I love to laugh. I think laughing is pretty much the best way we learn – especially when we laugh at ourselves. So when I had the chance to pick up Looking After Joey, the latest from David Pratt, I didn’t hesitate.
If you’ve never read Pratt before, then I should mention I’ve learned to expect a genuinely enjoyable sense of revelation in his work. Bob the Book was such a unique and witty ride and the moments of laugh-out-loud were balanced with surprising instances of introspection. My Movie – his collection of short fiction – had such range and breadth of tone that I parceled them out to myself like a Forrest Gump chocolate box, knowing that I’d enjoy whichever flavor I ended up getting.
All that to say I walked into Looking After Joey pretty aware there was going to be more to the experience than the fun synopsis suggested, and Joey delivered.
The greater narrative might seem a little out-there: this is, in a way, a kind of reverse-Pleasantville except the characters are traveling to and from gay porn rather than a 1950’s feel-good family drama. That conceit is played to full humorous effect. Calvin, Pratt’s protagonist, has socially retreated from even attempting to find a love life after his most recent split, and counts the minutes to when he can enjoy some solo satisfaction while watching his beloved porn movies. It’s Calvin who first stumbles into the porn world and finds himself adrift in this fantasy, which amuses right off the bat.
In the porn world, it’s never night. The pool always needs cleaning, the pizza is always being delivered, and no one has anything other than a hundred dollar bill, which – of course – the delivery boy can’t break and could they come up with some other kind of barter? Even better, Calvin realizes at a glance that his real-world physique has gotten an upgrade, and he can enjoy every position and play out every scene he’s ever watched to satisfaction…
Except, of course, that every man he meets has a girlfriend who’s “away for the weekend” and certainly there’s no cuddling going to happen afterwards. In fact, it’s hard to even get a moment to nap, what with it never being night and every single person wanting to have sex the moment they meet Calvin. The reality of just how awkward porn dialog is – especially, y’know, during – is both funny and painful, and Calvin’s escape from the porn world leaves him all the more confused about life and what he wants.
Then Joey pops out after him. Joey, Calvin’s favorite porn star. Joey, who has only the porn world as his knowledge base. Joey, who is completely and utterly unequipped to deal with the reality of, well… reality. To Calvin’s best friend Peachy, however, Joey is a perfect convenience – they can use Joey as a kind of revenge-by-proxy, bringing the flawless young man to one of the biggest gay social parties coming up. Joey will steal all the attention, and finally allow Peachy and Calvin to feel vindicated in their hatred of some of the major players in the gay social scene who’ve done them wrong.
It’s here that Pratt’s novel really begins to shine and takes the reader in a direction they might not expect. Joey is a perfect foil for Calvin and Peachy, and he turns what could almost have devolved into a straightforward comedic revenge tale into something much better. Calvin’s hopes for partnering off with Joey and having his fantasy relationship come to life are quickly complicated by Joey’s inability to understand he’s even gay (after all, he has a girlfriend but she’s away for the weekend) and his sudden and complete faith in Jesus (a local priest tells Joey that Jesus would forgive him of anything, which is just what Joey thinks he needs to get back to his ‘real’ world). Joey has never seen a world with sickness, or aging, or average length penises. The culture shock through Joey’s commentary is hysterical, as are the actions of Calvin and Peachy as they desperately try to turn Joey into a mainstream gay socialite capable of turning heads and delivering their revenge.
The humor isn’t lost throughout the book, but gradually, the tone does shift. I found myself smiling and nodding at the dawning realizations of Calvin (and to a lesser degree, Peachy) as they start to clue in that what they think they want isn’t necessarily what they should want – and potentially, they don’t want it at all. Joey’s evolution, as well, never loses its charm even as you see his innocence tested time and time again by the stark realities of a world where perfect looking guys just don’t have the freedom to stop and have sex with other perfect looking guys every twenty minutes or so.
As more and more of Pratt’s gay socialites are brought into the tale (most of which are fun almost-spoofs of one extreme of gay culture or another), the plans to get Joey invited to the big party become more and more tangled. Favors are traded, new alliances are made and broken, and the boys start to realize that a serial kidnapper might be more important than making sure Joey knows the difference between Sondheim and Stravinsky, though only just. What if it takes connecting a self-involved jackass to a publisher so he can publish the worst autobiographical-fantasy revisionist history of his youth (as an erotic venture, of course)? Peachy and Calvin take it in stride. These things happen.
Ultimately, it’s these conniving strands that start to form the real joy of Looking After Joey – Calvin grows as much as Joey, and while nothing turns out the way Calvin (or the reader) would expect, there’s a heartwarming touch to this funny book that left me smiling as I turned the final pages. No one is as simple as they seem – even the one-dimensional porn stars who have no idea how to interact with the real world. Calvin begins as a man desperate for even a shallow connection – a place it’s not hard for anyone to imagine being – and Peachy comes across as superficial and jaded; both men are in new places by the end of the tale. You can – and should – read Looking After Joey with the expectation of laughing throughout, but there’s more to it than that. Though characters are madcap in their execution, the social commentary is razor sharp. And though every stumble on the way to the big party (and the big reveal) grows more over-the-top than the last, the ultimate destination is surprisingly moving, and worth a few unexpected sniffles.
Looking After Joey is a book I’m happy to recommend.
Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine