A Romance with Tijuana

Most images of Tijuana are not very romantic. Crowded, dirty, hustling, violent, it is a town on the border of hope and despair for a different future. Author Erik Orrantia makes us fall in love with the city he has called home for almost 15 years in his new novel, Taxi Rojo (Cheyenne Press, 2012, www.cheyennepublishing.com). The fates of six strangers converge when the taxi they are riding in plunges into a canyon. Orrantia uses the accident and its consequences to beautifully explore the inter-connectedness of human relationships.

At the heart of the novel is Francisco or Pancha, a drag performer at El Taurino, “a dive of a disco bar, a genuine antro…For drag queens, the antros were a haven.” Pancha and her drag sisters “were people who expressed their defiance of oppression with a dress” and for them the antros or dance clubs were “domains of safety…where anyone with any need of community or togetherness could find it.” Pancha has caught a red taxi after her show to go see her lover, Eduardo, a closeted widower who will only relate to Pancho as a woman and makes him wear his deceased wife’s clothes. Francisco demands that he be treated as a full human being:

“I think it’s time I told you something very important about me, Eduardo.”
“Go ahead. Tell me.”
“I am a man.”
“Is that so, Francisca?”
“Yes. And my name is Francisco. And one more thing: not only am I a man, but a homosexual man,” he said, emphasizing the ‘h’ word with particular contempt. “Do you understand? Because in case you haven’t noticed, you’ve been fucking…a man with a dick and balls just like you. You can pretend it’s not true, make believe you’re fucking your wife…But I’m no longer willing to let you go on thinking you’re not just as gay as I am.”

Francisco reveals who he is to Eduardo, but shedding his role as Pancha means that “Now, he stood there completely naked with a man whom he’d been seeing for almost two years. And after so much time, he actually felt, for once, vulnerable.” By allowing Eduardo to see him as a full person, their relationship moves from role-play to true love.

Toni, a hot, macho, closeted married man with children thinks he is invulnerable. He cannot accept his sexuality even though he is in the red taxi on his way to fuck his fuck-buddy Rigo, who is just another joto bottoming for him, so he thinks. Toni is trapped in his own self-oppressive macho role and he makes money by fulfilling the construction worker fantasies of a wealthy older gay man, which ironically makes Toni “feel utterly powerless”:

Faded blue jeans, a plaid shirt on top of a too-small white T-shirt, work boots, and a yellow helmet. All part of Rodolfo’s fantasy. The helmet humiliated him the most…When Toni walked down the stairs with heavy steps, Rodolfo cued the music: ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People.

Toni is only able to perform for his repulsive “Papi” by thinking of “the image of Rigo’s sweet ass poised up in the air.” His building fear of his own physical vulnerability has life-threatening consequences for Rigo, who has come too close to revealing Toni’s true sexuality.

Rigo has secrets of his own. His partner Cristian is okay if he fools around casually, but Rigo has promised him no deeper attachments outside the relationship. Now he is breaking his own rule by bringing Toni back to their apartment in the red taxi while Cristian is away. The result of this infidelity will be shattering for his and Cristian’s lives and love.

Julia is in the taxi on her way home from her housekeeping job in San Diego. She has been working illegally on a tourist visa that is about to expire. She is the conscience of the novel and ties the six passengers’ lives together when she seeks the identity of one of the passengers who is killed in the crash. Each of the characters who survives is likewise forced to seek their true self, their true love.

Taxi Rojo

Through Julia, Orrantia also explores the theme of borders between lives. When Julia, in frustration, reaches out and touches her American employer, “Mrs. Adelson gave her a quizzical look, as if Julia had illegally crossed another border, an invisible one, by touching her.” The scene where Julia goes to the U.S. Consulate to try to renew her visa is bitterly humorous and no doubt reflects the frustration Orrantia and his partner, Francisco, a Mexican national, feel that Francisco has never been allowed a visa to visit the United States, while Orrantia commutes daily to San Diego:

There had to be two hundred people in the line…The line snaked along the sidewalk and around the corner, and armed guards watched us all as if we were prisoners or terrorists[…]She took a sip of her Cuba Libra…that Roberto had insisted she order to calm down a bit.

