Massage

This novel of despair, stasis, and regret in post-AIDS New York centers around Randy, a thirtysomething masseur cum hustler who is stunningly handsome. Memories of a childhood sexual relationship with his father's boss have left him numb and inarticulate. Now he sleepwalks through encounters with clients chosen for him by his shallow pimp-boyfriend. One client, Graham, is a successful gay novelist in the declining stages of HIV infection, and Randy's resemblance to Graham's dead lover draws both john and hustler into a sadomasochistic dance of death, highlighted by brutal sessions of unsafe sex.

The motivations for the relationship are formulaic: Graham represents Randy's fantasies about the pre-AIDS era, which he vaguely pictures as a glamorous paradise for gay men. Graham sees Randy as that same era lost to AIDS and time, and he uses Randy as a kind of blow-up sex doll upon which to act out his anger and loss.

Throughout this novel, Randy blunders through a shadow world of '70s gay has-beens who bring him closer to the pre-AIDS past, or he mutely puts up with a cast of frantic, empty-headed gay contemporaries. There are a few strange anachronisms, such as the regular use of Dexedrine and barbiturates—old-fashioned pharmaceuticals that have become almost unattainable since the early 1970s. Whether these are meant to give the sense of an unreal journey backward in time, or whether the author is out of touch with the current drug scene, is difficult to tell.

It takes this lengthy book ages to creep toward the obvious: Randy's dreamlike encounters with Graham will bring him face to face with his own memories of abuse. Meanwhile, his dumbness remains a constant, and one wonders why anyone is interested in him once the shock of his good looks and vulnerability wears off.

The overall effect is demoralizing, numbing—like the characters. Nevertheless, this book succeeds in one important way: It sheds light on the despair and nihilism that can lead one to succumb to very dangerous sex.

 
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