Gay Accompli

Or it can envision a coming apocalypse in a fleeting stranger's misfortune:

Just out the door and down the stairs, in the long narrow blue hallway, the unrelenting fluorescence, the fluorescent insect sound was the black snake run out of the dead guy's arm, thick black down his arm, down onto his pants down onto the floor into the hole where the linoleum buckled and was a low linoleum valley, the thick black lake.

The major difference between In the City of Shy Hunters and his earlier novels is that Spanbauer has simultaneously thrown his voice into overdrive and abandoned the unusual, neat, but cloudy narrative sense that kept a cool breeze blowing through his heated, almost flu-stricken prose. As a consequence, the novel is a decorative, frantic, and mostly predictable affair. It's not an inadmirable or even dysfunctional thing, but its standardized forward momentum leaves Spanbauer's writing to its own devices, and the results aren't pretty. Maybe a good point of comparison would be filmmaker Baz Luhrmann's recent Moulin Rouge, as strange as that may sound. Luhrmann and Spanbauer are similarly quirky artists whose first two works—Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet in Luhrmann's case—involve exuberant infusions of dreamy lyricism into storylines with resonantly familiar ideals and goals. But, like Moulin Rouge, In the City of Shy Hunters is a kind of stylistic blowout that so prioritizes surface over content that the prose sculpts away most vestiges of the reality it addresses. Even the grittiest, most depressing incidents feel polished and fanciful, occasions for Spanbauer to raise his already insistent voice to a hysterical pitch. Here he is riffing on Parker and his dying lover, the drag queen Rose:

Rose's chin up up, his eyes rolled back in his head, Saint Theresa Gone to Heaven.
    My feet were soldiers, new-shoe stiff, about-face.
    The splash of gas.
    Left, right, left, right, my red Converse tennis shoes walked down Saint Patrick's Steps.
    The unmistakable sound: the match.
    The cardinal a raven's scream, high-pitched, off, wrong, horrible, ripping the duct tape.
    My breath in. My breath out.
    Just like that, I turned slow, like an old snake in the sun. In my ears, the air imploded. In front of my eyes, a brilliance.
    The touch of the match covered Rose's cassock and roman collar like a blue flame ghost.
    A big bang, a big fucking bang.
    The scream from Rose from another incarnation. Wild, finally home.
    Finally free.
    The scream we all live for.

Just as Luhrmann successfully puts his stamp on the musical, Spanbauer proves that he can work his magic on the gay coming-of-age novel. But where Moulin Rouge feels like a personal dream idiosyncratically accomplished, In the City of Shy Hunters feels more like an adequate job done with excessive care and fuss.

Tom Spanbauer proves that he can work his magic on the gay coming-of-age novel.
photo: Jill Krementz
Tom Spanbauer proves that he can work his magic on the gay coming-of-age novel.

Details

In the City of Shy Hunters
By Tom Spanbauer
Grove Press, 504 pp., $26
Buy this book

Ultimately, Spanbauer's novel may be a rather unfortunate victim of the aforementioned gay literature problem. The joy of The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon was that it resembled nothing else without being in the least bit avant-garde. As with many novels destined for eternal cult status, its haunting passing resemblance to a conventional novel will no doubt keep it alive and operating in the fringes of the mainstream. It's understandable if slightly disappointing that, having written an acknowledged minor classic, Spanbauer has chosen to try his hand at the kind of book that signals to the gay literary establishment that a writer is ready to be seen as a major player. Considering how little it takes to wow those gay critics and readers still hot to see their lifestyles reflected in a fancy-schmancy mirror, it might just work.

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