The American dream of prosperity, family and fame perversely births a second, darker dream: the fantasia to escape all of the requisite pressure and exposure the primary vision leverages for ballast. Brian Alessandro lances both oily bubbles to great cinematic effect with Performer Non Grata. The novel initially serves as a satirical takedown of masculine tropes as they play out in the workplace, the family, interpersonal relationships and across an endless stream of ever-expanding social media platforms; at the center of this roiling New York City psychodrama: uber-rich and ever fuming Risk Bonaventura, a throbbing narcissist. However, as the novel unfolds, his icy wife, the controversial and tenured professor Lorna, and queer home-schooled son Theo, a budding artist, share a near equal amount of screen time. And the book often feels like a darkened theater, with our collective online projections of parched fame and thwarted desire the postmodern horror movie that fills the room with dread and longing. Though literary influences are surging just beneath the surface throughout, Alessandro’s forgoes the exhausted cliches typical of the post-modern novel, deepening the impression that film is a primary source of inspiration here. As the family self-sabotages and each character self-destructs they flee America, investing in Risk’s absurd machismo yearning to become a bullfighter in Madrid -the whole thing has the push and pull of Godard’s The Weekend. The sexual grimoire that is the final third of Performer Non Grata reads like a familial inversion of Pasolini’s Salo‘, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
The perverse panache of the prose on display shows that Alessandro insidiously enjoys subverting the typical love triangle, as Risk’s idol, the Spanish matador Javier, first develops an online friendship with the besotted Theo before they all meet in the flesh (and I do mean flesh). In Madrid, Javier, ever the hyper-masculine player set on conquering anyone and everyone (how like Risk!), flirts with Lorna to disastrous effect. This celebrity jock, bullish in his sexual prowess and belief that he’ll get one over on these obsessive Americans, has seriously underestimated the deepening desperation of this twisted family unit. How symbolic of the vast destructive powers of American capitalism that the world laughs at us as we consume wholesale their culture, their natural resources, their young:
“Lorna nodded. It hadn’t been lost on her that she and her husband and son were living a lurid version of their former selves. A penance. Repetition. There was dignity in the danger, a sacred peace in the peril and the debauchery. She felt at home within it, as she knew Risk had, as she knew Theo had.”
Back to Risk. Why explore such a repellent character? In a recent article in The Gay and Lesbian Review, Alessandro explores the current state of queer literature: “the premise was that the majority of LGBT characters in literature and film are either saints or victims. Publishers and producers seem too timid to permit us more complex roles, like villains, or at least flawed antiheroes.” This gives our community a false sense of self, removing us from the larger American tapestry and thus untethered, we are left unaware just how innate is the darkness that we flippantly define as an external force. And the final chapters of the novel! I’ve not read such brutal social criticism since encountering Gary Indiana at the height of his powers. After Javier’s ruthless, porcine family is introduced, and Risk commits an atrocious, unforgiveable act, a dark crescendo is set in motion. Think Pedro Almodovar, think Francis Bacon, think about the bull and what he has to lose, and why we never really win.
Reviewed by Tom Cardamone, editor of Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, and the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb as well as the erotic fantasy The Lurid Sea and other works of fiction, including two short story collections. Additionally, he has edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered and co-edited Fever Spores: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs.