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It’s June 1998. Teresa has terminal lung cancer—she’s got to figure out how to die. Edmund has HIV. Eighteen months ago, he looked like a cadaver. Rebounding with the help of anti-retrovirals, he must discover how to live again. Twenty-year-old Joel, Teresa’s son, has moved from the remote town of Kenora to big-city Toronto—his fumbling journey toward adulthood punctuated by affairs with older men, ideally those with big strong hands to hold him.
In The Desperates, a potent debut novel and current Lammy nominee for gay fiction, Canadian Greg Kearney mines fairly specific territory—cancer and chemotherapy, life with HIV, methamphetamine, fantasies of self-destruction—to uncover provocative insights about broader themes like birth and death, family relationships, and the role of social and economic class in our everyday lives. The book is at once wise and complex, and devastatingly funny.
The comedy comes as no surprise. Kearney, a playwright and author of two short-fiction collections, spent a half-decade as humour columnist for Toronto’s leading queer publication. His particular strain of drollery harnesses exaggeration and hyperbole to make ridiculous situations seem even more preposterous. And despite its somber elements, the plot of The Desperates provides plenty of opportunities for this.
After quitting his new job at a phone-sex line—Man Handlers—because he couldn’t stomach a client’s request for testicular-torture talk, hapless Joel has a tryst with wealthy Edmund. The older man finds the earnest attention annoying, but need not worry for long; Joel is soon recalled to his hometown at his dying mother’s request.
Overprotective Teresa blames herself for her nerdy son’s ineptitude—he’s a dropout and frequently smells of urine. She decides the correct response is to spend her last days extracting revenge on the town mayor’s snooty wife Jocelyn, who had condoned her own son calling Joel as “fatass fag face” and “a bag of AIDS” when they were kids. Eventually she abandons this campaign in favor of finding religion—and tries to subject Joel to an exorcism.
Meanwhile back in Toronto, Edmund rebounds from Joel’s advances by breaking seven years’ sobriety, courtesy of a coke vial that had belonged his dead lover Dean, which he finds in the spice rack, hidden behind the oregano. That first snort of blow yanks Edmund out of the tedium of widowerhood, throwing him into a meth-fueled party-and-play whirlwind once he connects with Binnie, a charming but volatile hustler with a masochistic bent and a penchant for acts requiring extraordinary anal capacity.
Perhaps some of these details sound absurd—particularly in contrast to the staid, middlebrow nature of much homosexual literature in this heyday of greater LGBT acceptance. But are they really? This is primarily a question of vantage point.
In the real world, rough sex happens. Young gay men muddle through their tentative steps toward community. Poz folks explore new modes of survival and pleasure. Sometimes that includes meth use—which may not be widely considered a “healthy choice,” but can seem to supply a dose of much-missed vitality after the shell-shock of years of illness, loss and death. And yes, perhaps some actual mothers concoct bizarre revenge fantasies and try to make them happen.
This novel’s prose is not merely humorous; it’s spare, elegant and imagistic. Joel’s rough-hewn, artless dad Hugh struggles with taking care of his wife and coming to terms with his newly adult gay son. This gentle floundering is embodied in Joel’s simple observation of Hugh at rest: “His father is starfished on his stomach in frayed grey briefs.” Some turns of phrase are evocative and quite simply lovely: in Teresa’s penultimate moments, she and Hugh regard one another, not with lust, but “the solidarity of remembered desire.”
Kearney explores his themes and subject matter in depth, through counterbalancing plot elements. In the midst of death there is renewal (Edmund survives; Joel’s brother Dallas sires a baby, Misty) and more death (Edmund’s lesbian best friend miscarries). The myriad faces of substance use are a thread through the novel—Teresa’s morphine, Edmund and Binny’s meth binges, baby Misty’s mom Shary keeping the newborn under control by administering Benadryl.
The Desperates also offers a keen focus on the notion of masculinities, proposing many ways of being a man—from blustery Dallas and humble Hugh to the unhinged SM top who thrills drug-crazed Binny by threatening to immobilize him and stuff in him a box underneath his bed. By the end of the book, Joel may not have inched too much further into manhood himself, but he solidifies the one halting male relationship in his life that is perhaps most important—that with his father.
I’ve never read a novel quite like this. Kearney is a unique stylist. Especially given the increasing trend toward arts about AIDS that is either sanitized or mythologized, The Desperates offers a much-needed dose of realness. It’s an important book.
By Greg Kearney
Paperback, 9781770863026, 320 pp.