By crossing the borders of their self-contained lives, Orrantia’s characters discover their human interconnectedness in love.

Something Like Summer

Jay Bell’s soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture Something Like Summer (Jay Bell Books, 2011,)

Something Like Summer

starts out with an uncomfortable stalking angle when our romantic hero, high schooler Ben, “accidently” rollerblades into his crush, erstwhile straight jock Tim, and almost breaks his leg. Since Tim’s rich parents are away in Europe this allows Ben to move himself into Tim’s house to take care of him in his convalescence, after conveniently not bothering to notify Tim’s parents of the accident. Oh, and Ben also basically steals Tim’s new sports car:

As dubious as the methods had been, he now stood a good chance of getting close to Tim. He didn’t want anyone intruding on that now. If his mom found out what was going on, she would probably hire a nurse to take care of Tim, but Ben had a different plan in mind…Dr. Baker said, “Could you please bring the number of his parents’ hotel with you? Or better yet, phone it in tonight?” “Absolutely,” Ben lied. “Wait, you’re taking my car?” Tim sounded panicked. “It’s not like you can use it,” Ben said, happily patting the pocket that held the keys.

If this scenario weren’t saved by Bell’s sexy good humor we’d have serious creepiness factor:

Ben sat on the toilet, for lack of a better place, directly across from the bathtub. Aside from being the only seat available, it allowed him a more revealing angle. There would have been nothing left to his imagination if not for Tim’s injured leg… “I’m guessing this isn’t how you usually spend your weekends?” Tim asked. “You mean watching straight guys take baths?” Ben replied innocently enough. “Oh, you’d be surprised. It’s a fairly common occurrence.”

During Tim’s odd convalescence, Ben plays housewife with him until every gay boy’s fantasy comes true and the “straight” boy goes way gay. It requires a hearty suspension of disbelief, but again, Bell’s humor makes it easy to do, especially during Ben and Tim’s very funny and sexy virgin fuck.

But, of course, there is the inevitable obstacle to romantic happiness and in this case it is that Ben is totally out at school but Tim is closeted. Yet, Bell adds some dimensionality to Tim’s character by suggesting that he is not just hiding his sexuality, but also his creativity as an artist behind a façade of being an ordinary jock.

Fast forward to college, the out and proud Ben, an English major, meets Jace, an out airline steward, and the two begin a successful relationship that’s seriously challenged when Tim reappears in Ben’s life. Bell uses an interesting reprise of the teenaged Ben’s “stalking” of Tim, this time reversing the roles, with Tim skulking around Ben’s apartment, smelling him. But Tim is still closeted to his parents and about his art. That and his manipulation of Ben with a despicable lie intended to break him and Jace up leave Ben more firmly in Jace’s arms than ever.

Which leaves Ben and the reader in a dilemma since these two are so obviously star-crossed. Since the timeline is around 9/11 and Jace is an airline steward, I thought that Bell was going to pull out all stops. Death by terrorist attack might have actually been a bit less forced than the happily ever after he does give us. Also the adult half of the novel lacks all the charming humor that gave the adolescent half its much needed balance and so the second half becomes a bit soap operish.

The sexy and clever cover art is by Bell’s German husband, the artist Andreas Bell (www.andreasbell.com). Something Like Summer has been selected as a 2012 Lambda Literary Award finalist in Romance.

I Could Have Danced All Night

Settling the Score

Another 2012 Lambda Literary Award finalist, Settling the Score by Eden Winters (Torquere Press, 2011 www.torquerepress.com), is a retelling of the familiar Pygmalion myth. Best-selling writer Troy Steele wants to get back at his old flame, a producer who stole the rights to his earliest novel turned blockbuster movie. Bitterly, he asks, “Love? What was that, really, other than a concept that sold romance novels?” Along comes simple Cracker car mechanic, Joey Nichols, whose boyfriend has landed a star turn in said producer’s latest film in the Steele franchise. When his boyfriend outs and then dumps Joey on a nationally televised gossip show, Troy seizes the day to entice Joey into becoming a “source” for his next novel, while manipulating the boy to undergo a complete make-over (Eyes! Hair! Mouth! Figure!) to get revenge both on Joey’s ex and his own. It didn’t seem as preposterous when I was actually reading it because Winters makes it work.

