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The fifth novel by Philadelphia columnist, Thom Nickels, Spore (StarBooks), seems to be in a category all to itself. Part mystical, semi-biographical fantasy, at times the plot borders on sci-fi thriller.
Dennis, a young architect with minimal bisexual tendencies, is marrying Catherine because he feels comfortable with her. At no point, however, does he intend to give up his same sex desires. He wants to inhabit both worlds. Catherine, however, cannot tolerate such an arrangement and walks away from the marriage on their honeymoon. Dennis, although he should know better, does not understand why Catherine would do this.
On the limo drive to the reception, Dennis begins to experience doubts about his commitment to Catherine and by the time the couple arrives in Hawaii for the honeymoon, he has had already had liaisons with a bell hop in LA. He will also seduce a beach boy on a lifeguard stand and renew a love affair with his honeymoon host, a University of Penn grad.
Released from the bonds of a conventional marriage, Dennis goes on a personal warpath of sorts. You could say that he becomes the antithesis of Terry Southerns’ “Candy,” in that, instead of wanting to help others by using his body, he proceeds to help himself through the use of other people’s bodies.
After his Hawaii adventure, Dennis returns to his native Philadelphia and plunges into a journey of denial and cheap fulfillment. His world becomes crammed with peep show adventures and bus stop pickups.
If the novel stayed on this path, we would have one more boilerplate sexual fantasy, but Nickels skillfully guides the reader through Dennis’ flawed physiological makeup.
“Give me a push! You’re supposed to give me a push! You’re supposed to help me—push me under! Push!” his aunt extorts him, hoping that he will end her life by a local waterfall. Dennis takes her dictate to heart and pushes it one step further by donning the mantle of preacher to exonerate himself—and to help change the world.
His message is straightforward and simple: “Society is too divided, there can be no justice as long as people emphasis their differences. Straight people do not accept gay people and gay men tend to judge each other by appearances. People are locked into their pigeon hole view of the universe, and as long as they are, they will be repressed.”
As Dennis wanders the streets of Philadelphia trying to find a job as an architect and fulfill his erotic desires, he encounters a world on the verge of collapse: Anger, poverty and crime seem to blanket the city. He encounters street toughs battling for turf by preying on homosexuals, and then of course there is presence of an insidious germ, infecting people from all walks of life.
This virus takes the form of a growth, which is shaped like a broccoli spear that disfigures its victims. Dennis is quick to claim that this menace will afflict all those who do not act on their latent sexual desires. He preaches this even though he himself has contracted the ailment, but this contradiction as with all of Dennis’ inconsistencies only make the reader question the protagonist’s sanity. Yet by the end of the story Dennis realizes why he is not immune from sexual hypocrisy.
In the course of the novel, Dennis is disloyal to his wife, his best friend/lover and his beloved great aunt. He even shows fickleness to the people who have put their faith in him as a prophet. In the end, his message of self-preservation and personal fulfillment only works against him. Ironically, he saves the ultimate abandonment of all hope for the weary by granting himself his final betrayal.
Dennis is skillfully revealed to the reader in thin, progressive layers so that each new facet of his personality makes it clear that we are not reading about a one dimensional neurotic sex bumpkin but a genuine person who is still too immature to find his way. Despite his flaws, he still manages to be lovable. He is never intentionally evil or abusive but more like a blind man in search of a seeing eye dog.
Retreating to Hawaii at the end of the story, Dennis writes to his ever loyal great aunt Gertie, and tells her he will return to Philadelphia one day to fight for “tolerance and justice.”
Hurry back Dennis, Armageddon can’t start without you.