Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Male Maulers

Lawrence Leclerc
1971, PEC/French Line

Twenty-two-year-old American art student Carl Hume loves everything about studying in France -- his instructors, fellow students, the beauty of the countryside -- everything except the fact that he can't walk down the street without being visually groped by men of every kind. Apparently La Jolla wasn't quite such a hotbed of homos, and Carl just isn't used to feeling like a Christmas ham in a kennel. In fact, the whole business is so embarrassing that he's rethought his decision to spend the holidays alone in Nice rather than at home and returns to his hotel to pack. Won't his parents be surprised and delighted!

And they no doubt would have been, had Carl not been drugged and abducted from his room at the charmingly shabby Hotel Hermitage the night before his intended departure. He wakes up bound to a bed in a country house he later learns is in Cannes, where a man who introduces himself as Rouge (and yes, he's a redhead) explains gently that Carl was kidnapped on the orders of Le Cartouche d'Acier ("tool of steel"), a procurer who runs a chain of brothels and occasionally fills special orders for super-rich clients with very specific tastes. Carl, says Rouge, has been sold to a sleek playboy with a yen for pretty virgins.

Carl can't believe what he's hearing: He's a human being, not an object. The hotel staff will call the police when they realize he's disappeared… so will his family when they fail hear from him. He's American, God's sake – things like this don't happen to Americans. In Europe, yet. Rouge leaves it to the boss to set Carl straight on all counts: Flesh is a commodity like any other, says Le Cartouche. He has an inside man at the hotel who carefully removed all traces of Carl; the gloomy little letter Carl wrote to his parents and decided not to mail – the one that could be taken for a suicide note – has been posted; things like this do happen to Americans and this thing has happened to him. If Carl has any sense at all, he'll do as he's told sooner rather than later.

Which Carl does – having seen the scars crisscrossing Rouge's back, he decides that being raped and degraded is better than being raped and degraded after being lashed within an inch of his life. And to his utter humiliation, Carl discovers that he kind of likes it… in fact, after two weeks he's stopped worrying about whether he's turning into a "real and true fag," and made his peace with the fact that he's pretty into sex with other men. Which is a good thing, because once Carl's playboy is done with him, Le Cartouche puts him through a couple of weeks of additional "training," bleaches his hair, rechristens him "Sandy" -- no doubt for the name's all-American, sun-and-fun loving connotations -- and puts him to work in one of his whorehouses.

Over the course of the next year, Sandy-Carl is moved from one French Riviera brothel to another for various reasons: Regulars get bored with l'Americain blonde, staffers take a dislike to the golden boy, petty jealousies ruffle the house hustlers' feathers. And then, a couple of days after Carl-Sandy has been installed in Le Cartouche's house in Nice, he spots a familiar face among the customers: Chet Barnes, a yacht crewman he knew slightly back in the US. Though Carl-Sandy briefly considers trying to contact Chet and plead for help, his hand is stayed by the sudden, devastating understanding that he can't go home again: The Carl Hume who left Southern California for a continental art school education is well and truly gone, his body snatched by a dead-eyed whore. Sandy-Carl even goes out of his way to inform Le Cartouche that he almost crossed paths with someone who knew him in the previous life that seems so impossibly long ago.

Sandy's loyalty gets him nothing except another transfer, this time to Menton, where he's assigned a series of clients who want special services (no doubt by way of reminding him that things can always be worse). Sandy-Carl does what he now knows is the only thing he can do. He rolls with the punches, the last of which is being sold to Yugoslavian pimp Petro Bosansko, whose Italian Riviera brothels are a step down the ladder from Le Cartouche's: The accommodations are less luxurious, the clients rougher and the hours more punishing.

Bosansko starts him off in a bordello in Ventimiglia, then moves him to San Remo, Imperio and Savona before finally putting him on a boat to La Spezia, home to what's rumored to be the wildest house in the Yugoslavian's chain. And it's during the trip that Carl-Sandy surrenders to the muted despair that's become his default state of mind and quietly throws himself into the inky water. But even suicide can't free him from whoredom: He's picked up by an Italian smuggling ship and raped by a hunchback who nearly bites his dick off, thrown overboard to drown and "rescued" yet again, this time by a Tunisian ship whose crew is itching for some entertainment. Or maybe it isn't Tunisian… it doesn't matter: "Well Carl," he whispers to himself as he assumes the position, "you wondered how you would end your days."

Wow. Who'd have guessed from the cover copy – "Passion bound by ties of silk – a new twist on Gay Paree!" – that what waited inside was a descent into the maelstrom, chronicle of ever-escalating misery that isn't even driven by the punitive cliche that there are no happy endings for queers, because Carl isn't even gay. He's just a sexually inexperienced kid whose decision to study abroad was clearly less about schooling than the desire for experience.

And for that naive hubris he's raped, forced into prostitution and conditioned to pretend he enjoys sex with the men who buy him, the alternative being brutal punishment. Placed in that context, Carl's "revelation" sounds more like a desperate psychological defense mechanism than a blinding moment of self-awareness, a retreat from the daily miseries of a situation he's powerless to change and one of his temporary keepers says as much (if only to himself):"Sandy's lovely brown eyes, one of his most attractive assets, had contained glints of bright intelligence when he arrived. [Now] they were more like the eyes of someone whose mind was constantly preoccupied by matters of very little importance." I don't know who Lawrence Leclerc was or is, but that's a sharp bit of writing, albeit a real downer in a porno novel -- nothing ruins a good sexual fantasy like being reminded that happy hookers are vastly outnumbered by exploited teenagers, desperate drug addicts and brutalized victims of sex trafficking. It's also truly remarkable in a book written at a time when "openly" gay men kept one foot in the closet, the 19th-century belief that prostitutes were nymphomaniacs (hence the term "daughters of joy") was still widespread and everyone knew it was impossible to rape a man.

The larger point is that like many other novels published by gay-porn houses (including the equally misrepresented Hot Asset!), The Male Maulers is a more complex and sharply observed piece of writing than it needed to be... in fact, its complexities are at odds with its apparent intentions. For all the frequent and graphic sex scenes, it's anything but a cheerful celebration of homosexual pleasures. But it's also not a finger-wagging warning that the express lane to hell is marked "Man Love;" Carl is less a martyr to his own deviant desires than a little American lamb beset by decadent foreign wolves. Change some pronouns and do a pair of global find and replaces (Carla for Carl, "cunt" for "cock") et voila: You have "The Female Maulers," a cautionary tale about the perils awaiting incautious coeds far from home and parental oversight.

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