Monday, August 22, 2011
Early 1970s (no copyright date, but most sources say 1971)
"This is a bizarre tale, unusual in this kind of literature," warns the back cover of Man Eater, and yeah, fair enough: Though gay smut of the 1960s and ‘70s is more diverse than a neophyte might think, it rarely ventured into such outright libido-shriveling territory as genital mutilation, serial murder and cannibalism. Not without fair warning, anyway.
But "Dick Jones" (if that's not a pseudonym I don't know what is) rushes in where tarnished angels fear to tread, and the result is a memorably nasty and psychologically astute thriller in which Vietnam veteran-turned-covert investigator Jake Gold is forced to hunt a bestial serial killer while still in the grips of post-traumatic shock syndrome. I venture to say that the vast majority of buyers who picked up Man Eater expecting a titillating one-handed read got an ugly surprise when they discovered just how literal the title was. But some four decades down the line, the real shocker is how vividly it anticipates Thomas Harris’ 1981 Red Dragon, filmed as Manhunter in 1986 and remade in 2002 under the original title.
Three and a half years ago, 25-year-old Jake was in country, having enlisted in hopes of proving to himself that he could control the raging libido that cut short his college career (getting caught in flagrante with a fellow member of the football team – by their coach and in the locker room, yet – was the deal-breaker). And it worked for a while. Then he met Dave, his rugged, manly soulmate, only to lose him four months later to a landmine. “I wanted to touch him, to hold him,” Jake remembers, “and I could only stand there and look at the pile of ground meat that had been my lover."
Dave’s death sent Jake off the deep end and into war-crimes territory, but he had the good luck to be recruited by the United Nations Crime Control Commission (UNCCC) rather than court martialed.
Now based in Berlin, Jake is on nightmare-making case number UNCCC45763-299H – the Man Eater – and after six months and four victims has gotten absolutely nowhere. The sociopath Jake is hunting targets upscale gay hustlers, castrating and cannibalizing them with a set of custom-made steel teeth, and when hestrikes again, butchering 22-year-old Juan Carlos decorates in Madrid, Jake is en route to Spain within the hour. His cover story is that he works for the TransEurope Film Syndicate, which allows him to scout "talent" and make contacts in upscale nightclubs, notorious dive bars and every gay-friendly hangout in between. Unfortunately for Jake, as long as he's in Spain he's stuck reporting to regional director Furguson, who never misses an opportunity to disparage fairies, faggots, cocksuckers and ass bandits in general and Jake in particular
Juan’s trail leads to celebrated bull fighter El Cordova, a notorious lover of pretty boys and freaky sex games. Jake gets a welcome thrill out of sleeping with the matador (Jake's unspoken motto is that the shortest route to whathe wants to know cuts through the bedroom) and would like to eliminate him from the investigation, but the fact is that El Cordova hated Juan and was in within easy travelling distance of all five murder sites on the appropriate dates. Jake also picks up English ex-pat James, who turns out to be a sadistic lunatic who threatens convincingly to screw Jake to death with a razor-blade studded dildo, which makes him look like a viable suspect as well. UNCCC closes the case after James kills himself with the lethal sex toy and El Cordova dies in the corrida, but Jake has reservations he tries to suppress by way of an epic bender that lands him in the arms of an aging whore and a pair of handsome, acrobatic, identical twin Danish rent boys. He knows he needs a break, but UNCCC sends him to London on a drug case.
That gets back-burnered when the man eater strikes again, this time in Rome. Once again, the slender leads Jake uncovers lead nowhere… but this time he gets an idea and orders up a psychological comparison of the victims. Bingo: They were all queer militants who proselytized aggressively, so Jake goes under cover as "Miss Mary SuperThing," activist hustler and drifts deeper and deeper into the sexual underworld, from open-air hotspots in Rome to orgies in Berlin, the sex-suffused streets of film-festival crazed Cannes to perpetually-permissive Amsterdam, where he cuts himself a break one night and abandons Man Eater detail for what promises to be a stimulating, unthreatening rendezvous with a pleasant, graceful fellow named Paul.
You knew where that was going, of course... the first part, at least. After some sweetly steamy foreplay, Jake is cold cocked and wakes up naked, gagged and tied to a bed by the man eater. Terrified and helpless, Jake is a captive audience to not one, but two hairpin-turn revelations: The first is that "Paul" is a woman. The second is that she used to be an effeminate gay man who was pressured into sexual reassignment surgery that left her miserable and filled with murderous rage.
Jake breaks free and kills "Paul," learning later that he escaped only because his bindings were carefully designed to give way under persistent pressure: The Man Eater wanted to die and chose Jake as his/her executioner. So Jake gets his man and his vacation and little something extra. "I've got to call a connection about a matched set of seventeen-year-old Nordic twin brothers [who] have learned some new tricks," he says. "I should be fun: There are some things that I want to show them."
I don't know about you, but I worry for those Danish boys: Like Harris' demon-haunted FBI profiler, Will Graham, Jake Gold got the job done at the expense of taking a good long look into the abyss. And once you lock eyes with the abyss, you're its bitch. Make no mistake: Red Dragon is a better book than Man Eater. But my gut is that if Man Eater had made its way through the mainstream publishing process, a gauntlet of editorial oversight, copyediting, fact checking and professional hand-holding – rather than the "crank 'em out" gay-sleaze sausage factory, it could have been every bit as good. The raw material – not just story, but also characterization, socio-political/psychological underpinnings and straightforward but skillful prose style -- is all there.
Not to play the "mute inglorious Milton" card, but if Dick Jones is still alive, I'd be thrilled to hear from him (or her, I suppose – it's unlikely but possible): The writer who made the effort to produce a book both so prescient and so much better than it needed to be deserves a shout out.