Bruce Benderson has always been a connoisseur of the louche, a writer in constant pursuit of illicit adventures that have no place in our newly gentrified, family values Queer Eye world. “I am . . . a cultural leftover,” he confesses early on in The Romanian, a blistering (and surprisingly engaging) memoir of his affair with an Eastern European hustler. “As recently as six years ago, I still spent white nights in the company of midtown Manhattan hustlers, ex-cons and junkies, sponging up their speech and vampirizing their emotions to write about,” notably in the 1994 novel User.
Most people happily settle for a smidgen of difference, finding a frisson in relationships with someone of another religion, class, or race. But Benderson craves an all-encompassing dissonance—and he finds it in Romulus, a Romanian rent boy he meets while researching an article about Budapest brothels. Romulus stands out from the hipsters of the new Hungary who “seem so determined to master the vapid, hedonistic, athletic attitudes of the new economy.” He is one of the runts of modern-day Europe, an impoverished Romanian who grew up under Ceausescu’s brutal regime and now drifts and grifts wherever he can, his prospects constantly narrowing.
Smitten with this gaunt, inscrutable creature, Benderson tries to convince his editor to run a piece on Romulus. But when it comes to justifying the object of his obsession, he’s flummoxed: “Because he’s no one, I suddenly realize, a person with no identity moving illegally and aimlessly from country to country. A vacuum sucking my lost life forward.”The Romanian splendidly conjures this void as well as the boundless longing that Benderson pours into it. He latches onto the young man, ironically using Romulus’s dead-end existence as an escape hatch from the bourgeois constrictions of his own—both figuratively and literally, since Benderson eventually rents an apartment in the Romanian capital of Bucharest to share with his new lover. They must keep the curtains shut at all times or else risk being reported as homosexuals (subject to prosecution at that time), though Romulus considers himself straight and always has a needy girlfriend on the sidelines. Meanwhile, this sugar-daddy act forces Benderson to raise extra cash in a way bizarrely out of step with his more serious literary work: He translates Celine Dion’s memoir, rendering her sentimental rags-to-riches story into shiny English even as he is swallowed up by his sordid foreign fantasia.
More than just a memoir, The Romanian is also a fascinating travelogue of a country dense with mystical traces and decay. Benderson’s Bucharest resembles an eerie collection of urban ruins peopled by begging children and howling wild dogs. His vibrant prose captures the ad hoc nature of the place: “A Soviet-style housing project looks like it’s caving into a shiny new adjoining bank. Everything looks pieced together by Krazy Glue, fighting for space and contradicting everything else, like Cubist structures on a baroque wedding cake.” Benderson fuels his obsession with the country by immersing himself in florid tales from Romanian history—particularly the titillating accounts of libidinous Queen Marie, her playboy son Prince Carol (the last king of Romania, who flirted with fascism), and Carol’s Jewish mistress, Elena Lupescu. And because he’s saturated in Romanian lore, Benderson spots hints of the past everywhere. Touring the home of composer George Enescu, he recalls that Enescu’s wife (a friend of Queen Marie) “kept the palace in near darkness, because of a disfigured face resulting from gasoline burns she’d inflicted on herself after an unrequited love affair.”
At times Benderson’s romanticization of Romania and Romulus gets to be too much. “It’s as if we were out of historical time and in that other eternal time conceived by Mircea Eliade,” he writes reverently, and you can almost smell the stink of burning incense rising off the page. “No matter that the cosmic spirit of Romulus may be dulled by prostitution, corrupted by fantasies of fast cars and cool sound systems. His macho fatalism, which I finally understand for the first time, instills everything with elegance.” Even more extravagant are his strained comparisons between the regal oedipal drama of Queen Marie, Prince Carol, and Elena Lupescu and Benderson’s own personal trinity, consisting of himself, Romulus, and Benderson’s larger-than-life mother, who he sporadically visits back in upstate New York, where she nears death.
Occasionally someone questions his warped vision. When he reads a passage about Romulus to a New York gathering of Romanian exiles, one poet asks why everyone who writes about Romania always writes about prostitutes. The jazz pianist Johnny Raducanu points out, “For you is fun, a dream and an adventure. . . . But see how you like the party when you stay forever!” Not that Benderson ever hesitates to make himself look bad. A tightly controlled book about the loss of control necessitated by obsession, The Romanian openly offers up the author’s blind spots and weaknesses. It’s not until he’s out of the thick of things that Benderson can see for himself what we’ve witnessed: a man transforming his midlife fears and desires into a grand, if disturbing, adventure.