Tuesday, August 2, 2011
The Wisteria Club
The prolific Peter Tuesday Hughes, an original member of Richard (Song of the Loon) Amory's Renaissance Group, a coalition of gay pulp writers that included Dirk Vanden and Samuel Seward (writing as Phil Andros) and whose (unrealized) goals included founding their own author-friendly publishing company, cut a broad path through any genre that could be bent (as it were) to the needs of frequent queer sex scenes, including political satire (The Other Party, 1969), science-fiction (Alien, 1972) and gothic thriller (the popular Master of Montfortin, 1977).
Arch and cheerfully mannered, The Wisteria Club is the picaresque tale of an American orphan making his way up the ladder of late 19th-century London society, one horndog at a time. It begins in 1880: Kevin Edwards, a handsome, part-Native America lad of sixteen, staggers out of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere along the Dorset coast. He's one of two survivors of a the shipwreck that killed almost everyone else aboard, including his beloved parents; teh other is grizzled seaman Willie, who gets young Kevin as far as London before both are arrested for stealing food for which they have no money to pay.
Kevin is soon transferred to Miss Frederick's Home for Unclaimed Children, whose proprietress regularly throws tea partie at which dissolute aristocrats can, for a price, arrange to rent handsome boys. She loses little sleep over the fact that those who leave with regular Lord David Edenburry are never seen again.
Kevin, who's not quite as clever as he is handsome, is nonetheless clever enough to survive his weekend with Edenburry and his equally perverted friend, Mark Windom, helped by a felicitous combination of luck, pluck and fuck-worthiness. It's that last that makes Windom postpone drowning Kevin in a deep lake on Edenburry's estate whose floor is doubtless white with the bones of handsome orphans, to make time for one more depraved dalliance. The debauchery ends with Windom and Edenburry's cruel and humiliating tag-team assault on serving boy Albie Hawkes, a local lad three years Kevin's senior but considerably less worldly. Kevin and the humiliated Albie escape together later that night, and during the long walk from Edenburry's Kentshire estate to London they fall deeply and sweetly in love, and vow solemnly that they'll someday have their revenge.
They take refuge with elderly baker Harold Fountain, whose family hails from Middenburgh, where Albie was raised; unfortunately, Kevin is also acquainted with Fountain, who catered the get-togethers at Miss Frederick's. But small-town ties supersede big-city loyalties, and Fountain shelters both boys. He also tells them about the Wisteria Club, a very exclusive group to he, Edenburry and Windom all belong, though Fountain hastens to add that fervently disapproves of the cruel practices in which certain members indulge.
Feeling safe -- relatively safe, anyway -- for the first time since the shipwreck, Kevin quietly begins formulating a plan that starts with blackmailing Windom and Edenburry into getting both Albie and himself accepted into the Wisteria club. Always the more polished and ambitious of the two, Kevin has within a few years risen to the position of club secretary and used the connections he's forged to amassed a considerable fortune by catering to the whims of the idle rich and picked up a number of their vices. He and Albie share a discretely luxurious home, but Kevin is so focused on the social advancement that will advance his agenda he notices neither Albie's growing unhappiness (primarily over Kevin's casual infidelities) nor vicious extent to which his success is resented by Edenburry, Windom and their snobbish circle: Jean "the Monkey" de Bressie, scion of minor French aristocrats; Sanford Browne and Courtney Cunningham, respectively physician and legal counsel to the elite; and 21-year-old Scott Burroughs, the breathtakingly handsome, illegitimate son of an actress and a duke -- soon to be known collectively as The Six.
The two dovetail when Kevin and Albie have a bitter fight and the Edenburry/Windom alliance seize the opportunity to put Kevin in his place: They lure Kevin into a recklessly indiscreet opium-fueled, S&M debauch in a Soho brothel that guarantees he won't tell the police all he knows when he finds Albie hanging from a chandelier, to all appearances a suicide. And so Kevin calmly concocts a new plan to punish the men who killed the love of his life, no matter how long it takes. And fortunately for him -- perhaps via the gods of cosmic payback -- he manages to find both a new boyfriend, sweet little Italian Edmundo Chiavari, and a powerful protector before he's done.
Hughes was a remarkably flexible writer and in addition to managing a fine approximation of 19th-century popular fiction's mannerisms and mores, from parenthetical asides ("Poor stupid Kevin!") and arch digressions to hairpin reversals of fortune, he could (and did) construct satisfying plots around genuine characters. The equal of Jane Austen or Henry James? Well no... but then again, who is? The Wisteria Club is a ripping yarn, young Kevin an engaging protagonist and Hughes' portrait of Victorian London, high and low, considerably better than it had to be. And even Oscar Wilde might have managed a tear for for poor, open-hearted Albie, sacrificed on the altar of Victorian hypocrisy, followed by a giggle at multiple-murderer Kevin's happy ending, sheltered in the stately home of broadminded Gregory, Bishop of Chichester, disporting himself with both sex-starved young curates and the loyal Edmundo, and occasionally swishing around town in a slimming black cassock. Sweet!
All sarcasm aside, Hughes managed to tap into the erotic frissons of status-quo upholding depravity (anything involving Edenburry and Windom, decadent despoilers of fresh-fleshed youth), guiltless hedonism (almost anything involving Kevin, whose Native-American roots apparently free him from the conventional drags of propriety and bourgeois convention) and avant garde eroticis, exemplified by the sex-positive mores of Gregory's crumbling pile of a country mansion, which might as well have "Do What Thou Wilt Shall be the Whole of the Law" chiseled over one or the other of its doorways. Kevin is the bridge that links them: As a friendless orphan, he survives by submitting to what Windom and Edenburry want; as a newly free man, he loves Albie with his heart and flesh and never for a moment feels guilty; and as an older and wiser man he uses what he has (including sweet little Edmundo) to get the revenge he wants. To sum up: Period raunch wrapped in a real story... not a bad little deal.