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I’ve relished Jerry Wheeler’s stories in various anthologies—Bears in the Wild, Wings, and I Like It Like That—over the last few years, and I encounter him annually at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, where he and his cohorts William Holden and Dale Chase often speak on panels about erotic writing, so I was very pleased to hear that Lethe Press was publishing Wheeler’s first volume of short stories. It proved to be an enviably varied collection. I will be the first to admit that my erotic writing possesses more depth than breadth (“big, butch, hairy guys tied up” just about summarizes my sense of Eros), but Wheeler ranges far more widely. Strawberries contains not only erotica but also speculative fiction and even a few pieces that read like memoir. I enjoyed every story in the book, so I’d like to comment briefly on all of them.
Wheeler tends to write smart introductions to the books of erotica he’s edited—Tented and Riding the Rails come to mind—and he does the same for this collection. I’m always curious as to a fellow writer’s influences, and Wheeler’s discussion of his lifelong enthusiasm for Edgar Allan Poe helped me put his stories in perspective. The supernatural elements that often crop up in Wheeler’s work certainly remind me of my fellow Virginian’s tales of the mysterious and the macabre.
Of course, what Wheeler’s stories possess that Poe’s stories don’t is a deep and delicious sense of the erotic. The first story, “Strawberries,” got my attention fast: a farm boy—what I would call an otter (though Wheeler doesn’t use the term) with a “scraggly blond beard” and a “thick treasure trail” revealed by a half-lifted t-shirt is eating a strawberry, much to the horny narrator’s fascination. Having picked too many damned strawberries to count in my country youth and having quietly salivated over many a farm boy here in my native region of Appalachia, I was very much in my element, joining that narrator in his lusty gaze, in his congested desire praying for an outlet. Wheeler’s very good at depicting the slow build-up of lust, the way that the small details of a desired man’s body can entrance one. He’s also very good at avoiding predictability: the plot takes a turn I never would have imagined. I’ll think twice the next time I see a scarecrow.
If you ever get a chance to hear Wheeler read one of his stories out loud, take it. I’d heard him read part of the next story, “Spider Strands,” at Saints and Sinners, and he gave a great performance. So many of the sexy boys in his stories are scruffy, eminently fuckable street kids—often hairy in all the right spots and addicted to the word “dude”—and Kurt, the narrator’s object of desire—is no exception. In fact, one of the hottest sex scenes I’ve ever read appears in this tale. (Just wait for the dumpster.) The story’s premise—a tattoo artist and his magic ink—is wonderfully original, and the ending is creepily Gothic.
“Waafrneeaasuu!!” which first appeared in Bears in the Wild, is another story I’ve heard Wheeler read at Saints and Sinners, and his oral rendition of it was downright priceless. A top is disturbed—well, deeply turned off—by his delectable bottom’s use of the absurd word “mangina” during sex. Then said Top encounters a shabby gypsy at a Renaissance Faire who sells him a magic word…and certain amazing transformations take place. This tale is as much comedy as it is erotica and could be turned into a hysterical stage play with little effort.
“The Fireside Bright” is one of the stories in Strawberries that reads like memoir.
The narrator, only thirteen, develops a raging fascination for his thirty-six-year-old neighbor, a burly, hairy married man. A piece I could painfully relate to (as can the majority of gay men, I’d imagine). Beautifully written, vastly poignant.
“Snapshots” is a bleak analysis of abuse, hatred, and lingering psychological scars. The stark and disturbing tone here reminds me of the impressive breadth of Wheeler’s fiction. He had me laughing out loud in “Waafrneeaasuu!!” then shaking my head in pity and contempt in this piece. Something about the sad fates of these characters reminds me of the grim twist at the end of Edith Wharton’s great novel, Ethan Frome.
Originally included in Shane Allison’s anthology In Plain View: Hot Public Gay Erotica, “Changing Planes” begins with an accidental meeting in an airport’s men’s room, introduces us to Kenny, another tasty young “dude” with an eager ass, and ends with a glorious escape from a life pent up and circumscribed into freedom, adventure, and a second chance. Of Wheeler’s penchant for giving us the fine pairing of yearning daddies and more-than-willing boys, I can only say “Yum!” When Kenny groans, “Yeah, your boy needs to be fucked,” I can only praise the written word for its ability to spice up and intensify the daily mundane (especially in regions like mine, where such willing boys are far from common).
“Love, Sex & Death on the Daily Commute” is the first story of Wheeler’s I ever read, in the anthology Law of Desire, and I enjoyed it just as much this time around. The lonely narrator’s increasing obsession with a sexy redneck in a pickup truck, whom he glimpses on the freeway every morning on the way to work, is entirely believable, as are the violent climax and dénouement.
