Seropositive for 22 years, San Francisco writer Kevin Bentley writes with grim humour and unstinting honesty on the AIDS crucible of the 1980s and early ’90s. A rare and lucky “nonprogressive,” with genetic resistance to HIV, his CD4 counts have ranged from 700 to 1,000 ever since he converted in ’83.
Survival, of course, leaves you free to suffer life. Bentley has nursed two lovers to early graves. His current squeeze (eight years and counting) is HIV-negative – and, we must hope, a safety freak.
Billed as both “back story and sequel” to Bentley’s memoir Wild Animals I Have Known, this new collection of autobiographical essays begins with a desperate Texas childhood. In 1960s El Paso, the desert invaded every scrap of hopeful greenery. Schoolyards and playing fields were often seas of shifting dunes. Bentley has a special knack for linking physical surroundings with the erotic currents surging through his adolescent body. His seminal first encounter with a new playmate, Joey, is a case in point.
Joey had half-buried himself in sand piled against the schoolyard wall. He called Kevin over to help him finish the interment, and soon only Joey’s head was showing at the end of a big mound of hot sand. “Okay, now walk over me.” Kevin dutifully stepped onto the centre of the mound. “See? You’re standing right on my dick and I don’t feel a thing!”
The relationship matured. Sleepovers under the stars became jerk-off competitions, then mutual suck-offs, then rear entry. In the Bentley family garage they’d improvise “scenarios.” “I might have to stand atop an old desk for 10 minutes by the clock, bent over holding my ankles, while Joey inspected my ass, spreading the cheeks, slapping the backs of my legs with a ruler. Once he was a burglar armed with a toy pistol who broke in and made sexual demands at gunpoint.”
The downside of Joey was the rumour mill. The school locker room became a gauntlet for Kevin. Every guy with a semi-hard in the showers would flip it at the resident “fag” and spout suggestive insults. Sometimes a group hazing would be kindled out of the collective fear and desire, and Kevin would find himself beset by “spitting, pawing, pinching, jabbing and roughly-caressing” jocks. The abuse gave him a helpless woody. Later at home, he’d dissolve into tears. Once pal Joey was gone, Bentley reports he didn’t touch another dick till he left home for college.
At family parties, Bentley’s father was likely to be found in garage cleaning his rifle. It gets worse. When little Kevin brought home some Easter chicks from the local pet store, they lasted only a week before dad strangled them with a pair of pliers. Kevin’s mother, ever the apologist, would try to elicit some sympathy for hubby. “Your father’s mother caught him, you know, touching himself in the bathtub when he was a little boy, so she whipped him with an egg turner and put Tabasco sauce on his potty-er.”
Much later, Daddy had his own way of censuring sexual freedom. Kevin asked for a modest loan, to be repaid from his dying lover’s life insurance, so they could afford frequent cab rides to the doctor. His father refused. Mom relayed the news by phone from patriarchal HQ: “Daddy says if we give you this money now it’ll just be more next time – and then what if you get sick, too?”
Bentley’s writing rises to the early AIDS years with personal candour and erotic abandon. What are the qualities of an ideal dick? Bentley encountered his personal fave during his rampant college years in late ’70s San Francisco. Sam, who fled from a wife and kids in Tennessee, had “a perfect penis: marble-white, smooth and hard, not bumpy and gristly, with a just-discernable blue vein pulsing beneath the skin right up to the corona, and a thick flushed head, all pointing up and jabbing at the air like a gesturing dictator.” This commanding pole wafts an odour “slightly sweet, mushroomy, mulchy.” Sort of like being there, n’est-ce pas?
Sam was a whirlwind fling that quickly fizzled. Fifteen years later he had become, in Bentley’s achingly frank description, “a hollow-eyed, shuffling Nosferatu,” glimpsed from across a busy street.
Bentley writes in quick cuts, dovetailing delights with deepest sorrows. His sharp eye and keen insights are sometimes undercut by snatches of pumped-up lyricism – but that’s okay. Grief and language don’t really intersect. He’s best at unvarnished observation. Recalling his first lover’s final weeks, he describes a “hothouse atmosphere of hysterical good cheer and white-knuckle skirmishes with death.” Remember?
? Jim Bartley writes on books in every other issue.