Toronto
3 min

Soft men can’t be matadors

Brian Bouldrey authors up memories

STRANGE FICTION. Erotic Bugs Bunny to assault rifles covered in essay-style memoirs. Credit: Xtra files

San Francisco writer Brian Bouldrey has authored two well-received novels and edited three Best American Gay Fiction anthologies. His latest is Monster: Adventures In American Machismo, a collection of essay-style memoirs.



He opens with an apt excerpt from Wallace Stegner’s 1938 American classic, The Big Rock Candy Mountain.



“I’m daffy about flax,” says strong but sensitive Jud. “It’s so slick and silky to feel.” He and a girlfriend are running their hands through a sack of the tiny polished seeds. Jud then adds that the seeds, “like everything else that’s lovely,” are dangerous. A boy he knew once drowned in a flax bin. “Nice boy, too. That’s the kind things always happen to.”



On the next page we learn that our “nice boy” arty fag author once shot and killed a bear with an AK-47 assault rifle. He was in charge of some kids at an Alaskan summer camp, and saved them from a bear attack with the borrowed gun.



Then we meet his brother Chris, an ex-Marine, prison guard and deer hunter. When Bouldrey reveals his gayness to Chris the response is, “Nobody has to know, you know.”



Instead of countering this with an obvious rejoinder (“And no one should know about your wife and kids either, right?”), Bouldrey spends three paragraphs constructing romanticized images of the thoughtful, “godlike” non-judging nature of his brother and other gun-toting men who have come “to terms with how unfair the world will always be.” After all, they “have discussed it with a deer or two.”



Bouldrey’s failure of reason is stunning here. The world’s unfairness is not neutral. Deer and homos (a partial list) have been bloodied for centuries by macho men. Instead of engaging what’s really at stake in the manly/girly stand-off, Bouldrey lets Chris’s clear message stand: Keep your love life a secret, bro, and I’ll feel better about you.



It’s the book’s strangest, most disturbing lapse. Still, Bouldrey has the smarts to redeem himself. About straight men in sport he says, “It’s only when men are in action that other men are given full licence to look at them. Men without motion are invisible men.”



At a rodeo, he sees calf roping from the bovine point of view, imagining human indignation emerging from a goggle-eyed trussed calf. “I am giving the little baby cows voices. I’m seeing the world through pink-coloured glasses.” Often, though, he doesn’t trust that vision.



He calls Joyce Carol Oates “brainy but humourless” in her book On Boxing, but in a 15-page essay he comes nowhere near her analysis. Bouldrey is better on bullfighting, detailing its brutality but not letting anyone off the hook, reminding us that every bacon sandwich has a tormented and murdered hog behind it.



Un-prissy candour serves Bouldrey well as he takes us into the stands at a Spanish bull ring. Even amid some fuzzy logic, a few wonderful sentences emerge: “Watching the life drain from a bull is a decadent, splendorous evil.”



Then, abruptly and bizarrely, he gives us a critical plot summary of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, and compares the emotional release triggered by an operatic climax with the primal high of watching a tortured bull in its death throes. His point? Both moments are aesthetically “unearned,” yet we intuitively respond to their power without criticism.



This is cerebral gobbledygook. What does Mozart earning his right to a musical epiphany have to do with earning the right to torture and kill an animal? The comparison loses on both counts, belittling a genius and absurdly gracing bull fighting with the status of high art.



Bouldrey grabbed me most when he described his sexual awakening, not at scout camp or in a buddy’s basement, or even over a Playboy centrefold. No, it was a Bugs Bunny cartoon (one I fondly remember) that gave him his first ever rock-hard stiffy.



His riffs on HIV (viral loads, callous doctors, slowly dying lovers) have the aura of jaded melancholia that’s now inevitable in AIDS memoirs. When Bouldrey’s prose is in full bloom the effect can be like a roomful of gardenia blossoms – bewitching or cloying, depending on your taste.



“My pleasure was for all of him. Him alone, yes, even if the virus left its own trail… the skin, the sin of it, infected cuts, swollen eyes, the wart that never quite got burned out, the light in his eye, and the yellow corona around each lesion as they spread, eventually turning into dark sores, the way tomatoes ripen.”



It’s another poetical grappling with the sadly familiar. I guarantee you’ll learn more from the bullfight essay.



MONSTER: ADVENTURES IN AMERICAN MACHISMO.

By Brian Bouldrey.

Council Oak Books.

248 pages. $34.95.