Monthly Archives: November 2011

Stud – Brigit Zahara (eXtasy Books)

Buy it now direct from the eXtasy Books.

In over thirty years of reviewing for many print and online
outlets, I’ve run across some amazing finds—incredible, perspicacious writers
who use heartbreakingly real characters and sharp, telling prose to push
boundaries. Brigit Zahara’s Stud is not one of these books. It isn’t
even close.

The plot? Vampire Kyan falls in love with Victim/Hooker
Sasha (could the names get any gayer?) and seduces him, saving Sasha
from an encounter with a Rough Trade Trick who ends up kidnapping said Victim
anyway, despite the efforts of Victim’s best friend, a Sassy Black Flamboyant
Flamer named Dallas. Kyan rescues Sasha from RTT, seduces him yet again,
pledges eternal love and whisks him away for the happy aerial ending. We never
see Dallas again. All in under 75 pages.

To say this is slight is an understatement. The characters
are caricatures—no depth, no style and no substance. They do, however, have
beautifully chiseled abs, which is apparently enough in today’s market. What
about Sasha causes Kyan to fall madly in love? Um, I dunno. What in
Kyan’s vampiric past attracts him to male prostitutes? Ah, beats me. How
can a pasty-faced, doughy human nebbish like Tanner (the Rough Trade
Trick) pose much of a problem for a toned, muscular vampire with supernatural
powers? Your guess is as good as mine.

And the Sassy Black Flamboyant Flamer? I believe there to be
a special place in Hell for authors and film directors who perpetuate this
egregious, more than faintly racist Stepin Fetchit stereotype for comic relief.
It’s an amateurish device in the best of hands, but here it’s simply inept. You
don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at this witty banter:

                             Dallas playfully slapped at Sasha’s arm.
“Ooooooh, you

                        naughty
thing! Listen, honey, I don’t care who sticks it in

                        first,
let’s just get busy!”

                             Sasha chuckled, his full lips parting to
reveal flawless,

                        super-white
teeth. “Ah, Dallas, you kill me.” 

                             Dallas sidled up closer and slung a skinny
arm around

                        Sasha’s
shoulders. “Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm, that’s what

                        I’m
talking about. I want to kill you baby, kill you with

                        kindness—you,
and that big ol’ cock of yours.”

If you aren’t cringing by now, you should be. And for those
who might argue that I’m taking a few lines out of context to prove a point,
you’re partially right. However, at less than 75 pages, there’s precious little
context in which to put it. I just wish I could get back the afternoon I spent
reading this.

Is there an app for that? 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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A Conversation with D.V. Sadero by Gavin Atlas

D.V.
Sadero was born and raised in Los Angeles, went north to Cal Berkeley and never
looked back. He has been living in San Francisco for a number of years. 
Sadero  is the author of Revolt
of the Naked
, originally released by BadBoy Books and now again in
paperback.  He is also the author of In The Alley.  D.V. has
worked as a lifeguard as well as a private investigator.  He has said a
lot of his fiction comes from asking half-drunk men in bars about the weirdest
sex they’ve ever had.

Hi,
D.V.  I don’t have any vodka to ply you with, but without incriminating
yourself, could you either tell us about the weirdest sex you’ve ever had or,
so as not to put you on the spot, tell us some of the weirder things the guys
from the bars described?  

The
weirdest sex I ever had was when I picked up a guy up in a San Francisco
Tenderloin bar because he looked so out of place there. He was about 30, nice
waspy features, and came on like a well bred graduate of like Harvard or
Princeton, in his button-down shirt and Dockers. What did he come to this dump
for? Something heavy-duty, I figured. Well, curiosity, often enough, is the
beginning of a turn-on. 

I
chatted him up, and he, giving me no idea of what he was into, suggested we go
to his room. Much to my surprise the guy led me to one of the many crummy
hotels in the area. I’d been expecting us to end up at one of the nice ones a
few blocks in the other direction. 

Inside
his depressing room I saw no equipment or clothing to indicate just what his
interests might be. 

