-putting, especially in Ford’s earlier books, where he wore his alleged inability to get a date almost as a badge of superiority. I find such claims a bit hard to evaluate: I mean, I haven’t met the guy, maybe there’s a good reason he can’t get a date. And these boys’ determinedly white-bread packaging didn’t help much either. I don’t remember anything about Openly Bob, except my recurring question: I paid money for this?

I didn’t pay money for Selfish and Perverse, which may help. Thank the gods for public libraries, the training schools (as some early 20th-century right-winger put it) of Socialism! But I do think that Smith did the right thing in turning to fiction. (So has Ford, though I haven’t tried his yet.) Selfish and Perverse didn’t make me horny, make me laugh, or make me want to fish for salmon, as Armistead Maupin promised, but it did carry me along, involve me, and entertain me reasonably well.

Nelson Kunker, who narrates, is a Wisconsin-bred gay thirty-something, now working as script coordinator for a TV show in Los Angeles while he tries to finish his first novel. First he meets Roy Briggs, an Alaskan salmon fisherman and archaeology student visiting his cousin Joe, a writer-performer on the show. Nelson and Roy hit it off very well, and romance is clearly in the offing when that week’s guest star, Dylan Fabizak, arrives. Dylan is built, charismatic, and damaged, having just been paroled after doing time for drug possession; he’s trying to rebuild his acting career. Smith smoothly maneuvers his leads to Alaska – Nelson to work on his novel and his budding relationship with Roy, Dylan to research his comeback movie role, as an Alaskan salmon fisherman. As Edmund White has pointed out, a gay love triangle can develop complexity impossible in a heterosexual one: any of the three males can potentially get involved with the others. Smith exploits that potential nicely here, so that each participant spends some time at the apex of the triangle.

Setting the novel in Alaska was a smart move: it gets the story out of the usual urban settings. Smith apparently spent some time in Alaska, getting to know people and places, and he used his experience well. Nelson meets a variety of people along the way, and happily, there’s no caricaturing of boondocks queens or backwoods hicks: their eccentricities and limitations don’t eclipse their humanity. Smith’s affection for all his characters, even the manipulative Dylan, sets Selfish and Perverse on a level above a lot of today’s gay fiction.

Smith tries a bit too hard for snappy epigrams. Though they don’t get in the way, they never quite hit the bull’s eye. For instance: “The fantasy of having sex with a straight man never appealed to me, because I was a writer and could complete the narrative and knew I’d probably end up cooking and cleaning for him.” (This line inspired me to get Sam “Phil Andros” Steward’s 1966 story collection $tud off the shelf. In “Sea Change,” the narrator encounters a ‘straight’ man who ends up cooking and cleaning for the gay man he hooks up with. Steward’s stories are dated and sometimes painful in some of their attitudes, especially about race, but they effortlessly achieve the humor and depth that writers like Smith struggle for in vain.)

Or: it’s “a harsh fact that expressing too much individuality means you’ll always be single. I loved reading about eccentric characters in novels but understood that in the real world, wearing a monocle will restrict your sex life to masturbation.” That’s tough talk for a character named “Nelson Kunker.” (Why is it that gay fictioneers like to give their characters such clunky names? At least Smith is kinder to his than Ethan Mordden.) Smith has a bounty of these aperçus, roughly one per page. (I did like the name-play that I swiped for the title of this review, though.) Selfish and Perverse would be unbearable if it weren’t for Smith’s ability to get his characters to reveal themselves through their behavior – which is a good sign for his future as a novelist. There is still a coolness, a distance, in his writing that I hope he’ll outgrow. On the other hand, he has managed to sustain a 370-page story without breaking a sweat, no small achievement for a first novelist. I’ll watch for his next novel on the library shelves.