Monday, December 31, 2007

Odi Et Amo

Another of my book reviews for Gay Community News, published in 1984 or so.

Joseph Torchia had written one earlier novel, The Kryptonite Kid, about a possibly gay boy, Jerry Chariot, obsessed and fascinated with Superman. It was much more fun than As If After Sex, and its ambiguity about the protagonist's sexual orientation (reasonable enough, considering that he was just a kid) , made it possible for the book to draw a juvenile and young-adult audience. In 1982 Torchia published a short story in Gay Sunshine, a "postscript" in which the protagonist, now grown up, meets Superman in a gay bar. As If After Sex was Torchia's last novel as far as I can tell. A Google search turns up several Joseph Torchias; my bet is on the Dominican theologian / philosopher who writes on Augustine and Plotinus.

I'm still a resolute anti-Platonist, and what I say in this review about gay men's attitudes toward manhood still seems relevant to me. Gay male fiction, though I still encounter some death-obsessed stuff (which includes Brokeback Mountain, as both story and film), nowadays includes enough life-affirming work, complete with gratuitous happy endings, to keep me going.

Happy New Year!


As If After Sex
by Joseph Torchia
Holt, Rinehart & Winston
190 pp.
$13.95 hardcover

I once found myself listening to a gay man who was saying wistfully, “I wish there was someplace you could go, maybe a club, where only masculine men would be allowed in.” Like so many gay men, he harbored the fantasy of rubbing elbows with a room packed full of manly men in flannel shirts and mustaches, six ax handles across the shoulders, and nary a sissy in sight.

Ever tactful, I did not point out to him that if such a place existed, he probably would not have been allowed into it, for while he wasn’t a campy sort he was too much of a nerd to meet his own specifications; I did not point out that his lover, who was butch enough to achieve entry, made his life hell by his readiness to share his manliness with all comers; I did not point out that a roomful of such men would be excruciatingly boring – but then I have never shared his fantasy. The standard male images exalted by both gays and straights I find anti-erotic. Which isn’t to say I’m never attracted by muscular men, only that I am by temperament a resolute anti-Platonist; I am not at all interested in ideal types, but rather in individuals. This makes me feel at odds with other gay men most of the time, for I suspect that many of my brothers are more attracted to Manhood than to men. Or, worse, they think they ought to be.

For this reason I may be the wrong person to review As If After Sex, Joseph Torchia’s ambivalent novel about the Male Principle made flesh to come and dwell among us. When Seymour Kleinberg dared to question the new gay machismo in Christopher Street a few years back, some readers fumed that he wanted to turn us all into screaming queens, that he was a man-hater (!), and that they might be gay but they could still be Real Men. Dear Reader, spare me. I don’t hate men, I love ‘em; I eat ‘em for breakfast. But it seems to me that fussing about masculinity is intimately related to homophobia, misogyny – is, in short, if not the root of our difficulties as queers in this society, then at least one of them. It also seems to me that loving men doesn’t mean I have to be uncritical of them.

But each to his own. If you’re into Real Men, you will probably love As If After Sex, so just skip the rest of this review and go on to the next one (I think it’s either Nancy Walker’s Love Signs or The ADVOCATE Companion to the Works of Ayn Rand.)

For those who are still with me so far: Robert, the novel’s narrator, is a young writer who moves from Florida to San Francisco. After a brief tormented affair with a husband and wife, he proceeds to a longer tormented affair with a Divine Stud named Julian, whom he has seen regularly at the gym where they both work out. Julian attracts not only Robert but all the men at the gym because of his anchorite zeal for perfecting his maleness:

One look at his body heaving and sweating, crying and hurting, and there was no turning back to the mirrors. Those powerful men were powerless against his hard skin, his dark sounds, his flushed face, his fierce determination – and their own desire to have what they could not be. His pain seemed to speak to them. … He was building from within. He was making himself complete, almost Godlike in the way he could create himself, and yet he was so perfectly and utterly man. [3]

One night Julian leads Robert through the teeming streets to a dirty bookstore, where in a labyrinth of movie booths they tumble rapturously into each other’s mouths. “You’re not like the others,” Julian tells Robert. What others? There’s the rub: Julian, being the Divine Stud, feels (in Angelo D’Arcangelo’s words, which could stand as a review of this book) “that it was his duty as the incarnation of all that was beautiful in men, to put his cock like a sacred wafer or holy suppository into whomever desired or needed it.” This isn’t easy for Robert to adjust to, naturally, but then gods aren’t always kind – indeed they are prone to s/m relationships with their devotees – and anyhow, as Julian points out, Julian has to share Robert with his typewriter.