Bed
proceeded kind of the usual. I’d made it clear I was going to do the fucking,
and he was happy with that. So there I was, between his legs and holding his
arms down on the mattress, which he liked. As I moved back and forth he
began talking, obsessively and without stopping. In a short while his words
made me realize that he was deep into a fantasy of being fucked by Richard
Nixon. The guy encouraged me to fuck him harder, harder. I did, being in a real
hurry to pop and split. 

Guess I
don’t need to mention that I had (and have) zero resemblance to that then
ex-president.  So… that’s the weirdest sex I’ve ever had, and about the
least fulfilling. 

D.V.
Sadero is a pseudonym.  Where did the name come from?  What does D.V.
stand for?  

A
Spanish word, name of a street in San Francisco, Divisadero. I like the
initials and that, to me, “Sadero” sounds vaguely sinister,
nonspecifically foreign. And it’s also a quiet little homage to a guy who lived
on that street for many years and was the greatest oral artist in the Bay Area.

Could
you in general tell us how far off (or how close) television and mystery novel
representations of private investigators are from reality?   What kind of
situations did you actually wind up in would have made for a good book
plot? 
  

My
private investigator experience was extremely limited. I worked off and on
for a one-man agency, got called in when he had cases involving gay men. He
felt that was “another world”. The cases mostly involved business
deals gone wrong, often along with relationships turning bad. Could get really
messy. TV and novels are necessarily a lot more dramatic. Much of my job
consisted of following, waiting around, making notes of who came/went, and
otherwise just picking up gossip by talking with guys in bars. Not exciting,
never dangerous. No guns, no crime figures, though I certainly observed and
recorded some really trashy, low-down behavior.  

In
the society you create in Revolt of the
Naked
, there are no women, and bottom men are basically naked slaves
treated with no small amount of disrespect.  Being the passive partner
seems to be the ultimate shame and something a father prays never happens to a
son.  There’s a scene where a “bad guy” gambles and, to his great shock
and horror, loses his ass despite using loaded dice.  He then gets fucked
for the first time which ruins his life forever since he’s now fair game to be
constantly gangbanged by one and all.   Where did these ideas come
from?  Do you have a theory about why many people find that dubious
consent or non-consent a huge turn-on instead of a nightmare? 

Basically,
on the planet Talanta a lot of the men are straight but have only other men for
sex. Active is the masculine way, rough and crude are commonplace. So, to be a
bottom is not so good. This situation sets up the plot for certain characters
to learn some useful lessons about themselves as the story goes on, and for
certain points of view to get modified. And is real handy for some sweaty,
raunchy sex scenes I very much enjoyed writing. 

My own
theory: Well, my notions: First, virtually all gay men are raised in straight
society, and many, however wild and free and liberated as adults, carry some
sense of guilt for committing “forbidden” sex acts. They don’t feel so guilty
when they are forced (or “forced”) to submit to something they actually find
quite pleasurable. Second, since so many of us have such a wide range and
number of experiences, we explore a lot of fantasies, ours and others’.
Including ones that may be minor, lurking in the shadows. A man with no real
interest in submission-dominance might well give it a try now and again, when
he comes on a more interested partner. Third, some of us are just programmed
for sub-dom as an important factor in a sex life. A primal acting-out, I’d say,
quite powerful, but can’t make a guess as to its source in the mind.

Fourthly,
and this won’t be a popular view, but I believe most gay men are by nature more
bottom than top. Which means that supply-and-demand can come into play. A
cock-hungry bottom will do what it takes to get fucked. Which could get heavy
in certain circumstances. “You want my oversized uncut, kid? Well, fer a start,
why don’t yew just get on yer knees and unbutton my 501s? An’ we’ll go from
there.” 

How do
people treat you differently (if they do at all) when they learn you’ve written
fantasies as wild as those in Revolt of
the Naked
?
 

Occasionally
a friend will tell me he really liked this scene or was really put off by that
one. I smile and listen, because usually the friend is telling me more about
himself than about the book. Any insight I pick up might be useful when I write
my next fiction. 

