My first encounter with the journalism of Benoit Denizet-Lewis just happened to be his first cover story for The New York Times Magazine. I’d say it was a good day for both of us. For him, because who doesn’t want to be the youngest to ever write a cover story for The New York Times Magazine? For me, because the article he wrote, “Double Lives on the Down Low,” held me in a catatonic daze. Anticipating his next piece, I took note of his name that late summer Sunday in 2003.

Alternately titillating and horrifying, “Double Lives on the Down Low” is a 27-year-old Midwestern “white boy” writer’s unflinching chronicle of a “black homosexual underground” that affects the entire country in disturbing and dangerous ways. More importantly, Denizet-Lewis’s story played a large part in exposing the culture of men “on the down low” to mainstream America. Since that time, he has been called upon by the Times Magazine to write a succession of conversation-starting articles: the heartbreaking “About a Boy Who Isn’t,” the unexpectedly personal “The War on Frat Culture,” the bit-too-Boston-twee “The Newlywed Gays!” and “Whatever Happened to Teen Romance?” which introduced the expression “friends with benefits” into the adult vernacular. All of these expertly-crafted journalistic endeavors are now collected (in “a slightly different form”) in American Voyeur: Dispatches From the Far Reaches of Modern Life, alongside other pieces of various length and effectiveness, published elsewhere.

The book’s table of contents focuses on Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s strengths, breaking down his essays into two categories: YOUTH and SEX—although sex and sexuality play starring or pivotal roles in almost all of the pieces collected here. The exception—perhaps—is the deeply moving and more deeply troubling piece, “Brother’s Keeper,” which Denizet-Lewis wrote when he was a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation. As a gay man familiar with the specter of suicide it was difficult for me not to read some sexual dissatisfaction or even shame into the sad story of the Kochman brothers, who killed themselves one year apart from one another. To Denizet-Lewis’s credit, he doesn’t dig too deeply into the sexual lives of a couple of high school boys he will never be able to interview. More recently, in September of 2009, Denizet-Lewis displayed his innate gift for conversing with kids when the Times Magazine published his riveting “Coming out in Middle School” (not collected here). Only someone with the experience of capturing spot-on quotes from the mouths of babes could successfully report on kids daring to be openly gay as young as 12.

The Margaret Mead of teenagers and gays, Benoit Denizet-Lewis is most successful when YOUTH and SEX intersect, as in “Trouble in Paradise,” (OUT, June, 2000) in which he spends some hard time with gay homeless youths in the Castro. Another example is “Boy Crazy” (Boston magazine, May 2001), a fascinating look at what remains of the notorious North American Man/Boy Love Association, aside from the all-too-easy NAMBLA punch line.

From one essay (or subculture) to the next, Denizet-Lewis’s fellow voyeurs can discover all sorts of examples of human behaviors that seem similar but differ in direct opposition. The explicit segregation of genders is important to keep things platonic for the Jesus freak children in “God is Rad” (Spin, May 2000) and “Camp Life” (JANE, December 2000), while the same actions keep things erotic for the Northwestern co-eds in “The War on Frat Culture.” Perhaps too obviously, Denizet-Lewis references and attempts to follow-up his ground-breaking “Double Lives on the Down Low” with two pieces: “Get Out of My Closet!” (slate.com, August 11, 2006) and “Regular Guys” (SF Weekly, June 21, 2000). The effect of reading these pieces in this order is like being served a couple of soupy sorbets after devouring a meaty entrée, and only heightens the irritation when some white queen says he’s “on the dl” because “the closet sounds stupid” or another tells Denizet-Lewis he’s looking for an alternative to the “deceptively small tent of mainstream gay culture.”

Since nearly all of the adults he interviews in American Voyeur (the majority? “gays”) suffer a collective case of arrested development, Denizet-Lewis has an excellent way with them as well. Even though the seemingly asexual CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch cancelled Denizet-Lewis’s exclusive A& F “campus” access mid-interview, Denizet-Lewis gets enough absurdities out of the 61-year-old plastic surgery addict to make “Abercrombie Nation” (originally posted on Salon.com in 2006) a brilliant expose and required reading for all of my nieces and nephews.

I would never guess from reading American Voyeur that Benoit Denizet-Lewis might be tiring of such anthropological investigations. But he must be: according to his website, he’s working on a book about our interaction with dogs.

——

AMERICAN VOYEUR:
Dispatches From the Far Reaches of Modern Life
by Benoit Denizet-Lewis
Simon & Schuster
9781416539155
Paperback, 320p



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  • Michael Craft

3 Responses to “‘American Voyeur’ by Benoit Denizet-Lewis”

  1. […] Tom Eubancs of Lambda Literary recently wrote a very kind review of American Voyeur. Below is a portion. For the complete review, click here. […]


  2. […] AMERICAN VOYEUR: Dispatches From the Far Reaches of Modern Life by Benoit Denizet-Lewis Simon & Schuster […]


  3. […] AMERICAN VOYEUR: Dispatches From the Far Reaches of Modern Life by Benoit Denizet-Lewis Simon & Schuster […]



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