Friday, May 25, 2012
The Pile Drivers
PEC/French Line, 1970
Let's start by saying that this is one relentlessly ugly little book that thoroughly lives up to the punishing implications of its title and is way nastier than the essentially meaningless cover line -- "old science practiced on a young boy" – would suggest (unless you take "young boy" to mean "child," which it doesn't). It's also bracingly graphic about the sheer messiness of certain kinds of sex, which could be spun as an earthy corrective to antiseptic porn fantasies that set up eager virgins for the same kind of rude shock that awaits mothers-to-be steeped in airy fairy babble about the exquisite beauty of childbirth.
But I don't think that's what author Don Taylor had in mind: His writing drips contempt on every level, from his characterization of protagonist Julio as a silly, mincing gold digger-turned- self-hating "nympho fag" to his decision to let a homophobic cop describe the miserable conclusion of his journey into degradation. The relentless fixation on what Dan Savage so vituperatively dubbed santorum is of a piece, as is Taylor's freak-show conflation of homosexuality, filth, deformity and perversion (sorry zoophiles, but bestiality is just nasty).
Set in some anonymous small city, The Pile Drivers opens with slim, golden-haired Julio Amherst on the brink of a great adventure. For two long years he's been working for an electronics firm, saving his cash and his ass so he can go to Acapulco and snare a rich, handsome playboy who'll support him in the manner to which he hopes to become accustomed. Julio's buddy Lorne tries to persuade him to try husband hunting closer to home: Who knows what might happen to him in (shudder) Mexico? And high-level engineer Harold Barnhart has been eyeing Julio absolutely forever; yes, he's disabled -- there's something very wrong with his twisted back -- but he's also a highly respected, self-made multi-millionaire at the age of 35. "I can't stand cripples," Julio shivers. "I can't stand the thought of their touching me."
Unfortunately for Julio, Barnhart happens to overhear that last dramatically delivered remark. Already a seething mass of resentment -- having your spine was shattered at the age of 12 after being gang-raped by bikers will do that – seeing haughty, pretty little Julio prancing around on his "faggy legs" and declaring his shallow, frivolous contempt for anyone less physically perfect sends Barnhart right over the edge. By the end of the day, he's concocted a plan to bring Julio to his knees, both literally and figuratively.
Julio quits his job that Friday, and Saturday morning he's on the curb with his suitcase, trying to hail a cab. What a fortunate coincidence that Barnhart happens to be driving by and offers him a lift to the airport… oh, it's not a coincidence. And Barnhart isn't taking him to the airport. Maced, gagged and trussed up tightly, Julio is instead taken to Barnhart's isolated weekend home, a remodeled farmhouse in the mountains whose unprepossessing exterior belies the high-tech wonders inside. Barhhart, who wants to establish his own TV franchise, has actually built his a state-of-the-art TV studio from the ground up; all he's waiting for is a UHF license. And it quickly becomes clear that he's onto an ahead-of-the-curve concept: Reality TV. Hardcore reality TV.
The house is completely wired with hidden cameras, and Julio is about to be dragged into the spotlight. Harold taunts, beats, humiliates and eventually rapes him viciously, capturing it all on video. Every aspect of the experience is excruciating for Julia, including the flashback it triggers to his brutal father's incestuous abuse the realization that it marks the end of his dream of parlaying his virgin ass into financial security. But worst part is that Julio is totally excited by being brutalized and aroused by the beast who just kidnapped and sexually assaulted him, and he hates himself for it.
The following day is no better: The long, hot shower Julio hoped would make him feel clean again doesn't and one of Barnhart's spy cams captures him pleasuring himself, which results in double punishment. First he has to do it again in the living room – Barnhart wants a better quality image – and then he's subjected to torture by the aforementioned flexible fiber-optic camera, forced to watch its painful tour of his insides in real time. And once again Julio is betrayed by his own body – the experience is as thrilling as it is painful and grotesque.
That brings us to the book's halfway mark, at which point Taylor introduces a new player: Unkempt, unwashed, unshaven hillbilly hermit Christopher Crustman, a sinewy off-the-gridder who lives in a cave with bedmates Clarissa and Jenny.... at least, they'd be his bedmates if he had a bed. As it is he keeps them penned in the yard, which is fine by them since Clarissa is a duck and Jenny is a burro. Crustman accidentally catches a glimpse of Barnhart's naked boy toy, and happy though he is with Clarissa and Jenny it occurs to him that a piece of that might be mighty nice.
Not that he thinks there's a chance in hell that Barnhart's cute little boyfriend is going to risk losing his sugar daddy…oh, but Julio isn't Barnhart's boyfriend – he's his captive. Crustman knows there are laws against that kind of thing, and by knowing Barnhart's secret he's able to effect a dramatic shift in the balance of power shifts. Now Barnhart is the helpless one, unable to stop Crustman from moving in with his menagerie and using Julio -- who has no say in the matter – in whatever way he sees fit .
And to Julio's horror, the filthy old hermit excites him too, though after Crustman is done Julio is physically ill. "Oh, God," he whispers to himself. "I'm turning into a nympho fag." With hopelessness comes a strange serenity: Julio accepts his enslavement and drifts through the days in a fog of lust and self-loathing punctuated by moments of unexpected clarity. He still finds Crustman repulsive, but sees a shining sliver of goodness in his devotion to his animals, Hand feels something like pity for the brilliant, tormented Barnhart, humbled by an ignorant, backwoods degenerate.
Julio's captors, meanwhile, are locked in a quiet but dead-serious struggle for dominance, and Crustman is winning. He cements his position forcing Barnhart to screw Jenny and taping the whole sorry spectacle. The thoroughly humiliated Barnhart tries to kill Crustman but it's Julio who actually does, albeit accidentally: He just wanted to scare the old pig, not open an artery with that shard of broken glass. But kill him he does, and then passes up the opportunity to escape while Barnhart is off burying the body. If that's not Stockholm Syndrome I don't know what is, though the term wasn't coined until three years after The Pile Drivers was published.
And now the end game comes into view: Barnhart thinks Julio's murder of Crustman is a sign of undying love, but Julio, hollowed out by the horrors he's endured, is beyond caring about anything except bringing the whole miserable situation to an end. Evincing a practical intelligence that would have surprised even him just a couple of weeks earlier, Julio carefully watches Barnhart as he tinkers with his, un equipment, and the minute Barnhart leaves to spend a day at the office Julio goes to work on the wiring, connecting the in-house video players directly to the transmitter.
Granted, there's a certain thematic inevitability here, but good God Almighty, what possessed anyone to write or publish it as gay erotica? My gut is that "Don Taylor" was a straight hack who'd been around the block and banged out (just stop; I don't want to hear it) The Pile Drivers for a few hundred bucks, pouring it full of every drop of poison festering in his homophobic soul. I could be wrong, of course; if anyone knows anything about the pseudonymous Mr. Taylor (who to my knowledge never wrote another book), I'd love to hear it.
Content issues aside, The Pile Drivers ranks among my favorite vintage paperbacks on a purely tactile level, thanks to the ballpoint pen notations that drag down its resale value but connect it to someone's long-ago life in a poignantly visceral way. How much would I love to know the back story behind the two numbers scrawled on the back cover: No area codes, just Kenny at 479-0630 and Frenchie's Cab at 529-9750. Frenchie's? Really? And there's more hidden inside, at the top of page 113: No name, just a number: 449-6792. If these pages could talk, those numbers, scribbled hastily on a paperback whose wraps were clearly soft with use long before they were vintage are a vital voice that bridges space and time and a thousand other things, a smudged, inky reminder from the past that times change but people don't.