After
seeing that used copies of Revolt,
which was a mass market paperback, were selling for $200 each, you decided to
issue a new edition.  What was your experience like with re-publishing the
work?  Do you have tips for other authors who might want to do the same?    

When I
first published Revolt of the Naked, it was a matter of typing up the
manuscript and sending it in. This experience was totally different, all so
computerized, quite new and sometimes confusing. But I’ve had more say in the
production this time around. For instance, I hated the cover on the original
paperback. It was a black-and-white, generic photo of a muscled young tough on
an ugly green background, nothing in it suggesting science fiction. This time a
friend of mine in Mexico City, a professional illustrator, did up an
appropriately weird interplanetary cover, showing a gorgeous young man with
strange eyes. 

My only
tip, and this is based on my experience alone, is to get it all done as fast as
reasonably possible. For various reasons I had several interruptions, one
running as long as two weeks, and picking up the threads every time was kind of
tedious. 

What
gay erotica have you enjoyed the most?   Overall, which authors or books
have had the greatest impact on you?
 

In gay
erotica: I like the Dirk
Vanden
books, the I Want it All series. And Lars Eighner
(BMOC and Bayou Boy). Haven’t read much in the last few years,
probably all kinds of work I’d enjoy is out there.

Overall,
the authors/books who’ve had the greatest impact on me are those who get
closest to the nitty-gritty: Balzac (especially his famous Vautrin character,
the gay, very macho master criminal and genius manipulator,) the early Robert
Stone
(Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers), Nathanael
West
, Hubert
Selby, Jr.
, and the hardboiled/noir guys, Cain, Hammett, McCoy, et
al. 

What
elements do you think a story (or a sex scene) needs to have for it to be
successful at arousing the reader?  

I think
a sex scene has to have feelings going between (or among) the participants.
Feelings besides lust. If it’s just some bods slapping together, who cares? But
if one guy, for instance, hates the other, or wants to dominate/take
over/enslave the other, or adores/worships the other, or is inexperienced,
confused, a little afraid of what’s to come, and if the other is having his own
set of feelings for his sex partner, then you get real people having real
sex. 

What
genres besides erotica do you enjoy writing? What do you see yourself working
on in the future?
 

I keep
a daily diary, have since age 15. Not sure why, but I can’t stop now. Hardly
literature. 

Future
writing: Considering some ideas for a sequel to Revolt, but we’ll see
how well the new edition sells. Have a lot of erotic short stories, published
and not, but I keep hearing that they don’t sell all that well these days. And,
um, on one level writing is w-o-r-k, and I do like to get paid. 

Thanks
very much, D.V.!

Thank
you!

For
more information about D.V. Sadero and his books see:  

http://www.amazon.com/Revolt-Naked-D-V-Sadero/dp/1563332612

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Women of the Mean Streets: Lesbian Noir – Jean Redmann and Greg Herren, eds. (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it now direct from Bold Strokes Books

A few weeks ago, we reviewed Redmann and Herren’s “Men of
the Mean Streets” and found it to be a lean, luscious page turner. Its lesbian
counterpart is every bit its equal, tweaking and twisting traditional
male-dominated private dicks while retaining the trappings and (admittedly)
loose conventions of noir.

This anthology reeks of wet gutters, getaway car exhaust,
and Chanel No. 9, starting out with Laura Lippmann’s “A.R.M. and the Woman,” a
chilling tale of emotional economics as practiced by Sally, a supremely wrought
noir heroine—beautiful, calculating and sociopathic. But no more so than Ava
Tanner, the masterful architect of Gordon Chesney’s frame in Lori Lake’s
frighteningly possible “Den of Iniquity.”

Carsen Taite changes up the heroines, moving to the other
side of the law with her bounty hunter Luca Bennett in “Boomerang,” a nicely
told detective yarn. But as fun as the mystery and intrigue and dicks-chasing-dames
noir is, there are many sides to the genre. Miranda Kent thirteen-year-old
narrator in “Some Kind of Killing” has a refreshing voice freed from those
constrictions to tell a horrific story of madness and murder and Victoria A.
Brownworth uses a wonderfully distant point of view (many of these stories are
first person) to intensify the brutal manner in which Muriel’s mother comes to
her end in “The Darkest Night of the Year.”

