The Passionate Attention of an Interesting Man – Ethan Mordden (Magnus Books)

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“You can lose your way sometimes,” Alex finally said. “So it’s nice to be
looked after. Independence gets so exhausting.”

This observation by one of the characters in “The Food of Love,” the last
story in this powerful collection, provides not only the title of Ethan
Mordden’s book, The Passionate Attention of an Interesting Man, but also
distills its core essence into a single line.

These stories are about power, surrender, and their symbiosis that
sometimes qualifies as love. It could even be argued that the stories are about
the benefits of surrender.

The stories are less about love, and more about need: how
path-of-least-resistance lives collect around the dense power of someone whose
nature it is to take charge. They are about men who have somehow lost their
way, or never really found it in the first place and are drawn into another
man’s power, helpless as a derelict spaceship in the tractor beam of galactic
pirates.

Mordden’s language sometimes sparkles, sharp as broken glass, and at others
slides forward with subtle menace. He’s a wonderfully gifted writer and in this
collection has created original settings in which to explore power differential
in relationship.

“Tom,” the first and longest story, is a love story of two straight men who
grow from housemates to friends to friends, to co-creators of a model
railroad that represents far more than the answer to childhood longings. Tom,
taciturn and muscular, has inherited his house and his drive to control from
his father. He speaks in menacing terms, but their meaning proves
disconcertingly kind. Lloyd is a socially adept but directionless journalist
who grew up in an orphanage and answers Tom’s ad for a housemate. They come
together to grow a truly memorable relationship.

“Hopelessly Devoted to You” is a brilliant story told by two narrators.
Jason is the impossibly dramatic diva whose speech is the iconic ramped-up
cleverness that leaves the rest of us gasping in the dust:

 

“Call us queens if you will—and you must!—but, all the same, we
are professionals, ready to execute our three sacred missions:

     Watch.

             Report.

                   Exaggerate.

 

Rick is Jason’s quiet, solid friend who shows up in town from New York
without much explanation. The story is built around glittering rumor,
speculation and fantasy concerning Lyle Hickock, “automobile mechanic to the
stars and the hottest man in town,” as invented by Jason and his queenly
circle, laced with dashes of New York music, dance, theater and magical
thinking.

Rick provides a grounded, sensible foil to Jason, and actually carries the
punch of the story, including its uncompromising wisdom. Toward the end of the
story, Jason drives Rick home:

 

   And one evening, when I was
driving Rick home—yes, he still doesn’t drive his own car—I asked him,
out of the blue, if I he thought I would ever meet someone like Lyle and be
able to slumber in his arms in perfect union […]. Rick knew I wasn’t fishing
for consolations. I wanted the truth, and only a friend-for-life can give you
that.

   And he answered, “No.”

 

“The Flippety Flop” continues Mordden’s exploration of roles, theater, what
some men need and can give each other. I found this story less compelling, as
well-written as it was, and more predictable.

“The Suite” is a surreal story about CJ, who is hired by a faceless company
and brought to live on their corporate campus, a Microsoft-meets-Hotel
California setting where corporate status is advertised by the kind of living
quarters an employee is assigned. It’s also the only story in which the book’s
thematic exploration of power differential manifests as outright abuse. It
matches the implied abuse of the corporate culture.

CJ barely exists as a character (which
given the author’s obvious skill has to be intentional) even though we see
everything through his eyes. He’s numb. He’s the only character in the book
whose motivations are missing, making truly adrift. He excels, apparently, at
his corporate work but pays little attention to what he wants. He submits to
his dominator without the slightest self-examination, and for that I found his
story unsatisfying.

“The Food of Love” is utterly captivating, and I use the term with intent.
Alex is a successful actor whose living arrangement with a female friend and
her older lover is revealed to be as unusual as the narrator’s own relationship
with Cosgrove, who lives in undefined service to him.

In a now-familiar mix of themes that are raised in the preceding stories
(acting, roles, audience, attention, power, love, and need) the reader meets
men who find (or have found) relationships that work for them, and over the
course of the story the reader gains thought-provoking insight into what those
solutions entail.

Overall,
Mordden’s writing is beautifully dramatic, believable, clear, honest,
thoughtful and compelling. I could give you more excerpts to prove my point,
but instead you’ll just have to read the collection for yourself.

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©, 2013, Lloyd Meeker

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