Part of human life is a dead space – a dark emptiness. Revealing that terrain is one of the crucial lessons of literature and it is accomplished in detail in Danny (Volume One) by Chancery Stone. What counters that void -- in large part -- is the creative force of the erotic. Tom Jones may not clearly understand why he is always one step away from the gallows, but he faces life with a hard cock and an optimistic view; and so, he does not swing.
Mr. Stone’s title character, Danny, shows no sign of such lively, erotic ebullience. The author unfolds constantly menacing conversations embedded in a catalogue of sexual and psychological abuse. Danny lives on a farm in a place where English is more or less spoken, and life is conducted in a desultory fog of grim days. Surprisingly, in the 989 pages of Volume One, Mr. Stone never really lets Danny articulate his core feelings. The publisher, Poison Pixie, tells us that there is a second volume, and a third in the works, presumably of equivalent length. Perhaps he emerges more fully in those. I doubt I will pursue it.
Both the dialogue and prose in Volume One swan between a deadpan, quasi-journalistic style that shuns emotional nuance and a low-key lament that runs perilously close to whining. But why Danny endures as he does is never made clear except that he finds his mistreatment arousing to the point of being hypnotized by it. That does not mean he enjoys this abuse so much as he is addicted to it as a sexual fix.
Danny is an exhaustive – and exhausting -- study of incestuous depravity committed against the title character principally by his brother in endless and unrelenting detail. Danny himself arouses little sympathy, compassion, or even interest. He is a chronically sullen twink who seems enthralled by his torment even though he vaguely despises his abusers.
There seems to be a place in British porn/erotica for this sort of unremitting, fictional drubbing in which the reader is pummeled page after page into the same stupor of malignant, benumbed suffering that hangs over Danny. At times, I suppose it is born of the naïve (and nearly a-literate) concept from 20th century pop reviewers that all narrative fiction requires conflict. Danny has the illusion of struggle throughout. But in truth, there really isn’t much conflict in this novel because Danny seems helpless to put up any serious resistance whether he wants to or not.
Sometimes such passivity is used as a metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of the British class system, or a study of the basic brutishness of the human condition. One can imagine the literary doyens of the Manchester Guardian – after the Dover sole and just in time for a glass of port -- bemoaning this fictive world as a metaphor for the lingering existential malaise created by unbridled capitalism. But for the life of me, in nearly a thousand pages, I found no evidence of anything of the sort. At the other end of the spectrum, Danny is not arousing. The nasty spirit in which the abuse is delivered defeats that.
That Danny happens to be both male and gay, matters not at all. This novel is about the crudest, ugliest sexual abuse, especially of the psychological sort. That may be its intended appeal. For me, the level from which that abuse springs is so low, fetid, and unremarkably banal, that it quickly becomes genderless, if not entirely sexless, and certainly not erotic.
Danny could do with some serious editing. On the second page I encountered the following dialogue, “Don’t blame you dog.” It is addressed to a dog because he is lying on the floor thumping his tail but unwilling to further exert himself in the surrounding heat. The sentence is confusing because, correctly punctuated, it would read, “Don’t blame you, Dog,” because it is a form of direct address…to the dog. That is perhaps among the most egregious editing errors, but the wandering length of the book makes one pine for someone with a blue pencil to get the prose under minimal control. There is nothing wrong with writing a long novel, but there is no inherent virtue in garrulous length.
The problem is that Danny seems to be a book that is totally devoid of insight. In James Dickey’s Deliverance, the rustic characters show a visceral, generalized, ignorant hatred for the world beyond them, but not without some justification. The good ole boy ‘urbanites’ who invade their domain are condescending, vain, and insensitively thick as wet cornbread. Neither side understands themselves any better than the strangers they face, and that failure sparks both to behave as they do. They do not see themselves in their enemy until it is too late.Both sides in Deliverance seek the brutal thrill of penetration provided by the hunt. What is more, both factions ironically get what they thought they wanted from their atavistic weekend in the wild. Dickey’s book is a tragic-comic, violent collision of absurdly mismatched cultures. We learn from inhabiting the sexually charged, cultural void between them. Danny, on the other hand, finally seems to be nothing more than a study in sexual nastiness to the point of being oppressive. Worse still, it is prolix and undisciplined.