Stage manager Hattie Parker gives us all the backstage
gossip on diva Edna Powell’s death in Clifford Henderson’s neatly-turned
“Anything for the Theatre.” Going back to a more classic noir vein, Kendra
Sennett’s “Social Work” sees gullible student social worker Megan fall in blind
love with shady older lady Amanda, with tragic results. In Redmann’s own New
Orleans-soaked “Lost,” P.I. Michele investigates her cousin Bayard’s
disappearance and Diane Anderson-Minshall’s “Chasing Athena” proves to be a
rollicking ride as Parker pursues her dream girl from city to city before
learning a bitter lesson she knew all along.

These, however, are just a few of my favorites. This
companion volume to Men of the Mean Streets is just as entertaining,
with diverse and highly original work that’s sure to feed your need for the
darker side of crime.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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A Conversation with Jeffrey Ricker by Gavin Atlas

Jeffrey Ricker is a
writer, editor, and graphic designer in St. Louis and a graduate of the
University of Missouri School of Journalism. 
He is the author of short stories such as “New Normal” and his brand new
novel, Detours, from Bold Strokes
Books.  

Hi, Jeffrey!   This is your first novel, I think.  How does it feel to have it published?   Tell us what you’d like the readers to know
about Detours.  

Hi,
Gavin! Yes, Detours is my first
novel. When people ask me what it’s about, I tell them it’s a road trip with a
love story surrounded by a ghost story. It’s about how things never turn out
the way you planned them, and yet somehow they manage to turn out the way they
should. Several characters in Detours,
especially Joel, the narrator, deal with varying concepts of what home is, and
I don’t think for any of them that it turns out to be what they expected.

It’s
kind of funny, the feelings I’ve had around this book getting published. The
process is such a long one, it’s variously felt real and unreal as time’s gone
on. Last week, though, I got a box of advance copies in the mail, and that’s
when I thought, “Wow, this is really happening, isn’t it?”

What in your background do you think led
you to have an interest in writing fiction? 

You’d
have to ask my therapist. (Kidding!) Actually, that’s an easy one: stories.
I’ve always loved hearing stories, reading stories, and making up stories. I
guess the choice was either write stories or grow up to be a pathological liar.

I was
a fairly quiet kid and didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. I read a lot. I
also watched a lot of TV, but I remember going through a lot of books. I went
through an Agatha Christie phase where I read as many of her books as possible.
I also read a lot of science fiction series, that sort of thing. Writing
stories was an extension of that and a way of populating the stage in my head.

The main character’s mother (who is a
ghost in the story) in Detours is
fascinating, and not really like anyone I’ve met in fiction before.  Do you draw a lot from people in your life
or, if it’s okay to ask, what process do you use when it comes to developing
characters?

I
can’t say that I have a definitive process for coming up with characters. Often
it starts as a voice, or a line of dialogue. I follow that initial hunch until
I start getting a feel for them, and then I’ll usually pause and write a
character sketch, some important biographical information for them, and any
other details.

With
Rachel, the narrator’s mother, she took on a whole new life (or afterlife, as
the case may be) in the third revision of the book. I moved her death from the
end of the novel to the beginning, and suddenly I saw the form of the story as
it should have been, and how it actually ended up.

I
don’t know where she came from, really. I’m just glad she did.

When
it comes to creating characters, I don’t draw a lot from people in my life
directly; Rachel is not like my own mother, for example, who doesn’t smoke and
would never be caught dead in peach, I don’t think. I think character is often
an unconscious distillation of various traits we observe in different people
that take on a certain form in one particular individual on the page.

Wow,
that sounded pretentious. Okay! Let’s dial that back a notch. Characters are
like spaghetti: you throw bits of personality at the page and see what sticks.
At least, that’s what I do.

