Wednesday, July 27, 2011

From Steve, With Love

Parisian Press

Like John Jackson’s Intensive Care, also published in 1972, From Steve, With Love aspires to be more than a dirty book, which is not to say it isn't plenty dirty. But if less than a classic coming-of-age story (pun not intended, but no doubt inferred), it's actually better than a whole lot of variations on that well-worn theme put out by mainstream publishing houses.

Hot for teacher Allan Carstairs, small-town Wyoming boy Steve Corey gets quite the extracurricular education from the handsome Shakespearian scholar. Their affair is discovered and Allan flees in disgrace, Steve sets out to find his lost love but instead learns how hard life can be for romantics.

With nothing to go on but Allan’s advice that Steve should get out of Levittsville as soon as he can and explore his sexuality in a gay-friendly like “San Francisco or New York or New Orleans,” handsome Steve quietly packs a suitcase and makes his way to the bus station. His unsentimental education begins on the late-night bus to San Francisco: He enjoys a little sleepy fooling around with a handsome stranger named John and wakes up in San Francisco to find his wallet and all his money gone – all except the $20 hidden in his shoe.

The avuncular driver directs him to an inexpensive hotel and assures him that work is easy to come by; sure enough, three days later Steve has a job at a seedy movie theater – it’s not much, but it keeps a roof over his head and food on the table… if only fat, lecherous, alcoholic manager Mr. Colt would stop leering at him.

Steve meets the handsome, charismatic Craig Merriweather, some seven years his senior and well on his way to financial security, while swimming at the YMCA and there’s instant chemistry between them. But after a fabulous night together, Craig fails to follow through on his promise to call. Three weeks later, Steve quits his job following a humiliating experience with Mr. Colt and lets himself be picked up by a nice-looking older man who’s willing to pay $25.00 for an hour of his time.

Steve’s trick, Nikos, turns out to be an aging male model (Steve spots him in cowboy drag on a billboard advertising a popular brand of cigarettes he coyly neglects to name.. gee, could Nikos be a Marlboro Man?) who’s seguing into a second career as a pimp. Within a few months Steve’s circumstances have improved substantially: He has a nice apartment in Pacific Heights, new furniture and enough regular clients that he doesn’t have to worry about money. He’s lonely, though… and Christmas is one hell of a depressing day.

Then he meets Robin, a cute guy his own age, while sunbathing in Aquatic Park. They move in together with the understanding that it’s nothing heavy or exclusive – they’re just friends with benefits long before non-judgmental terms were coined... and then it gets complicated: It’s almost Christmas again and Robin – who’s started getting serious with a guy named Scott – throws a huge party. And who should turn up but Craig? Steve and Craig get back together, but a lot has happened since they met and they have to reinvent their relationship if it’s going to stand a chance.

From Steve, With Love is exhibit A in the case for genre: From drawing-room mysteries to porn, genre fiction is written to formula, which stifles great writers but gives the next few tiers -- the good, the promising, the competent, the pedestrian but reliable -- a time-tested structure within which to work. In order to keep those sex scenes coming (no pun...), From Steve, With Love has been stripped of the agonizing conversations and angsty interior monologues that make so many coming-of-age stories all-but unreadable.

But Johnson, whoever he may be, isn't a total hack, and makes Steve’s picaresque journey from bed to bed more than an excuse for serial hook ups. Each relationship, however brief or pragmatic, forces Steve to examine the beliefs with which he was raised, make hard decisions about what really matters to him and recalibrate his moral compass accordingly. As Mary Poppins would never say, just a spoonful of naughtiness makes the moral reckoning go down, in the most delightful way.


And now, a curious aside: In 1985, a variation on From Steve, With Love's cover art turned up on the 1996 CD reissue of cult audio-collagists Peach of Immortality's perversely titled "Talking Heads '77" (1985). How'd that happen? Beats the hell out of me, but I'm looking into it. (Thank you, Ken!)


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