Monday, March 12, 2012

Boys Behind Bars

Benjamin David
Manhard Books/Surrey House, 1973

Sluts in the slammer stories are the sugar cookies of smut: Dependable, basic gratification. When you buy a book called Boys Behind Bars, you know what you're getting, even before the back-cover blurb spells it out: "Take one detention cell and fill it with horny boys and something is going to happen… fast! As quick as his faded uniform was stripped from his body, he was thrown face down, and held there… until every boy in the cell had it!" Except when you don't… Benjamin David's apparently formulaic adults-only pulp is something altogether stranger and more moving than you'd have any reason to expect.

Sweet-faced, 16-year-old Tod Custis, a math prodigy from Champaign, Illinois, wafts into Dorm 3-C, St. Elmo's Reformatory (named for the 3rd-century martyr associated with luminous electrical sparking) on a cloud of sleazy tabloid celebrity: The smart money says this slim, brainy newbie, convicted of killing his parents, is no match for eleven hardened delinquents aching for a piece of his famous and no-doubt cherry ass.

The smart money, however, is wrong. Custis is tougher than he looks -- way tougher – along with more ruthless, disciplined, devious, sex savvy, manipulative and image conscious, which is where self-taught rocker Billy Joe Winslow, a handsome blond with violet eyes and a knack for tailoring prison rags so they show off a fellow's manly assets, comes into the picture.

Within weeks, Custis is in a position to do cushy time: He's got power, privileges and Winslow, a great lay, good time and kindred spirit. But staying isn't an option: Born into poverty, incest and abuse, Custis caught a once-in-a-lifetime break when a teacher spotted his gift for math and lost it to his degenerate biker dad, Rod. Rod caught his wife with her lover, beat them both to death and staged the crime scene to implicate Custis. Smart by nature and brutalized from birth, Custis has been plotting revenge for a long, long time, but Winslow has thrown him for a loop. Blindsided by something that seems an awful lot like love, he lays his cards on the table – he doesn't want to leave St. Elmo's without Winslow. Common sense says that smalltime offender Winslow should stay put, serve his penny-ante time and walk away free and clear. But it's not about logic for him, either, so that's that.

The escape goes smoothly until their getaway car blows a tire, but fate is in a benevolent mood: A silver Mercedes materializes out of the two-lane darkness, with rich, horny, drug-addled hippie poet Yseult Homann-Potter at the wheel. She not only gives the lost boys she dubs her "lambs" a lift to Chicago, but installs them in the deluxe digs she shares with her twin brother, Tristram (how creepy is that?) and introduces them to life in the divinely decadent lane.

And this is where Boys Behind Bars takes an unlikely detour, leaving the high-octane, couple-on-the-run highway for the thorny back roads of relationship work. It's going to take a whole lot of negotiating if the fairy tale romance that blossomed in the hothouse of St. Elmo's is going to survive in the real world. Who'd have seen that coming?

Custis and Winslow are no strangers to using what they have to get what they want: When Yseult puts the Eastern sex-as-divine-ecstasy moves on Winslow in the car, he figures he's paying for the ride. Custis picks up the rent by indulging the besotted Tristram – a luxury apartment overlooking Lake Michigan is the last place anyone will be looking for a pair of underage fugitives – always figured finding his father would involve screwing his way through the kinky local biker scene for as long as it took.

But damned if love doesn’t turn out to be a game changer and double damned if Custis and Winslow don't rise to the challenge. They drop the depersonalizing reform-school convention of last names for Tod and Billy Joe, and when jealousy threatens to drive a wedge between them, they talk it out; mutual vulnerability replaces the cock-driven one upmanship that used to get them hot and they escape the numbing effects of selling themselves to strangers by retreating into the piercing intimacy of cuddling. Can you say "world-class WTF?"

Except that in retrospect, author "Benjamin David" plays fair. Instead of trying to sell the idea that love transforms the Custis of Dorm 3-C – to all appearances a sociopath who uses sexual humiliation to establish authority, keep would-be alpha dogs in line and get his rocks off in the process – David transforms the reader's perception of Custis. The turning point is during Winslow and Custis' escape; Custis steals a terrified Baptist boy's car and stashes his bound, naked and whimpering hostage on the back-seat floor of his own vehicle. What he doesn't do is abuse the vulnerable youth, because the fact is, Custis was never a sociopath... just a pragmatist tempered in a particularly hellish fire: He lies when there's no upside to telling the truth – no one will ever believe he didn't kill his parents, so why bother – uses sex as a weapon because it delivers maximum return on minimum effort and exploits weakness to further his own ends. People get MBAs for mastering the same skill set in graduate school. The kid on the floor is naked because Custis needed a change of clothes and tied up on the floor because as long as he's back there he's not siccing the police on Winslow and Custis' asses. When the lovers are forced to ditch the car for a new ride. Custis' last thought is that Duane's junker will stay warm long enough that he'll be found before he freezes.

That's kind of subtle for porno, and makes you feel okay about being glad the boys get a happy ending. They may not wind up being happily ever after, but once Tod has had his face-to-face with his dad – whom he chooses not to kill – he and Billy Joe walk away from the fancy digs, perverted bikers, lost souls and wealthy wastrels willing to do anything to feel something and hit the road, heading West to face the future together.

I've never run across another book by "Benjamin David" and have no idea who he is or was. But anyone who can stir together couple-on-the-run clich├ęs, vicious vivisection of '70s-style let-it-all-hang-out self-indulgence (a mere three years into the decade, remember), hellbound nihilism a la Jim Thompson, raunchy sex and the conviction that love can motivate a pair of throwaway teens to transcend the kind of deprivation that grinds strong men into the dirt to produce a thoroughly readable pulp novel is okay by me.


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