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Calvin, an aging gay man who ticks the minutes of the evening down anticipating the porn he will watch when he returns home, is about to get a surprise. For one, he’s about to get sucked (pun intended) into the world of gay porn. Not the adult industry, but into actual porn-land, where every man’s girlfriend is away for the weekend (and they’re just horny, and have needs, you know?), the pizza delivery guy never has change but can always work something out, and every body is perfectly sculpted. ThinkPleasantville, but with more lube and moaning.
And then, to make matters worse, when Calvin escapes from porn-land, he’s followed back to his little flat in New York City by Joey, and now the guy who was once Calvin’s masturbatorial fantasy is crying on his bed, thrust (pun still intended) into a world in which policemen actually arrest you, takeaways can be delivered by ugly men and not everyone is well-endowed.
This is the set-up of Looking After Joey, and whilst it might sound ludicrous when cut down to a paragraph, it works splendidly on the page, largely thanks to the knowing archness of Pratt’s prose and the well-observed pot-shots he takes at the clichés of pornography. Admirably, he spends no time at all bothering with the ultimately irrelevant details of how Calvin ends up in porn-land (nor, thankfully, with the awkward repetition of whether any of his friends believe his story), all of which means Looking After Joey picks up a head of steam quickly.
From the opening, you might be forgiven for thinking this is going to be something of a knockabout comedy, and for a significant chunk of the novel it is. Pratt moves on from nimbly dissecting the ridiculousness of porn and rakes a critical (and very funny) eye over the rest of gay culture too – including a hilarious skewering of gay erotica. With Joey squarely in the real world, the plot settles into something of a glittered-up My Fair Lady as Joey is ‘trained up’ to be the perfect member of the New York ‘gayristocracy’ by Calvin’s best friend, Peachy, ostensibly with the aim of introducing Joey at a Manhattan party for a millionaire dildo-and-lube king with whom Calvin has a bitter and resentful history. We’re talking crash courses in musicals, and faux pas over mixing up Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, and the book straddles the fine line between sending up Peachy’s enthusiastic approach to ‘essential learning’ and giving the reader a blow-by-blow account of Joey’s education.
The very concept of a porn star adjusting to the real world suggests a glossy, knockabout comedy, but after the whole operation is underway, Looking After Joey takes a sidestep away from the obvious jokes. It’s not without its fair share of humor, but the tribulations of Joey–and Calvin himself –take on a darker, more existential hue. In the end, that’s this books finest merit. It eschews its revenge-plot and shakes off its fish-out-of-water roots about halfway through, settling instead into a tender exploration of the coming of age of both its protagonists that has a few sharp, and sad, things to say about aging in gay culture. In amongst the glitter and camp, there’s some beautifully phrased moments of poetry that cut to a darker, deeper center of the characters–and a sinister undertow to porn-land where the mysterious They, the viewers, dictate the every move of the characters.
Which is not to say that the rest of the book is not also glossy and knockabout – much like many of its characters, it wraps its sincerity in a ball of camp and snark. Pratt revels in dialogue asides that are outright hilarious, and there’s wicked joy in the jostling of the grotesque cast of characters that Peachy, Calvin and Joey must navigate to wangle an invitation to the party, all of whom are filled with such outré bombast that were a film to be made, the entire background cast should be played by Nathan Lane.
Looking After Joey is by no means a perfect novel – it outstays its welcome by about fifty pages with an unnecessary coda, and takes a short-lived and bewildering foray into meta-fiction at the halfway mark with a brief holiday to Spain–but it delivers above and beyond its fizzy premise with a story that’s ultimately touching and well-observed. Defending its sentimental heart against all comers, it also bristles with an arsenal of insightful satire and whip-smart quips that (mostly) saves it from mawkishness. It’s exactly the kind of book best enjoyed in one sitting to take you from its bonkers start to into-the-sunset ending.
Looking After Joey
By David Pratt
Wilde City Press
Paperback, 981925031935, 240 pp.