The two men go to Mexico together, where Robert grapples further with the mysteries of his deity. But back in San Francisco, after a sinister encounter with a symbolic figure named Phaedrus, they begin to drift apart. Julian ruins his perfect body with drugs, and ultimately dies. But though his dying god doesn’t rise again, Robert the faithful acolyte tends the Eternal Flame: “I am heartily sorry, Julian … For having offended …”.

“You’re not like the others,” Julian tells Robert. Oh, yes he is. But so is Julian. Good looks and muscular bodies count for nothing in a novel, but they may be taken on faith if the author supplies appropriate characterization. But Julian and Robert are ciphers, mere mouthpieces for Torchia’s meditations on the male sex. This might be forgivable if Torchia had anything of interest to say about men or being a man, but he doesn’t; he isn’t interested in men anyway, but in abstract manhood, so he ends up saying nothing about either men or manhood.

It might be possible to overlook even this if As If After Sex weren’t written in such an unbearably leaden, pretentious, and humorless style; if Catholic allusions and imagery didn’t abound; if Torchia didn’t use the word “sex” as leitmotif, playing on its various meaning – sexual activity, sexuality, gender, and above all genitalia: “a tug on my consciousness as well as my sex” (32), “my sex in his hand” (39), “wounded in more than my sex” (170), “some creature battered and wounded in its sex” (177). This last device might work if it were limited to Robert, but all the characters, including a street hustler and an elderly customer of Julian’s talk the same way. And then there’s this other thing.

The little piles of short sentences.

Piled on top of each other like this.

He does it a lot, every few pages sometimes.

I guess he think it’s poetic, or at any rate artistic.

But it gets old, really old, very soon.

That it’s so easy to parody helps matters not at all.

The cumulative effect is redolent of that other tedious and pompous book about a false god, the Gospel according to Saint John, which like the present volume only seems profound if one is a fellow-believer. Of course it may be that Torchia wrote As If After Sex to criticize the cult of gay machismo. But if so I feel certain that the men at whom it was aimed will not perceive the criticism; the blade of Torchia’s irony is just too dull. More likely the book will be read as what it probably really is anyhow: a lament of shattered faith, a cry from the depths against men who turn out to be not gods but only boys in carapaces of muscle and denim and leather. The hope will remain that somewhere the true incarnation of the god exists. But he doesn’t exist. This is not to say that we shouldn’t admire or lust after muscular bodies, only that muscular bodies have no meaning beyond themselves. They are not manifestations of some Platonic Idea of Maleness.

A word about the novel’s unhappy ending is also in order. Aside from its comparative sexual explicitness, As If After Sex could have been written and published in the 1950s: one sick pervert dies from too many drugs, the other is plunged into grief. It isn’t just this book I’m complaining about. The same is true of far too much recent gay fiction, whose authors seem to think that ending with misery and/or death proves they’re Serious. This is not a call for “gratuitous” happy endings – but on second thought, why not? The wretched endings we’re now getting in gay male fiction are also gratuitous, and what’s worse, they fit (consciously or not) into the homophobic tradition of pre-Stonewall gay fiction. Writers and readers may think that times have changed because the love scenes are steamier, but don’t you believe it.

I trust no one will say that unhappy endings are more “realistic.” When did gay men become so interested in realism? Anyhow, Armistead Maupin’s novels reflect more awareness of, and affection for, the texture of real life than As If After Sex. Maupin’s characters may get into cartoonlike adventures, but they are real people. Torchia’s characters do drearily familiar things, but they are ghosts. I suspect Torchia was trying to give cosmic overtones to hustling, jealousy, and machismo. If so, he failed. If you want art about hustling, etc., try reading the late Paul T. Rogers’s Saul’s Book, just out in paperback. Me, I’m gonna reread Babycakes.

P.S. May 2008: Nudged by an e-mail message, I did another Google search for Torchia and found his obituary: he died of liver cancer in 1996. Regardless of how I feel about As If After Sex, I felt sorry. It seemed so much more fitting that the author of this book should have become a Dominican theologian, still alive and flourishing in his field.