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man about town

By Mark Merlis

Baltimore-born, San Francisco resident Merlis won the LA Times Book Award for his first novel, American Studies. In this new one, his third, he artfully intertwines the pathos of loneliness with a subtle critique of the American political machine.

Joel Lingeman is a forty-five year old gay man who works in Washington DC, drafting legislation he doesn’t necessarily agree with, mostly to do with health care provision. He spends his days liasing with senators or, more usually, their staff, going to committee meetings and briefing PR types. His nights are spent frequenting the bars and clubs he last hung out in fifteen years ago, his monogamous lover during that period, Sam, having recently walked out on him for twenty-three year old Kevin.

Though emotionally repressed – ‘He had cried at movies, but never at a funeral’ - slowly he dips his toe back in the pool, drifting into a rather vacuous relationship with young, black department store sales assistant Michael, which introduces the theme of colour in the US. While conscious that for the years of his domesticity there was a ‘great party he always knew was going on without him’, he also knows that ‘if he had lived, he would be dead’. This ties in with concerns he is forced to confront in his job, since a redneck Montana senator has introduced a bill to take Medicare away from individuals who have engaged in ‘high-risk activity’, so that uninsured children will be covered. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies are funding sinister TV ads from the shadowy Citizens for Personal Responsibility, so they will get tax breaks by supporting this legislation.

In the midst of it all, Joel begins a quixotic, or pathetic (delete as appropriate) quest to track down the model who posed for an ad in man about town magazine in 1964, the sight of which first intimated the fourteen year old Joel that he was homosexual.

The prose is crisp, clear, hardnosed and occasionally glib, in keeping with the often viciously competitive and corrupt picture of contemporary American life that it portrays. Gay rights and black rights are still live issues here, AIDS and racial discrimination haven’t gone away, and minorities are routinely threatened in a land where any mental midget can mouth the magical mantra ‘family’, thus dividing the world into ‘parents-with-kids’ and ‘deviants’, and get millions of votes from morons.

But Merlis is more sensitive in his treatment of these ideas than many heavy-handedly engage writers, who hit one over the head in books written merely to score political points. While acknowledging that sexual orientation is a huge determining factor in the course of one’s life, he realises that its power in strongest in the teens and twenties, when one is making important decisions about one’s life. Although he suggests that gays are resented by straights because they can party all night without getting a babysitter, and don’t have to change diapers and pay college fees, he isn’t crass enough to conclude, obversely, that homosexuals may be unhappy and unfulfilled because they don’t have children. He knows that parenthood doesn’t necessarily make heterosexuals any happier. The fact is that family life doesn’t suit lots of people, be they gay or straight, and by the time it comes to mid-life crises, we’re all in this thing together. In facing up unflinchingly to the middle class, middle-aged malaise, Merlis speaks to us all, and articulates not just the plight of a tragic queer, but the tragic view of life.

First published in the Irish Independent


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