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Suspicious Diagnosis by Jardonn Smith is a 2010 self-published collection of stories united by the theme of aging in love. The stories evoke a transgressive mentality that defined the word “queer” in the 50s and early 60s, but has been largely forgotten in today’s gay assimilationism. Although Smith’s characters are closeted, they aren’t hiding.
Rather, they just want to be left alone so that they can get down to their real business of inverting the heterosexual paradigm by sucking cock.
The first story in the collection, “Such a Man,” sets the tone. Smith’s unnamed narrator sits as an outsider at his lover Stanley’s memorial service, staged by Stanley’s biological family and presided over by a homophobic preacher. As the preacher drones on about Christ’s forgiveness for Stanley’s sins, the lover remembers the good man that Stanley was. Although Stanley’s family is now threatening to rob this widowed partner of the business the two built together over twenty years, this story is no propaganda piece for gay marriage rights. Rather, the surviving partner is putting his confidence in Stanley’s air-tight will. He is equally confident of the couple’s life-long love, that didn’t require the imprimatur of a legally recognized gay marriage. Indeed, had such an institution existed then, he and Stanley might never have been a couple; because Stanley identified as “straight.”
The narrator relates their first meeting:
“‘I hate queers,’ you said while dropping your trousers…Turns out you were what you hated, Stanley—queer. Just didn’t know it yet, and besides, the queers you hated were the in-your-face queers. The ones who insist everyone sees them walking down the street hand in hand. The ones who insist all queers proclaim themselves as such to the world…Their loud voices…scared away men who were simply horny and need their dick sucked.”
The narrator, who announces, “I’m not queer. Just a cocksucker,” uses a strategy of subversion to “make connections with men who, once separated from the herd and in a social situation such as a tavern or pool hall…might be inclined to offer up their packages.” Which is how he meets the erstwhile straight Stanley and the two become life-long partners, “growing old together,” till death parts them. The reality of their love is proven by “gathering your dirty clothes from the floor, wiping up your poorly aimed urine, rising the tub of your body hair,” and, finally, “Nobody but I could wipe your ass for you, or feed you or bathe you.” No marriage certificate needed.
Smith continues this theme in the second story in the collection, “The Nosy Neighbor,” a novella in which life-long partners, Jeremy and Fred—who prefer to keep their business, their business—are engaged in a series of encounters and fantasies with their bi-curious neighbor, Daniel. One night when Daniel is helping Jeremy put a loudly drunken Fred to bed, Jeremy defends Fred by explaining to Daniel that Fred was outed to his family with disastrous results.
Jeremy prefers to keep their relationship on the downlow with his own family:
“My parents, for the most part, simply played it off. Still do. Pretend like Fred and I are good friends. I’m their avowed bachelor son, they love me, and that’s all anybody related to us or otherwise needs to know.”
“Kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy… And you’re okay with that?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? It’s far preferable to how Fred’s family took it. Neither his father nor mother nor siblings nor anybody else related to him has spoken to him since…Not until his father died. Not until this inheritance squabble started…”
Jeremy and Fred enlist Daniel’s assistance to retain a high-priced attorney to secure their legal rights as a couple without also fighting for their marital rights: “Legally seal them to one another as air-tight as state law will allow. Make them as married as possible without the license.”
These two guys just want to be left the fuck alone, not make a political statement. By outing themselves to Daniel, Jeremy and Fred help their neighbor to understand their love and begin to accept his own bisexuality. Daniel concludes, “I have no further need of my assumptions, but I do have plenty of need for my neighbors.” But their act of coming out is personal, not political.
“Senility: A Two-Act Play on It,” is a short play about gay aging that serves as a humorous intermission between the longer stories in the book. Two former party boys meet as seniors to rue over a promised inheritance from an aging, rich admirer that was finagled away from them years ago by a gold-digging hustler, a conniving straight woman and her priest after their admirer’s brain “short-circuited.” The lesson learnt? “A contract’s only as good as the person in charge of it”—get a good lawyer.
Smith returns to the novella form for the third story in the collection, “A True Ring.” Now in their twilight years, Jimmy Dolan and Dick Hodges reminisce on their life and love as a couple on the pro-wrestling circuit while viewing Super 8 footage of some of Dick’s old bouts. This device works well for Smith because it perfectly evokes the gay mythos surrounding early pro-wrestling—one immediately thinks of the old Athletic Model Guild beefcake films. Smith gets the wrestling action spot on and accurately captures both the sportsmanship and showmanship of pro-wrestling. He is sympathetic in his portrayal of the early sport’s archetypical contest between hero and villain and bemoans pro-wrestling’s degeneration into the quasi-drag show that it is today. In this scene, in which he depicts the pathos of the fallen hero, he captures what wrestling has meant for many young gay boys:
Dick mugged for the camera like he was some sort of tortured he-man…He writhed in agony. Groaned pitifully. Played like there was nothing left of him, like he surely was done for…So glorious, yet so tragic. Especially with the crowd screaming to warn him that Muk-nuk was on his feet and sprinting toward him. The Mongolian flew through the air, landing upon Dick’s wrenched spine and staying there with legs straddling Dick’s ribs…I might have creamed my pants right then and there.
The art of Smith’s homely style is revealed in a subtle metaphor when Dick crushes an apple with one fist:
“You didn’t even feel half my grip.” [Dick] summoned our waitress and asked, “You have any apples back there?” “We have Red Delicious….” [Jimmy] grinned with anticipation. “Let me guess. You’re going to crush it?” Not only did he, but he used his second hand, his left, and I’m not talking about some mushy, nearly-rotten apple. This Red was ripe…Powered by his incredible, forearm strength, Dick broke down his foe. Pulverized it to applesauce.
