The gay pulp novel was a significant innovation in the early history of gay literature and publishing. Though underground and only available to readers in the know, gay pulp boldly portrayed sex and relationships in a way mainstream books could only do through coded language and allegory, and even then most often as stories of loneliness and tragedy. Many titles are out of distribution, and happily Riverdale Avenue Books recently took up re-printing some favorites from the 1960s and 1970s as Classic Queer Pulp Fiction editions under their 120 Days imprint. Their most recent release is Neil J. Weston’s Naked Launch 2, the continuation of a very randy pirate saga.
Originally published as a two-book series in 1968 and 1969, Naked Launch is essentially the story of a love affair between two seafaring Brits in the 17th century. Only the second book was available on NetGalley, but with Maitland McDonagh’s effective introduction and the simple structure of the story, Naked Launch 2 surely works fine as a standalone and a first foray into gay pulp.
Alan and Malcolm found each other as teenagers, two marginal youths seeking adventure and opportunity on the high seas. But they had to get through imprisonment and torture by the Spanish navy to reunite. The second book picks up with their campaign to recruit a crew of like-minded fellows to sail back to the Caribbean and take vengeance on the Spanish. They name their ship Ballocks Delight, enlist an assortment of horny, cock-loving sailors, and embark on a run of raiding and sinking King Charles II’s galleys, along with a ton of below-deck debauchery.
That’s largely the extent of plot for Weston’s tale, which for its purposes favors scenes of sailor-to-sailor fellatio and frottage over exploring the more consequential conflicts that might arise from such a quest. Weston, a penname by the way, achieves a satisfying sense of time and place through nautical terms and dialogue, but this is a story to be enjoyed in context and with a wry shrugging off of disbelief. Alan and Malcolm’s crew are one-and-all easy compatriots to their cause, the freedom to share their bodies sufficient motivation to risk life and limb. A hardened pego – a period term – is never far aloft aboard the ship, and most ridiculously of all, the men are aroused to full mast when they storm the enemy. In Alan’s words, calling his men to arms: “’Twill be a fast battle, with our pegos raised as high as our cutlasses!”
Their pirate flag is, of course, a skull-and-crossbones composed of erect penises. If that sounds to you like the stuff of a middle schooler’s imagination, ‘twould be right. But for readers who can stay with the story’s hypersexualized antics, the book has a surprisingly compelling through-line and uplifting convictions for the wounded queer soul.
Alan and Malcolm are two men in love trying to make what we would now call an open relationship work. While Alan’s zesty sex drive leads him to play around with his shipmates, often in twos and threes and more, above all, he’s emotionally committed to his partner. They are faced with the common reality of having mismatched libidos, and Weston’s handling of that issue is straightforward and dare I say instructive. Malcolm, who may have some manner of erectile dysfunction, tolerates Alan screwing around, though his jealousy comes to the fore in their moments alone. For his part, Alan is frustrated by his inability to get a rise from his partner, questioning his own desirability, which weighs heavy on him since he was rendered completely hairless after recovering from a tropical fever.
Yet rather than leaving their problem to stew and growing distant from one another, they talk it out, naturally over a steamy scene of pirate bondage. This is foremost an erotic escapade after all. Still, their choice to take the issue head-on is nicely portrayed. They arrive at mutual understanding, compromise, and a re-validation that each of them is who the other wants.
Moreover, the story provides a lovely vision of how things could and should be for gay men in the world. Written in the late sixties, one can imagine a bit of the free love movement and gay liberation sloganeering swarming inside the author’s brain. Consider this excerpt from one of Alan’s rousing speeches:
Strip a man of his clothing and let him be proud of his pego and ballocks and he becomes a beautiful creature. Given cause he can fight ferociously, and yet with pego aroused for pleasure he can love tenderly, much preferring loving to fighting.
Once they reach the warm Caribbean, Captain Alan insists that his crew shuck their clothes, and not merely for easy hijinks. They are a company of naked pirates proudly thumbing their noses at convention, and their reputation attracts persecuted gay men eager to find a place where they belong. The couple manage their ship as a kind of utopian commune:
There was to be equality among the men, whether a ranking office or a ship’s youth, with sharing of the same tables and quarters.
We see little of the day-to-day challenges that come along with realizing such an egalitarian fraternity on open water, though again, that’s not Weston’s interest. It’s a story about the possibility of sexual freedom and the triumph of gay love. Besides Alan and Malcolm, many members of their crew find lifelong partnerships through their orgiastic journey. Those storylines are told with great melodrama, but they are heartwarming and truthful about the way gay men discover friendships and loving relationships both historically and today.
The book’s strident idealism is in fact what makes the story so engaging. Alan and Malcolm set sail with the purpose: to free the enslaved, punish the enslavers and find an island paradise where man could love man and always be free.
With that mission statement, who could resist signing up to join the Ballocks Delight? Not I.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters