The Western has always been ripe for queer reading. After all, the conventions of the genre require that the main characters–the cowboys–are strong, rugged, independent, masculine men, who bristle under authority, shun the affections of women, and keep a trusted male companion at their sides at all times.
Plus, cowboys are hot.
Brokeback Mountain was hardly original in pointing out the gay subtext of cowboy stories, it was simply a very well-crafted story that achieved a lot of attention. It’s now spawning a generation of imitators looking to cash-in on a sudden desire for hot cowboy-on-boy action.
Enter Cleis Press’ half-hearted anthology Cowboys: Gay Erotic Tales, a title that is misleading in at least three ways.
First, don’t expect this collection to have much to do with cowboys at all. Any true Western enthusiast will peg the poseur in the cover image right away–a shirtless man in a Stetson with a string of Asian characters tattooed down his back, his jeans riding implausibly low, below his ass.
More than that, half the stories in this dreary collection don’t even really feature any cowboys. Some, like Dominic Santi’s “Urban Cowboys,” simply feature a character who wears a cowboy hat and boots.
Steve Berman’s baffling story “Secrets of the Gwangi” is a weird little piece of metafiction in which a screenwriter pitches a story to a studio executive about gay cowboys who fight pterodactyls, I think. I’ve read the story three times, and I’m still not certain I understand the plot.
Several other stories simply take place in the American Southwest and feature white trash. Shane Allison’s “The Pickup Man,” is a story in which a black narrator picks up a white guy in the bathroom of a country bar in Florida.
Second, the stories aren’t terribly erotic either. Chilean writer Isabel Allende once said “Erotica is using a feather, pornography is using the whole chicken.” True, no chickens were harmed in the production of this collection, but the stories here carry all the subtlety of a brick to the groin.
After all, in a world with the internet, DVDs, and Hard On PrideVision, books have to offer something extra to compete against video. Erotic literature tends to fill that niche by providing stories with rounded, interesting characters; complex desires; stimulating dialogue; and a slow, tender arousal that draws the reader in. A truly erotic story makes him feel as if he is one of the characters in the scene.
Compare what I just described to “Bunkhouse Orgy,” written by someone who goes by the name Bearmuffin. The story is a mercifully brief seven pages, in which half the dialogue is written in ALL CAPS. There are a total of 19 exclamation points. Bearmuffin’s other contribution, “Ranch-Hand Hookup” features an astounding 41 exclamation points over eight pages! The story also suffers from a number of unfortunate typos and narrative inconsistencies, leaving the overall impression of a 14-year-old boy bragging about the sex he has with his boyfriend, the one you wouldn’t know because he lives in Niagara Falls.
“Bunkhouse Orgy” also has lots of clumsy sentences: “After Shane had totally rimmed Colt’s ass, Colt was ready for a blowjob.” Can an ass be partially rimmed? Is one only ready for a blowjob once they’ve been “totally rimmed”?
I really wish Bearmuffin’s writing was atypical of the stories in this collection, but it’s simply not.
Finally, it’s really hard to call these stories “tales” in any useful sense. Nothing terribly important happens in most of these stories, other than the fucking, of course. And even then, it’s the rare story where the fucking actually advances the plot or character arc.
In many of the stories, there are no objectives or purposes to the actions presented. In some, the only tension is in whether or not the main character will hook up with the object of his affection. That is not interesting because the reader knows it’s going to happen. Moreover, it often happens before the story is half over.
A few of the stories in this collection do bother to introduce rudimentary plot lines, the best of which are the two entries by Dale Chase, “A Wanted Man” and “The New Sheriff,” whose characters border on poignant but still never really come to life.
Authors shouldn’t be congratulated for bare-minimum storytelling, but compared to the other stories in this book, Julia Talbot should be highly decorated for remembering to include a plot in her two entries, “Mind in the Middle” and “Drift-Fence Desperado,” as should Victor J Banis for “Longhorns.”
Unfortunately, none of them managed to craft characters who were at all memorable or believable, and, admittedly, I could only remember these stories by checking the table of contents and flipping through the book again.