Cardamone’s latest novel is nothing less than a poetic tour de force of that most wanton, inebriating and ecstatic of the gay arts – cocksucking. But that isn’t to say it’s simply an erotic romp. To the contrary, The Lurid Sea, like all of Cardamone’s superlative erotica, offers sustenance – dare I say satiation? – for those in search as well of the literary, the thought-provoking, the topical and the timeless.
In fact, there’s a lot of time travel in this tale. Our protagonist, the “godling” Nerites, a bastard son of Neptune and a human mother, discovers his enthusiasm for the male anatomy – and more specifically its genitalia – as a precocious youngster, courtesy of his libidinous older brother, Obisidio, himself the spawn of god and human – only this time from his mother’s torrid rendezvous with Pluto, god of the underworld. This is a Roman tale, so there’s no need to be squeamish about incest, let alone bastardry or homosexuality – in fact, Nerites doesn’t just satisfy his brother, but his father Neptune, who he unknowingly chances upon in the bowels of some bathhouse. Butch Daddy doesn’t take lightly to his son’s predilection – he apparently thinks it below a god to worship at the root of creation – and subsequently curses his bastard son to henceforth wander through the watery ocean of time.
But before he does, Nerites perfects his skills at fellatio with Obsidio, who like death is bold and insatiable – he’s also beautiful, dark and well-hung. Their incestuous relationship begins in a graveyard – in another boy’s grave actually! But that’s not to say that Cardamone’s erotica is comic, because it’s too smart for that, suffused as it is with a rapier wit and a philosophical humor about the human condition that lifts it to a level far above any clownishness or cheap gags. There’s a kind of knowing grin that can only be described as Roman (“My lips felt bruised. I swallowed. This night would try my strength, my soul, and definitely my lower jaw,” and “I caught him checking the time on his phone while fucking my face”), reminding us all that we are no different than Nerites in our heart of hearts, each of us a hopeless supplicant at the altar of Priapus, begging for more, or failing that, simply taking it.
Cardamone is adept at describing the decadence of Rome which he illustrates with such a knowing colloquiality that it’s hard not to wonder if he may have once lived during those times as a member of a patrician Roman family – or perhaps he is the time-traveling Nerites himself! Because there is an uncanny blitheness to his description of Rome and all things Roman that is both delightful, “queered” and deeply satisfying: “At the Baths of Caracalla, while my friend and I were both getting our skin scraped and oiled by masseuses,” and later “the panting slaves gladly set the palanquin down,” so Netrites could have a go with the cruising “Praetorian Guards, off duty and drunk.” He did the same in the wondrous stories in his collection Night Sweats, among which are standouts from the time of antiquity – the memorable “Blue Seaweed” and “The Love of the Emperor Is Divine,” to name just two of my favorites.
Perhaps the book’s Postscript offers an answer to my suspicions about his past lives. It’s a wonder in itself, describing his discovery of and fascination with the ancient world and his wide reading on the subject. In fact, I jotted down several titles as it’s a useful and comprehensive listing of some of the finest classics of the era, including those of Tacitus and Virgil, as well as more modern books that follow in that tradition, including Michael Rumaker’s A Day and Night at the Baths, Rechy’s City of Night, Delaney’s Hogg, and of course Boyd McDonald’s series of books (The Lurid Sea is dedicated to him), an invaluable and vast collection of “real homosexual stories,” arguably the most joyful compendium of candid and unbridled homosexual joy our modern culture has produced – rivaling the ancients really. You’ll also learn here about Cardamone’s own well-regarded tome, The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, a collection of essays on out-of-print gay books, which sadly include some of our best literature, and certainly much of our boldest.
But I digress, and so in the spirit of The Lurid Sea, let’s get back to cocksucking! Which Nerites does again and again as he travels, “leaping continents like stones that bridge the stream of time,” from place to place and epoch to epoch, highlighting his favorite haunts: the aforementioned Japanese sauna, the infamous Continental Baths from the golden age of homosexual excess, and even surreal locales like a sunken ship full of ghostly sailors, or bathhouses with libraries, betraying Cardamone’s love of books and his eroticization of same. And it’s not just a grand tour of the bathhouses of history, but as well a grand tour of male beauty. Cardamone’s protagonist does not suffer from that all too human foible of ‘a type’. No, he likes them all, from spindly little twinks who whimper as they spackle your throat to furry husky gingers who kick you across the floor after giving you their nut. There’s even a sweet little old Japanese man who Netrites had blown decades before (our “godling” doesn’t age). He once again couples with the man, giving him the opportunity “to link again with his younger self, a wormy ouroboros of timeless semen.” They then spend the night together on “a thin tatami mat.” Cardamone again and again lyrically evokes this poignant brotherhood of homosexuals, a theme that is sadly less and less explored or expressed in gay literature nowadays.
The poetry of this work is superlative – how not to savor lines like these: “orgasms like rare albino birds coaxed toward initial flight,” and “his penis … like a dull ruby red carp lounging in the surf, puckered slit agasp,” or just as good: “the plump undercarriage of a heavy cock.” And while visiting that favorite Japanese bathhouse where he slept with the octogenarian: “Wishing the strands that dripped from my chin and ear would actually take root in the ground, grow and solidify, until I was unmoving, not a statue but a fountain that flowed in reverse, fed by all the men of Japan.” In fact, we might need to add Cardamone’s The Lurid Sea to his own list of ageless and incomparable erotica. He spares nothing in celebrating the great gay art, the holiest and most sacred of the gay libido – the supplication, generosity and utter union of the cocksucker and his paramour’s cock.
But lest you think it’s all just a romp, the fate of Obsidio’s quarries adds a dark drama to the festivities. As a son of Pluto, we soon learn that Obsidio’s sperm is fatal – dark, like “masticated, rotting grapes,” – killing mortals, and only sparing Nerites because he’s half-god and immune. And so the specter of AIDS arrives in the story, with vivid descriptions of dessicated bathhouses, “scenes of cruel murder and obscene castastrophe…black semen seeping out of cold cavities.” Realizing his brother has followed him across time, Nerites is faced with an epic choice: become Obsidio’s wanton slut slave, thus containing his lust, or by not doing so, allow his brother’s libido to continue to destroy countless millions. Nerites as PREP? Cardamone could have gone there! I’m not going to tell you how he resolves the issue, as I’ve revealed enough spoilers for one review, but I will say love triumphs.
I will also say that there is no reconciliation with the lost father, which I was hoping for, but there is the empowering queer consciousness of the spurned son as Nerites expostulates so eloquently: “I grovel like a god. All that I give, I give without any thought toward compensation. I give with the kindness that begets worlds and moons, stars even.” Cardamone is nothing if not proudly queer, so this not really a demerit to the story. If the book has any other drawbacks, it would be in that I wanted Nerites to reconnect with his boyhood bathhouse pal, Publius, and of course, that the book isn’t a few hundred pages longer. I’m hoping for a sequel, and beyond that – because I think Cardamone such a fine writer – an attempt at the great American novel as he is a scribe who deserves a wider readership and the recognition of a true master.
For now, we’ll have to settle for being driven to our knees by this fine storyteller.
Reviewed by Trebor Healey