Later in their motel room, Jimmy remembers Dick “Forced me to my belly. Laid his heavy mass of muscle, sweat and oil on top of me and buried me into his mattress…while his crushing hands re-arranged my scalp…As his pecker turned to mush…he slipped out.” Jimmy has the power to turn his he-man to mush, too.
Jimmy and Dick “don’t need a license to be what we are. No contrived ceremonies of pomp. No lovey-dovey, public displays of affection. No jewelry to proclaim what we already know. Ours is a true ring. An invisible ring.” The legal bindings of their relationship are private, “sealed and known only to us and the law firm in charge it.” They seek “A ring that binds with emotion,” not a public ceremony of their love.
“Suspicious Diagnosis,” the last story in the collection, serves as Smith’s afterword where he explains his suspicion of the gay marriage movement. He writes, “I’m a courageous coward…A believer in privacy who waffles on necessity…A hesitant homosexual.” Smith says, “I cherish you, my brother and sisters” who are moving forward with the gay movement, but he sends them a bit of advice from history—“Watch your ass.” He writes, “I embrace today’s enlightenment, but empower yesterday’s warnings. Mournful voices, once so care-free, so unaware of watchful eyes as Ernst [Röhm, leader of the Nazi SA] and the boys raised a ruckus. The winning side has nothing to fear until tomorrow.” The historical reference is ambiguous, Röhm, a notorious homosexual, was purged as Hitler’s chief rival to power—is Smith comparing Röhm to today’s gay leaders?
Smith doesn’t back down from his politically incorrect message even in the book’s cover art. One might have hoped for Athletic Model Guild beefcake, but instead Smith presents us a picture of his disheveled, elderly self, with vomit on his lips in a jarring photo by Kevin Smith. But perhaps Jardonn knows better, because of all the beefcake covers I have carried around with me while writing this column, only Kevin Smith’s disquieting photo spurred a spontaneous request to read the book—from a black butch dyke. Can’t get much queerer than that.
Rick R. Reed‘s romantic suspense novel, Tricks (MLR Press, 2010), is a Faustian tale of love’s redemption. When young exotic dancer, Arliss, is offered fame and fortune in exchange for appearing in a porn film, he must choose between his career dream and his dream-come-true, the handsome, but nerdy copywriter, Sean. Little does Arliss realize that he is actually being tricked into forfeiting his soul and in the end it is only Sean’s unconditional love that will save him.
Reed opens with a quick but believable sketch of Arliss in his work as an exotic dancer at Tricks, a sleazy nightclub in Chicago’s Boystown. The young, blond and blue-eyed Arliss is more handsome and more well endowed than most of the other dancers in the dive, but Reed paints in small flaws that make Arliss more than just a porn Ken doll—“The only thing that marred his nearly perfect face was a gap between his front teeth”—and endears the boy to the reader. Fate brings the lovelorn Sean into Tricks, “in hopes of finding that elusive something or someone that would make him happy.” The next-to-nude exotic dancer turns Sean on, but he also sees in Arliss something else, “You wanted to take this boy in your arms and comfort him.” Yet Sean is disgusted when a customer shoves a twenty dollar bill up the boy’s ass. Little do they both know that this is a down payment from the devil.
Kismet brings them together by the shore of Lake Michigan, where Sean finds a sympathetic shoulder to cry on over being recently dumped by long-time boyfriend, Jerome. Again, it is in the small details that Reed makes the clichéd scene sweetly endearing: “Sean hiccupped out a sob.” Though Arliss is the type of boy who would happily jump into bed after a brief encounter, Sean insists on a real first date. Reed perfectly captures the awkwardness of being young and trying to impress someone you like. When the two snuggle on the couch, Arliss sweetly falls asleep on Sean’s shoulder.
Though the two are soon living together, Arliss’ self-esteem is not the highest; he reflects: “What did he have to offer, aside from a nice smile and a big dick? Not much.” Because of his lack of any other marketable skills, Arliss keeps his job at Tricks where he is soon made an offer he can’t refuse by the devastatingly handsome Josh—$10,000, plus royalties, to star in a major porn film produced by Bad Moon Entertainment. It is heartbreaking when Sean, “a guy with mousy brown hair and tortoiseshell-framed glasses” awkwardly attempts to ward off the temptations of sex, fame and fortune dangled by the olive-toned Josh before his boyfriend’s pretty blue eyes.
Sean draws a line in the sand that sends Arliss straight into Josh’s clutches. While Reed creates both of our romantic heroes as full-orbed human beings, he grants an especially intriguing depth to the evil Josh that allows the reader to feel sympathy for him even in our disgust. Reed tells us, “Like this Arliss kid, Josh too had been wounded along the way…badly, in ways he didn’t like to think about,” but could see “in his own mirror every day.” This is “a face that Josh preferred to hide.”
Like a cold serpent in the garden of love, Josh insinuates himself into Arliss’ thoughts when Arliss attempts to justify appearing in a porn film:
“I’m monogamous, too, and if I did this, I’d still be monogamous—emotionally and in my heart…Does that sound like total rationalizing bullshit?” It did. It absolutely did. But Josh wasn’t about to say that. “I get you. You can be faithful in your heart while your body goes off and plays.”
Slowly but surely he lures the boy into selling his soul:
“Okay. Let’s do it.” Arliss blew out a big sigh. Josh could imagine his relief at letting himself go, at allowing himself to do what he really wanted to do…before he started thinking about stupid crap like love…
Here the novel turns particularly dark and not in a way that the reader necessarily anticipates. What Reed seems to signal is that coming turns out to be a metaphor for an even uglier reality. Let’s just say Reed may make you feel uncomfortable the next time you download porn on your computer. Pick up this book instead; this is a writer that doesn’t disappoint.