There follows a fun transformation sequence, beginning with Troy’s examination of the shirtless, cute but pudgy Joey:

Joey felt like a car discussed by potential buyers. Thank goodness he didn’t have tires to kick. “Excellent muscle formation there,” Troy said, running his hands lightly across Joey’s shoulders. “Needs help here.” His fingers ran over Joey’s waist, pinching extra flesh. “Hey!” Joey cried.

But as Joey is exercised and shrunk into his new body, he also begins to subtly change, to become more self-confident. His stylist tells him, “The world sees what you want them to. You’ll do well to remember that.” Troy Steele finds himself falling in love with his “fictional” creation. He begins to regret his plot to use Joey as arm candy for revenge against his ex. But not thinking that Joey could possibly have any reciprocal feelings for him (he is, ye gads, in this thirties), he intends to simply send him packing back to the mechanic’s garage. And Joey, feeling betrayed by Troy’s abrupt dismissal, does flee back home. But then, in a metaphor for gay marriage, Troy remembers that he has Joey under binding contract and decides to fight for him. His sassy black assistant, Erica reminds him:

“In your books, what happens when one lover runs away?”
“The other gives chase and woos them back?”
“Well, duh! What’cha waiting for?”

Thus providing a brief but accurate description of the entire romance genre.

Somehow this all results in Joey and his shirttail relatives from Georgia arriving at the Hollywood premier of the newest movie made from Troy’s books. It’s something out of the Beverly Hillbillies and ends with an amusing climax reminiscent of the Helen Lawson-Neely O’Hara scene in Valley of the Dolls when Joey and his ex confront each other in the ballroom men’s room, though Joey is much sweeter than Neely O’Hara. Indeed, it is Joey’s sweetness and cute tendency to pudginess that wins the reader over to this novel whose plot is otherwise too convoluted to succeed as a metaphor for the writer’s love for his fictional creation.



I must begin by giving Barry Brennessel a slight nod for attempting a non-traditional narrative structure with Tinseltown (MLR Press, 2011, www.mlrpress.com). Romance writers need to dare to try new strategies and shun the formulaic and Brennessel was rewarded for doing so by being named a Lambda Literary Award finalist in Romance for Tinseltown. But for me the experiment doesn’t work. Since Tinseltown’s romantic protagonist, Micah Malone, is a college film student, it would seem to make sense that his first person voice would read like a film script. But Micah’s voice is already too immature for a college student, and the non-traditional narrative structure makes him sound even more immature—like a middle school student. The immaturity of Micah’s voice made me feel uncomfortable when he goes to the novel’s namesake bathhouse, Tinseltown, and has very adult sex.

This imbalance of voice is evident also in episodes that are played for laughs but are actually disquieting, for example, Micah’s involvement, no matter how inadvertent, in his classmate Jasper’s sexual blackmail of their French teacher. Even though Mr. MacInnes is something of a creep and we feel sorry for Jasper, gay blackmail is only tragic, not funny. Likewise, Micah’s cultural misunderstanding of his Vietnamese boyfriend, Lanh, and the misinformation he receives about Lanh’s supposed infidelity because “all Asians look alike” has serious consequences for Lanh but we’re supposed to laugh it all off as another one of Micah’s madcap escapades. Ha ha. To add insult to injury, Brennessel doesn’t even have Micah give poor Lanh credit as a Major Player in the playbills that he uses to frame the story.

When Brennessel attempts to add a bittersweet note in the death of one of Micah’s friends, it is a totally misplaced gesture in the overall unseriousness of the novel. Brennessel’s reintroduction of Kurt as Micah’s main romantic hero after his initially disastrous encounter with Kurt in a bar fight at the beginning of the novel could have been amusingly romantic, but once more Brennessel has no sense of romantic or comic balance and so he has Kurt reenter the story as a double amputee! Really? The extended email exchange between Micah and Kurt that Brennessel uses to set the reader up for this development is about as interesting to read as any stranger’s email, which is not very. Hey, at least I liked the romantically sexy cover art by Deanna C. Jamroz. In any case, mine is the minority opinion and the novel has received wide praise. I look forward to Brennessel’s continued experimentation in romance and I hope his next work doesn’t blow-up in the lab.