Travel is a great device for
storytelling, especially cross-country adventures.  What kind of research (on the road or on the
internet, etc.) did you have to do for the travel aspects?  What kind of role does travel play in your
own life? 

This
was one case where I went with “write what you know.” First, I love to travel.
Second, I grew up in a military family (my dad was a Marine), so we moved a
lot. I wanted to get setting right, which is why almost all of the locations in
Detours are places I’ve visited or
lived. Portland, Maine is where my family is originally from, but I haven’t
been back there in about ten years. While I would have loved to go and visit
for purposes of getting the details just right, time and finances just wouldn’t
allow it. (Hello, I work for a not-for-profit.) Sometimes, Google Earth can
come in handy if you’re trying to remember what’s on a particular street corner
near the Western Promenade in Portland.

I saw your story “The Trouble with Billy”
in the LGBT YA anthology, Speaking Out, got a great
review in Kirkus, and both “The New
Normal” and “At the End of the Leash” in the romance anthology Fool For Love were
awesome.  What do you feel is the
difference in the skill set one needs to write an effective short story compared
with what’s needed to write an effective novel?   

You
could have knocked me over with a feather when I read the review for Speaking Out, but I think that’s a
credit to the fantastic job Steve Berman did in collecting those stories
together.

As
for the difference between short fiction and novels, it’s kind of like the
difference between a sprint and distance running. A short story is a
concentrated distillation of all the things that go into any kind of
storytelling—character, setting, plot, you name it—all the things that you can
explore in a novel in greater depth. Or to put it as a travel metaphor, a short
story is a weekend out of town and a novel is a two-week vacation.

Since
Detours was my first novel (well, the
first one I completed that I thought was worthy of public consumption), it felt
a bit like on-the-job training, learning by doing: I was learning how to write
a novel by writing a novel. It was a long education. It took me eight years,
off and on, to finish it.

Which writers or books can you list as
some of your favorites or as some that have had the biggest influence on you?

Every
time I think about this question, I feel the urge to get up and look at my
bookshelves to remind me of what I’ve read and what I own. Writers I love? F.
Scott Fitzgerald (I know it’s practically a cliché, but The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel bar none), Jane Austen, Virginia
Woolf, Michael Cunningham, C.J. Cherryh, Robert Heinlein, Charles Baxter,
Haruki Murakami (“The Elephant Vanishes” is one of my favorite short stories
ever). I love J.K. Rowling; I think she’s amazingly creative.

The
writers who inspire or influence me more directly are the ones with whom I’m
friends or am acquainted: Greg Herren (my editor), Rob Byrnes, ‘Nathan
Burgoine, Timothy Lambert, Becky Cochrane, Alex Chee, the people in my writing
group. They and a lot of others are the people who have provided encouragement
along the way or are people I talk to about what I’m writing, what they’re
writing, and get and give feedback. Writing is often a very solitary practice,
and these are the people who make it less so for me.

A mutual friend of ours I won’t identify
said jokingly I needed to ask you, “Why are you so in-your-face about
dogs?”  To be a bit more serious, Neil Plakcy recently said that
getting a dog has had a big impact on what and how he writes.  What effect, if any, do animals have on your
writing? 

Gee,
I can’t imagine which friend that might be (*cough* ‘Nathan
*cough*).

Here’s
the thing: everything I know about love I’ve learned from dogs and cats. At the
same time, they’ve broken my heart more completely and painfully than any human
ever could. They come into your life and spend a joy-filled decade—two, if
you’re lucky—and then they go away. They’ve had an effect on my writing because
they’ve had an effect on my life. I don’t really think that I trust people who
don’t have pets or don’t like animals.

A question out of nowhere:  A genie appears and grants you one wish.  What would you choose (and, of course, why)? 

Oh
gods, that’s easy: more time. I’d wish for that, definitely. There’s never
enough.

Can you tell us about what you’re working
on or what you’d like to work on the future?