“The Telephone Line” was previously published in I Like It Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire, which inclines me to read it as creative nonfiction. Well, anyone who can make publishable erotica out of memoir must have lived his life right! Here, a stubble-faced telephone serviceman appears at the narrator’s door, and good things commence with the help of some pot. This is another tale that most gay men will resonate strongly to. As Wheeler puts it, “The repairman/phone guy/delivery man scenario, of course, has been a staple of gay (and straight) fantasies from the earliest days of eight-millimeter film loops and probably way before then. Burly men in jeans and uniform shirts, half-sweaty from their labors, rumpled, wrinkled and ready for action they’re not getting from their wives or girlfriends—what’s not to jerk off over?” Testify, brother! (I can only envy Wheeler his boldness and his good luck. I’m far too shy and Southern-polite ever to have initiated such musky frolic with the slew of local workers I’ve pantingly desired as they’ve replaced the roof or the storm windows, painted the living room or checked the heat pump. “The Telephone Line” allows the timid vicarious satisfaction.)
Erotica, comedy, the supernatural, memoir, and next, pure romance. “Templeton’s In Love,” which was included in Best Gay Romance 2010, is a sweet tale of former lovers who, after ten years apart, encounter each other again at one of their old stomping grounds. Nostalgia, aging, change, regret, the dream of recovering what you’ve lost: these elements blend to make a very moving story.
Like Homer Simpson, I could devour donuts at least once a day, so the next story, “Little Danny’s Donuts,” got me hankering, not only for those glazed pastries but also for the sex-maddened cops that rigorously ravish the fortunate title character. “Spider Strands” might have had magic ink, but Danny’s got aphrodisiac donuts. This story has some of the humor found in “Waafrneeaasuu!!” and the unexpected ending displayed in “Strawberries.”
Wheeler’s characterization in “Cumsmoke” reminds me of how Henry James so often and so adeptly gives us a narrator we initially sympathize with but slowly learn to despise. What begins in titillating realism ends in demonic mystery and justly unpleasant desserts.
“You Know You Want To,” which appeared last autumn in Wings: Subversive Angel Erotica, depicts a hapless angel who’s trying to protect Nick, the man he loved in life, from a predatory and deceitful new partner, Roger. The latter character, with “his visible tattoos, longish dark hair and scruffy beard,” I must confess I found as hot as he was contemptible, especially when he answers a Craigslist ad saying “Rape Me!” and obliges a stranger’s yearning for mock forced sex. What complicates this narrative is the angel’s ambivalence (which matches the reader’s)—he detests Roger but is perversely excited by the man’s many surreptitious sexual exploits.
Another piece of what appears to be creative nonfiction is “Yuri: A Pride Memoir.” Wheeler’s portrayal of a wide-eyed young innocent from a repressive foreign country who marvels over the colorful openness of a Denver Pride parade and festival reminds me powerfully of my own youth. How excited and amazed I was, having grown up in a small town in very heteronormative southern West Virginia, when I got a chance to attend queer political marches in DC in the late seventies. Now, jaded at age fifty-two, I can’t imagine enjoying such a crowded and noisy event. As Wheeler puts it,
Yuri’s life will become bland. If he stays in the gay community,
no matter where he is, leather dykes on motorcycles and green
sequined drag queens will become as commonplace as putting
on his shoes or brushing his teeth…he’ll find that freedom
breeds complacency, even though it shouldn’t. And when that
happens, I hope he finds a way to fill his eyes with wonder once
again. We should all be so lucky.
The last story in the collection is the longest and the most complex. “A Thirst for Talent” concerns vampires, but of a different sort than the usual bloodsuckers. These creatures gravitate to the talented and drink energy from them. The protagonist, Warner, cares for the young artists he feeds from, nurturing their careers, while the antagonist, Seth, who for centuries has competed with Warner for victims, hurriedly and ruthlessly drains them. In a seedy New Orleans bar, they meet their latest prey, another of Wheeler’s delicious stable of fuzzy-assed scruff-boys. This one’s Wade, a gifted guitarist who, soon after he performs blues in that bar, is depicted, much to my pleasure, on a French quarter balcony, “barefoot and shirtless,” scratching “the patch of thick blond hair between his navel and the top of his jeans.” With Warner’s help, Wade’s recording career soon takes off, but Seth, shapeshifting into female form, is determined to wrest the rising star from Warner. I found the long-postponed love scene well worth the wait and entirely gratifying. (Inevitably! A handsome and hairy young musician moaning “Fuck your boy” has, I must admit, long been one of this Daddybear’s fantasies.) The ending, on the other hand, was a shock, a complete surprise. Don’t read ahead on this one.
Strawberries and Other Erotic Fruits was an exciting, entertaining, and moving experience from beginning to end. Thanks to Jerry Wheeler for the reading pleasure and to Steve Berman’s Lethe Press for publishing the book. Here’s hoping Mr. Wheeler is at work on a second volume.
Reviewed by Jeff Mann
Jeff Mann’s books include three collections of poetry, Bones Washed with Wine, On the Tongue, and Ash: Poems from Norse Mythology; two books of personal essays, Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear and Binding the God: Ursine Essays from the Mountain South; two novellas, Devoured, included in Masters of Midnight: Erotic Tales of the Vampire and Camp Allegheny, included in History’s Passion: Stories of Sex Before Stonewall; two novels, Fog: A Novel of Desire and Reprisal and Purgatory: A Novel of the Civil War; a collection of poetry and memoir, Loving Mountains, Loving Men; and a volume of short fiction, A History of Barbed Wire, winner of a Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative writing at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.