In the front matter for this collection of fifteen well-written short stories, Shakin uses the Urban Dictionary to provide the book’s definition of the word “fucked.” This is perfectly in keeping with the setting, characters and tone of these stories, all of which are decidedly urban.
Even his language announces that if you are looking for a bucolic stroll through romantic ideals, you’d better look elsewhere. Shakin’s agressive, punchy vocal rhythms are pure city, sharp, hard corners everywhere, hard as cinder block corners of a warehouse. His clever word play, which sometimes becomes overly precious, held this reader fascinated.
In his preface he gives us the first key to his rationale — “…sex, if nothing else, is about stimulation.” The ostensibly straight men in these stories are looking for a kind of stimulation they can’t get from the women in their lives. Shakin leads us into an exploration of their boredom, and how they try to banish it.
The stories themselves are highly editorialized anecdotes, often carrying an unusual confessional quality to them, as if for reasons unnamed these men eagerly divulged their secrets to the narrator, even when the narrator doesn’t participate in the action.
The anthology makes a really interesting read, often as unpleasant as the stories are interesting, providing a running commentary on the complexities of repressed sexuality — especially the stories we tell ourselves so we can tell them to our bed partners — told with the cynical ennui of the truly jaded. Whether that ennui actually belongs to the author or not doesn’t really matter. Shakin carries off the narrator’s posture perfectly. It is the detached, mildly disdainful voice of someone who has surrendered belief in the possibility of experiencing anything more than he’s already had.
Overall, the narrator serves not as participant but as reporter, chronicling the tangled sexual journeys of the men whose stories he collects. His intellect is acute, providing insights with the deft and subtle cruelty of an impatient, psychologically sophisticated eye. This phone exchange with the narrator’s accountant in the collection’s second story, “Gay for a Day” is an example:
Now he seems to be the one who needs advice. An exchange of professional services? I can’t do his taxes, but I do seem to be inspiring him to tell a story.
I’m not surprised by the role reversal. When I left his office we still hadn’t resolved my taxable sins or finished his confession. The man obviously needed to get something off his chest. I picture his chest suddenly, the hair on it, and on other parts of him. I picture him stark naked except for glasses, socks and shoes. I picture him masturbating on the phone, while he tells me what needs to be said. Or doesn’t. For the sake of my taxes.
“After our last conversation I thought I should explain myself.”
No need. Whatever turns you off is fine with me.
“I’m not gay,” he insists.
I’m not either. Except when I’m having sex.
Me too. Except when I’m lying.
“But once a week I go to the men’s room.”
Ah, of course. The men’s room. Where men go when they have to.
As seems to be true for most cynics, Shakin’s narrator tells us fulfillment doesn’t play a significant part in his sexual/romantic equation. As he closes the last story in the collection, he provides his core message: “But there’s nothing sexier than a good tease.”
Is the tension of desire is better than satisfaction? Whether or not you agree, you’ll find something to think about in these stories.
Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker