About a year or so ago I read an interview with a fashion editor that focused on their experience coming out as non-binary. Assigned female at birth and socialized as a woman, they began identifying as queer around high school. It wasn’t until later that they began to question their gender identification. The editor pointed to their experience watching straight porn as one of their aha moments: While watching or fantasizing afterward, they said, they realized they identified with the male perspective.
This story has stuck with me as I, a cis, queer woman who has watched a lot of porn over the last two decades—gay, queer, straight—also nearly always fantasize from the POV of a thrusting top. In a fantasy involving men and women, the locus of my titillation absolutely privileges men’s pleasure over women’s. I interpret this as a side effect of being acculturated in the male gaze and watching hard-core porn before my prefrontal cortex had fully developed. I’m also fairly sure that I’m, well, objectifying dick.
I’m thinking about all of this while reading Thomas Kearnes’s collection of short stories, Texas Crude, published by Lethe Press, and I’m thinking about all of this because I found myself distracted from my critical tasks by the growing desire to treat this book like a one-handed read. Which is problematic, you see, because Texas Crude does not sell itself as erotica (Lethe Press, however, does publish gay erotica). These stories are more directly comparable with a Dennis Cooper brand of transgressive fiction (minus the physical violence). And, throughout, Kearnes’s characters demonstrate vulnerability, anxiety, and, at times, despair. These are characters you are meant to care for, identify with, not objectify. Mostly.
Yet in many of the stories, the complexity of these men and their relationships with one another—and I do believe the majority are meant to be emotionally complex—is illustrated primarily through fucking and attention to men’s bodies. In between, there’s a lot of meth.
It’s something like what Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor might write if they were still kicking it in the 21st century.
One of five, the book’s first section is titled “Technically, at this Moment, I’m Not a Whore.” The opening story, “Here Comes the Tricky Part,” opens with the protagonist, an unnamed sex worker, “reassure[d]” by his reflection in the mirror, what with his “olive skin and sharp contours,” stiff in green bikini briefs. “I have a stringy build,” he says, “but muscled up, you might think I run track.” He and his trick, a college kid named Barker, move quickly into some role play as star quarterback and water boy, and “Barker insists that he only tops. He’s young, a country boy afraid he’ll split in two if I penetrate him.” But Barker changes his mind. Later:
Minor shit aside, he’s a tremendous fuck. Every nerve in him is alive. I feel the current through my skin…. I pound him and he begs me to do it harder. I keep pounding and he begs me to never stop. I pound him until the chair smacks against the sliding glass door.
So you know: fucking hot. But lest you begin moving your hand toward your waistband, this is also a story about an escort who worries he’s got his inexperienced trick hooked on crystal, a trick who also “unnerves” the escort’s boyfriend because, the protagonist says, “[i]t’s been a long time since I’ve slept with a man I considered a person, not a collection of orifices.” Unlike, say, Mary Gaitskill, who writes sexuality and human frailty as two-ply, Kearnes writes pulpy tales of sex and drugs and jars us from our voyeurism with a volta.
Other stories operate with less emotional nuance, because emotional nuance is beside the point. In “What Pleases Him Most,” the last story in the section, another college kid spends much of his time in a bathhouse with his older man, Cutter Drake (ha), who is not only “gorgeous” but conspicuously “masculine and confident, not like those prissy shaven boys trolling the sidewalks in Oak Lawn.” The story centers on Darren, or “boy,” as Cutter calls him (naturally), and his persevering worship of Cutter, who gets off by watching and recording Darren with other men. But, understand: Darren is at the bathhouse solely to give Cutter what pleases him most.
These weekly trips to the Dallas Spa were the price of admission, I told myself, the cost of procuring a boyfriend as accomplished, sexy, and—well—manly as Cutter Drake.
Darren’s abnegation and obsession with Cutter’s masculinity is so high-pitched that it can only be read as satire, erotica, or satirical erotica. In an lolz moment, the couple discusses the appropriate timing for a bathhouse visit. Cutter tells Darren that there are:
“Too many twinks at night. The guys in the afternoon are men.”
“Like you,” I said.
He pulled me close and kissed me so softly, I felt my heart drop into my stomach. Outside, the blue jay twittered again outside. I listened to its panicked cries as Cutter eased me down onto the bed. He set the pipe on the nightstand and eased his frame upon me. Perhaps we wouldn’t make the bathhouse till five, or six, or later!
In the remaining sections of the book, tricking and using remain, but the settings diversify. And we meet more women—best friends, recovery group members, and, of course, mothers.
In “A Matter for Miss Winfrey,” Mrs. Edna Martell from Texarkana writes a letter to Oprah, her “sister in Christ.” She’s concerned for her son, Toby, who’s gay. Edna tells Oprah all about what she’s known for ages but has only confirmed recently after standing outside her son’s door and listening to him, as she puts it, “experiencing a joy as distant to me as birth…” An odd point of comparison, to be sure. And then she goes further, describing how she witnessed her son and his boyfriend making out in the living room and then moving to his bedroom. She follows them and listens outside of his door:
I heard the clothes slipping off their bodies. The creak of the bed. I listened, Oprah, I listened to my son fall into temptation, his cries held back…. The strange boy with the sharp jaw and piercing eyes gave my son a joy I couldn’t remember…. Tobias James and this boy seized pleasure beneath the moonlit night, forbidden beneath the sunshine.
Oprah, I heard my son yelp in a pleasure so foreign and complete, I felt lost in my own home.
To clarify: Edna, while recognizing Toby’s “joy,” also condemns it as a sin, is going to shun him, and seeks help from Oprah to do so on national television. Here, the pattern from earlier stories is reversed; as readers we are puttering around in Mrs. Martell’s small-mindedness and platitudes for her son, then suddenly held hostage by some impromptu eavesdropping by Mom on her son’s hot gay sex, “forbidden beneath the sunshine.” While Edna Martell is, on the surface, a sad and frustrating character, this story’s engine is running on black comedy. It’s something like what Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor might write if they were still kicking it in the 21st century.
Texas Crude: The book’s title is clearly meant to broadcast its contents to would-be readers, right along with its cover, which features a young man facedown on a bed, body spotlit in tighty-whiteys and boots, head barely visible under a cowboy hat. The back cover’s photo zooms in on his ass. Jacket copy phrases like “sordid passions,” “alcohol and drugs,” and “harsh landscape of scrub brush” accurately highlight some of the main themes running through Kearnes’s stories. But there’s more here—much more. Texas Crude fronts like its most valuable assets are smut and camp but, much like its characters, will reveal its full, complex humanity to you in good time.
REVIEWED BY AMANDA KRUPMAN
Amanda Krupman is a writer from Cleveland, OH. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flapperhouse, Smokelong Quarterly, The Forge Literary Magazine, BLOOM, The New Engagement, Punk Planet, and others. Amanda received an MFA in fiction from The New School’s graduate writing program and was recently a recipient of a Jerome Foundation Emerging Artist Residency Award. She teaches writing at Pace University and Middlebury College.