Oh,
absolutely. I’m working on my second novel, which is going to be a young-adult
book with elements of fantasy. For people who read “The Trouble with Billy,”
you’ll meet Jamie, Sarah, and Billy again in this book, although under some
very different circumstances. I’m also working on several stories (a couple of
which have to be finished and submitted, like, yesterday), and then there’s a
third novel waiting in the drawer for revisions….

Thanks so much, Jeffrey!

My
pleasure!

To
learn more about Jeffrey Ricker and his fiction, please visit www.jeffrey-ricker.com

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Swimming to Chicago – David-Matthew Barnes (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it now direct from Bold Strokes Books

I love books that can destroy their own labels—those
marketing categories that limit and define the limitless and indefinable.
David-Matthew Barnes’ marvelous Swimming to Chicago, will doubtless be
put on the YA shelf, which is good for the kids but this book deserves a wider,
more adult audience as well.

Seventeen year old Alex Bainbridge finds life difficult
enough figuring out his sexuality, even with the help of his best friend,
Jillian, and his mother’s suicide doesn’t make his choices any easier. What
does, however, is his new neighbor Robby. But as Alex and Robby become close so
do their parents—Robby’s mother engaging in an affair with Alex’s father.
Jillian has her own choices as she finds herself falling in love with Robby’s
father, her English teacher.

A tangled web? Yes. But Barnes handles the complexities of
these relationships with grace and self-assurance, never once losing the thread
or the reader. Since this tale is told from multiple viewpoints—which I
ordinarily hate—Barnes’ skill at characterization comes into play, as he
creates three-dimensional people with separate, distinct voices, all of whom
have vastly different takes on the events at hand.

Although Alex and Robby’s relationship is central to their
characters as well as the plot, I found myself mystified as to what attracted
them to each other. That may not be the point, however. Rather than concentrate
on the specifics of their courtship, perhaps Barnes seeks to show how these
young men use their newly forged relationship—at the end at least—to cope with
a set of problems entirely different than those which confronted them earlier.
No matter the details, he assumes the success of the gay relationship while the
straight ones crumble on nearly every page.

But if that relationship is a bit foggy, there are enough
sharp, cutting details elsewhere to keep you entertained. Martha, Robby’s
mother, is particularly well-done. Drawn to Alex’s recently-widowed father and
disgusted with the ongoing affairs of her English teacher husband, Harley,
Martha’s is an interesting mid-life story set against all the teen drama,
possibly to show that although “it gets better,” adulthood is no picnic either.

Similarly, Jillian’s fell-in-love-and-got-pregnant-by-a-married-man
scenario plays out with implications for both Jillian and Harley immediately,
but for everyone in the long-term. The details and outcome of this sub-plot are
riveting and have a couple of twists and turns the ending hinges on, so not
much can be said without giving it all away. But, again, its success depends on
Alex and Robby as a unit.

David-Matthew Barnes has fashioned a well-told tale in Swimming
to Chicago
—one that will engross readers of all ages no matter which shelf
it ends up on. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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The Incident – Xavier Alexson (Seventh Window Publications)

Buy it now – The Incident
 

I’ve reviewed two of Xavier’s books in the past, “Dutch’s
Boy,” and “Christmas Eve at the Powers that be Café.” One of the comments I
always say about his work is that he has a way with his characters, he knows
them intimately and because of this talent, the reader can’t help but feel
connected to them. They are complex individuals. Many are flawed, scarred, and
well… human. Regardless of the reader’s own background, everyone can find
something to relate to with Xavier’s characters. The Incident is no different,
and in my opinion his best work so far.

I’m not going to talk about specifics of the book as this
one truly warrants reading it cover to cover, without hints from a reviewer of
the plot or resolution. Here’s the setup from the book itself.

“In the line of duty, decisions that will change your life
forever are made in a split-second. Nobody knows that better than Officer
Michael Carmac, whose fatal split-second decision haunts his days. Tormented by
guilt, Michael seeks solace in a bottle and the friendship he has with his
partner, Officer Bertram Angel. But the more he leans on Angel for support, the
more Michael discovers a longing that he’s kept hidden for too long. Can Angel
help ease the pain of guilt or will Michael’s hidden desires be the end of
their friendship?”