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6 Responses to “Book Lovers: May”

  1. Bryce 19 May 2012 at 1:38 AM #

    Dick Smart’s reviews of the Lambda finalists as compared to those of two of the judges via Goodreads are so wildly different it makes my head spin.

    So subjective is this biz, eh?

  2. Erik Orrantia 20 May 2012 at 2:01 PM #

    Thanks for your comments on Taxi Rojo, Dick. I’m glad that a different image of Tijuana came across and that your experience of the characters and their lives was a meaningful one!

  3. Rex Grey 24 June 2012 at 12:02 AM #

    To see just how subjective—and frequently off-the-mark—a review can be, check out “Rotten Rejections: The Letters That Publishers Wish They’d Never Sent” which chronicles harshly written rejection letters of now famous and critically acclaimed works.

    Also look up Erich von Stroheim’s 1941 review of “Citizen Kane” (now the gold standard in filmmaking), in which he concludes that the film simply doesn’t work for him (an oft used reviewer’s phrase).

    Perhaps my favorite assortment of blown reviews is by John Simon, whose stinging criticisms frequently veer off into attacks on actors’ physical features. Simon also infamously asserted that “Death in Venice” had nothing to with homoeroticism.

  4. Lawrence Zimbia 24 July 2012 at 9:04 PM #

    I continue to read book reviews, but honestly Dale Peck made me think twice about any of them. His lame trope “Hatchet Job” where he trashes a lot of heady novels went right into my toilet after he called Johanthan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated” one of the best debut novels ever. Problem with that? He is a long-time friend of the Foer family. Uh, yeh.

    • Dick Smart 25 July 2012 at 9:51 PM #

      Thank you all for your comments. As Bryce notes above, reviews are inherently subjective, and as I myself pointed out, my negative opinion of Brennessel’s debut novel was decidedly in the minority. That said, I do try to be more than just a reviewer (“I liked it, I didn’t like it”) because I would like to share with my readers my critical insights, which I hope I have substantiated from the work that I am discussing. I compliment an author’s work when I take it seriously enough to criticize it as a literary work–most romance is not even reviewed. As I mentioned in a previous column, I think I err too much in being a cheerleader for books which are seriously flawed but that I think show an author’s potential or which I think make some other important contribution to the romance genre. I wonder if that is more of a disservice to the reader than reviews that are frankly critical. Generally, if a book is simply dreadful, I don’t review it, but if a book has been acclaimed or is by an author who is otherwise strong, if I do give it a bad review, it is not like I am beating down an underdog. Rex Grey points out that critics can be petty, but I think John Simon’s criticism of an actor’s looks is apropo–after all it is an actor. Similarly, I often comment on a romance novel’s cover art, because that is part of the overall experience in enjoying a romance novel. The problem with discounting a review as merely a subjective opinion is that the next review might be glowing, and then will it be likewise discounted? Better to engage in a dialogue with the reviewer to discuss how they may have missed the mark. I commend Bryce, Rex Grey and Lawrence Zambia for doing just that. Meanwhile, I hope I redeem myself in everyone’s eyes with my enthusiastic review of Brennessel’s “Reunion,” coming up in my September column. Subjective or not, “Reunion” is a beautiful book.

      • Lawrence Zimbia 27 July 2012 at 1:59 AM #

        “Better to engage in a dialogue with the reviewer to discuss how they may have missed the mark. I commend Bryce, Rex Grey and Lawrence Zambia for doing just that.” —- Well stated, Mr. Smart. I didn’t convey clearly in my previous statement that I DO apprecate and pay attention to book reviews, and I particularly enjoy yours. I hope you’ll continue doing what you do. It’s clear you have a passion and devotion to a genre that’s too often dismissed. Kudos.

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