While devouring the ultra-readable Dandy in the Underworld, I was convinced it was a modern-day Tristram Shandy, a satirical work of fiction posing as a racy, breathless retelling of truth. This supposed memoir of a bisexual-artist-slash-thrill-seeker is just too witty, juicy, and full of surreally complex experiences and twisty relationships to have actually happened. Even during the occasional dull patches, when the named author, Sebastian Horsley, seems to think that every single thought in his noggin is worth relaying, he’s way more interesting than most drunks and tell-all celebrities. And as Horsley plunges into hopeless degradation on every variety of narcotic, you hate him because he’s so adept at describing his horror with zingy wordplay that illuminates as it tickles.
“Father was more interested in penetrating orifices than penetrating insights,” he asserts early on. “Drinking when he wasn’t thirsty and screwing regardless of season—that was all there was to distinguish father from other mammals.” And that’s just Pops. Mother, stepfather, and everyone else Horsley’s ever met are also picked apart like chicken wings, and so is the vain but self-lacerating Horsley himself, who, when considering the possibility of life after death, admits, “I don’t believe in life before death.”
But I’m assured that Horsley is a real person who has indeed had an actual life. A Google search reveals that he wrote for the British paper The Observer, often about his own ridiculous exploits—from nailing over 1,000 prosties in a genital rampage to being nailed on a crucifix in the Philippines, without anaesthesia. (“Now, the one time I actually needed drugs, I declined.”)
Born as a failed abortion, the now 45-year-old Londoner escaped his mirthless childhood by deciding to be a girl—for a while, anyway—then grew up to adore glam rocker Marc Bolan, who was “super-plastic profound,” and later Johnny Rotten, who he decided was an “extraordinary poet” with “moral conviction.” Horsley tried becoming a rock star himself but failed, instead finding success as a drug user and equal-opportunity sex partner while wondering: “How can you make love with your excremental organs? It was so naughty of God to put the chocolate machine in the playground.”
That certainly didn’t stop him from poking around a couple of apertures and using his willy as a fleshy ice-cream cone. He ended up torn between Scottish-gangster-turned-artist Jimmy Boyle (who I’m not convinced existed either; Damon Runyon must still be alive and gone gay and druggy) and a girlfriend named Ev (who does sound banal enough to be real; under Horsley’s scalpel, she comes off like an unenlightened whiner and no fun at all). Horsley married the latter—though “I was more interested in having outlaws than in-laws”—only to find that Boyle had been shagging Ev for ages. Even more damagingly, Boyle was an egomaniac who only wanted to talk about himself. This irked Horsley, who’s such an attention whore that he was stunned when his fellow AA members weren’t thrilled he wanted a camera crew to follow him around at meetings!
Dotting his picaresque quest for fame and adulation are both defeated gestures (suicide attempts) and restorative ones (rehab visits), with Horsley feeling most alive when dancing on a precipice, halfway between life and extinction. Memorably, a boyfriend once put Horsley’s head in a toilet, then pushed it down with his stiletto heel, and Horsley loved it! (I still can’t figure out if he’s gay or just European.) But even when shoved into titillating submiss-ion, he never loses his unabashed love of language, dabbling in reversals (“I thought I was drinking because I was unhappy. It didn’t occur to me that I was unhappy because I was drinking”) and aphorisms that would have tickled his dandy idol, the frilly Quentin Crisp. (“Homosexuality,” writes Horsley, “is God’s way of ensuring that the truly gifted aren’t burdened with brats.” Unless they live in Park Slope, I guess.)
When all the yin/yang zingers verge on becoming oppressive, our harrowing hero aims for a more sober tone, especially when he spends his birthday hanging out at Auschwitz—mainly so he could talk about it—and when he undergoes that ritualized crucifixion that makes him re-evaluate everything, then come out just as superficial. So superficial that I started thinking maybe he is real.
A professional poseur, Horsley seems to understand that life is meaningless, but must be attacked with gusto—and with good clothes, too. “I believe in nothing,” he writes in conclusion, “but with as much style as I can.” The man certainly knows how to dress up his despair. His lifelong dandification, he says, shields him from suffering while using artificiality to reveal the truth—”and the truth is that we are what we pretend to be.” I guess Horsley is super-plastic profound: His combination of self-flagellation and megalomania is surprisingly delightful. He’s nailed it.