Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Like John Jackson's From Steve, With Love, also published in 1972, Intensive Care is has all the marks of a serious novel that wound up in the hands of a sex-book publisher because no mainstream imprint was interested in a gay-themed book by an unknown writer.
The victim of a brutal sex crime, 20-year-old college student Tim Laird has been transferred from UCLA Medical Center to an upscale psychiatric facility at the request of his wealthy, self-centered parents. Tim can’t – or more to the point, won’t -- immerse himself in therapeutic rituals: He’s tortured by dreams that force him to relive his ordeal every single night, so why would he want to suffer through it every day as well? He swears he wasn’t trying to kill himself by overdosing on painkillers – he was just in shock and pain after surviving the traumatic assault and took more pills than he should have. And besides, Tim knows the real reason he’s been committed is that his shallow family saw an opportunity to put him in the hands of Dr. Greer, a psychiatrist who specializes in “curing” homosexuals.
Most of the staff toes the Greer party line, but there are exceptions, like “psychiatric technician” (whatever that means) Carl Greene, who’s assigned to look after Tim’s day-to-day physical needs. After spending some time with his young charge, Carl -- who's gay and sees sexual orientation as just one part of the unique confluence of desires, experiences, perceptions and influences that make up every individual's unique personality -- is convinced that there’s nothing wrong with Tim except that something horrible happened to him and he needs time to recover. Tim also has an unexpected ally in middle-aged staffer Mrs. Ryan, who administers the usual battery of psychiatric tests and comes to the same conclusion as Carl.
Tim wants nothing to do with Dr. Greer; he shows for his scheduled sessions but reveals nothing about what he thinks or feels. Carl is another matter: he gets permission to take him out on day trips, and each gradually opens up to the other. Carl shares his lingering grief over the death of Robbie, an ex-boyfriend who died in a car crash shortly after they broke up, and Tim finally tells the story of his ordeal at the hands of Al and Steve, whom he met in a bar. Whatever the inexperienced Tim expected, it wasn't to be tortured mercilessly in an isolated house where no one could hear him scream; escaping took the last ounce of strength Tim had. Sharing their darkest secrets allows Carl and Tim to look forward, and they begin making plans to move in together. All they have to do is hang on until Tim turns 21 and can check himself out.
But they underestimate Dr. Greer, who hates being thwarted: Two weeks before Tim's 21st birthday he forces Carl to take his unused vacation times and sets about breaking Tim. Greer torments, harries and goads the vulnerable boy into attacking him, after which Tim collapses into the refuge of a catatonic state. And that’s when Mrs. Ryan shows what she’s made of: She calls Carl, who in turn gets the usually apathetic Mrs. Laird on the phone and persuades her to start throwing her money around and and have Tim transferred to another hospital immediately. Revealing a strength of character no one imagined she had, Mrs. Laird not only does as Carl asks but gives his relationship with Tim her tacit approval. When Tim emerges from the cocoon of sleep, Carl is at his bedside, ready to take him away.
As I said at the outset, Intensive Care -- like a number of other “erotic” gay pulps of the 1960s and ‘70s -- isn’t really a stroke book. It’s a standard-issue coming-of-age novel whose main characters happen to be gay, and author Jackson (which I assume to be pseudonym) cleverly places a narrative damper on the hot guy-guy action by making Tim the damaged victim of sexual violence and Carl a mature man who realizes that a nurse – sorry, psychiatric technician -- should know better than to rush such a patient into potentially traumatic intimacies.
None of which is to say Carl and Tim don’t wind up doing all manner of things that go way beyond the parameters of patient-caretaker behavior, just that Jackson doesn’t dwell them. The average smutty-book buyer was probably disappointed by Intensive Care’s low lust-stoking factor, but four decades later it holds up surprising well. Parisian Press, a queer-pulp powerhouse, published at least two other novels by Jackson -- It’s Show Biz and From Steve, With Love -- in 1972; both share Intensive Care's better-than-it-needs-to-be qualities.