The Incident doesn’t fit neatly into a particular genre, but
that in my opinion is part of its charm, and what makes Xavier’s writing so unique.
The relationship between Michael Carmac and his partner Bertram Angel is not a
typical romance; man meets man, they click, struggle, and fall in love. What
transpires between these two characters is unrefined, unrehearsed, and at times
difficult…in other words, real life. And that is the secret behind the success
of this book. You experience the pain, loneliness, and at time desperation. You
will root for them, you will feel sorry for them, or even despise them, but you
will feel them — and that my friends, is what writing and enjoying fiction is
all about.

Reviewed by William Holden 

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Mitko – Garth Greenwell (Miami University Press)

Buy it now direct from Miami University Press.

What is our fascination with stories of prostitution? Beyond the prurient thrill, these narratives raise the aching issue of what should perhaps not be for sale in this world. Like God, art, and love, sex can try to give the lie to money, but ultimately all those things can be bought and sold, and it is easiest and most convenient to turn our transactions with them into, well, transactions. Prostitutes = pure sex-on-demand. Just plunk down your money. But, as soon as you do, you want more. You want to get more, and you want to give more. So may the prostitute. So you keep plunking, but unless you trim your expectations, in which case why bother, you never get what you really want. Intimacy for sale thus poses a fascinating existential dilemma. The unnamed hero of Garth Greenwell’s Mitko understands this dilemma well, even as he succumbs to the allure of the novel’s title character, a 23-year-old construction worker kept off – and on – the streets of Sofia by a stable of paying priyateli, Bulgarian for “friends.”

The narrative in which Greenwell embodies the sex-for-sale dilemma is beautifully low-key. Intrinsic to the novel’s point is that there are no Terrible Secrets: Mitko is not going to rob or assault the narrator or ask him to run drugs. He will not turn out to have mob connections, etc., etc. Those are not the kinds of crisis points that interest Greenwell. Instead, like the fine poet he is (this is his first novel), he sets his seismograph to capture the slightest tremors and shifts of a contrived relationship built on and generating very real desires, thoughts, and emotions. These tremors and shifts are indeed slight, gestures and revelations all perfectly common, yet Greenwell can tenderly probe the way eyes meet, the timing of when we get into or out of bed, or the way we feel our way toward a self-destructive choice, and suddenly our own grubby desires and habits feel new and, most importantly, worthy of notice, explication, and forgiveness.

The book’s crisis, when it comes, is a simple event precipitated by a few mundane details. Yet those details and that event give the narrator the greatest gift: his freedom, and so, of course, his true self. That freedom, and the capacity to bear it, are foreshadowed when the narrator recalls a stroll he took in the Bulgarian countryside after Mitko left his life. He drifts through a glorious, fecund Eden, making us think of Mitko as a devil, inevitably sought by the narrator, confounding him, and by extension mankind, with the torturous, inevitable riddle of desire and money.

I could have foregone two of Greenwell’s aesthetic affectations. He writes in long paragraphs, just 46 of them in 86 pages; we thus turn pages to be confronted again and again by monolithic rectangles of type that feel exhausting and impenetrable. I can imagine a justification, pardon the pun, in aesthetic terms, but the visceral effect is more off-putting than it need be. The author also enjoys parenthetical asides, as many as three per page, which is more than it sounds like. Many of these phrases, or at least the parentheses around them, seem narratively unnecessary, as much as their qualifications and equivocations reflect the way writers, poets especially perhaps, process feelings and images in their quest for les mots justes. Both the asides and the monolithic layout often obscure the small, internal revelations whose accretion forms the real plot of Mitko. I was pleasantly astonished at how many more revelations sprang up and how much more engaged, empathic and vulnerable the narrator became when I read Mitko a second time, more at ease with what I was looking at.

I was grateful to have understood that I needed to read Mitko a second time, and I would recommend two reads to anyone who comes in contact with this book. Two times through Greenwell’s book still makes just 172 pages, shorter than a single read of many another book, and well worth it.

Reviewed by David Pratt

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