Friday, August 5, 2011

The Gay Haunt

The Other Traveller/The Olympia Press

Victor J. Banis' comedy of self-delusion and rude awakening -- credited to frequent pseudonym Victor Jay, one of many names under which he wrote a mind-boggling array of genre novels, from gay smut to female-friendly fantasy -- revolves around Paul Ross, who abandons his literary ambitions and honest gay identity to pursue a life of man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit conformity. The final step in his plan: Partnership in engineering firm Seller & Seller, a prize contingent on his marriage to the boss's plain, plump, prudish and pampered daughter Margo.

Fortunately for Paul, he's got a guardian fairy: The luscious, lascivious ghost of his late lover, happy hustler Lorin Gebhard, who choked to death five years ago on a diamond that dropped unnoticed from his cuff link into a delicious cocktail. Living Lorin was the self-appointed ambassador of "anything goes," but Paul is only going to pursue self-deluded quest of normality over Lorin's dead (but remarkably lusty) body.

Lorin makes his first appearance -- stark naked -- at Paul and Margo's engagement party and throws Paul for some exponential variation on the proverbial loop. The more vigorously Paul insists his queer days were just a phase, the more forcefully -- in all senses of the word -- Lorin applies himself to jogging Paul's repressed memories of smoking hot sex, drunken debauchery and gay times, landing him in one mortifying but pretty damned funny situation after another.

Paul is arrested for driving under the influence of Lorin's lustful lips and later compelled to hijack a fire engine in the nude. Still bare-ass naked, he blunders into the apartment where no-nonsense chippie Doris is trysting with her married sugar daddy, and the two of them wind up enjoying a zipless fuck while the cops haul her bewildered lover to the pokey. He screws Margo's cute, gayer-than-gay and none-too-bright cousin Don (though only after Lorin paves the way)  and is forced to flee a party thrown by Elliot Maxwell, the stable, studly, intellectually stimulating painter he threw over for flighty, thrill-a-minute social-butterfly Lorin... in a dress, yet.

Lorin's reign of "know thyself" terror culminates in a nightmarish weekend at the Sellers family "ranch," during the course of which Paul promises to sneak into Margo's bedroom for a night of passion but instead goes looking for Don, only to find himself groping Margo's delighted mother; is caught in flagrante by Margo's father but manages to extricate himself from this nightmare of impropriety by claiming he was just looking for the bathroom; returns to his own room but beats a hasty retreat when he realizes Mrs. Sellers has occupied his bed. Paul finally finds Don's room, minus Don, and decides to call it a night; he passes out in the safety of Mrs. Sellers' abandoned boudoir, only to be awakened by Lorin's expert caresses... except that it's not Lorin doing the caressing.

When the lights go on, Paul and a seriously traumatized Margo -- who just paid a surprise visit to Paul's room and was seriously surprised to find her mother and swishy cousin making the beast with two backs -- simultaneously discover that he's under the sheets with Mr. Sellers. Feydeau couldn't have choreographed a comedy of sexual errors more exquisitely attuned to the hypocrisies and shared social fictions of its time.

And it only gets better: Paul beats a hasty retreat with Don, who's atypically morose because he's just realized he's probably going to be disinherited, only to find Lorin waiting chez Don to offer his particular brand of pick-me-up. No sooner has Paul retreated to his own place than Mr. Sellers shows up, Margo in tow, and puts his cards on the table. Margo wants Paul, Paul wants to make partner and Mr. Sellers wants everyone to forget last night ever happened. From where he’s sitting, it looks as though the smart money is on a quickie marriage. Trouble is, putting the cards on the table can queer a bad deal (if you’ll excuse the expression) as easily as it can close a good one; once Paul and Margo take a hard look at the hands they’ve been trying to play, they both fold.

Margo is heartbroken but wiser, and one day she’ll realize just how devastating a bullet she dodged. Paul calls Elliot, who comes running but makes it painfully, thrillingly clear that he’s through playing Mr. Nice Guy. And as to Lorin, well, it's time for him to go back where he came from, with cute little victim-of-love Don in tow: Thanks to a gas leak that went unnoticed as Lorin was teaching Don some new tricks that produced literal sparks, Don’s apartment is in flames and his mortal coil has been shuffled off. Not the usual happy ending, but a happy ending nonetheless.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Banis was convinced that sex and humor weren’t mutually exclusive and proved it with the 1965 The Man From C.A.M.P. (credited to “Don Holliday,” another frequent nom de plume). A parody of spy thrillers whose title pointedly tweaked The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series -- which for all its macho machinations was the campest thing on ‘60s TV until Batman came along -- it introduced Jackie Holmes, elite agent of a top-secret organization dedicated to eradicating crime against gay men. He works out of C.A.M.P.'s Los Angeles office, whose high-tech nerve center is reached through a secret panel in the men’s room of gay bar The Round-Up, and Jackie’s default cover is a pretty, dandified pansy with a poodle. The Man from C.A.M.P. spawned nine sequels and three spin-offs (including a cookbook), and the series outsold everything else the prolific Banis wrote. Everything except The Gay Haunt, which Banis figured sold about 150,000 copies – a runaway bestseller by gay pulp standards.

Banis readily acknowledges in his hugely entertaining and informative autobiographical memoir Spine Intact, Some Creases (2004, Borgo Boviews/ Wildside Press)
that The Gay Haunt is a variation on Thorne Smith’s hugely popular 1926 novel Topper, in which the madcap ghosts of wealthy jazz babies George and Marion Kerby (played in the 1937 film by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) show a stuffy, hen-pecked banker how to loosen up and have a little fun. But Lorin life coaching is more problematic than Team Kerby's: For all their drunken carousing, George and Marion are fundamentally nice people whose antics never really hurt anyone else. Lorin’s good deed from beyond the grave -- showing Paul that playing straight just makes everyone miserable – is unimpeachable without being selfless, since he sent Paul off the rails in the first place.

Before Lorin, aspiring writer Paul and Elliot were sharing la vie boheme, supporting each other’s creative ambitions and sharing mutual goals, overlapping interests and a circle of smart friends with provocative ideas. The sexy, bitchy, spontaneous, shallow, fun-loving and self-centered Lorin bewitched Paul, but their wild fling that devolved into a mind-numbing bender that cost Paul Elliot, his old friends (supplanted by Lorin’s chattering coterie of silly party boys) and his passion for writing. Lorin's death broke the spell but left Paul nursing an emotional hangover laced with self-loathing that convinced him he hated being gay, when what he really hated was the kind of superficial, hedonistic and self-destructive gay life Lorin epitomized.

Lorin owes it to Paul to rectify the damage, but can’t resist doing it with the same kind of fabulous, chaotic, self-serving drama he used to live for: After all, don't the top girls say there's nothing like a little disaster to sort things out? And yet by the time the dust starts settling, Paul is both back on track and able to acknowledge the good things about Lorin without forgetting the bad, which allows them to part on a note of bittersweet acceptance. That’s a complicated knot of emotions and intentions to untangle, especially in an adults-only, supernatural sex farce. But Banis nails every note and makes it look like a breeze -- no wonder the book was such a hit.

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