I've reviewed dozens of erotic books in the last decade, but never one with such an in-your-face title as Simon Sheppard's new short story collection, Sodomy! What a title to have screaming from your bookshelves, in red upper-case letters, complete with exclamation point. Better not leave it out when your more sensitive or squeamish friends come by, not unless you want them to know the whole truth about your kinky-slut, polymorphous-perverse alter-ego!
Given the title, plus my previous experience reading some of Simon Sheppard's tales, I was expecting something quite different from what I found within the covers. I was anticipating brutal butt-fucks, anonymous hook-ups, live-on-the-edge extreme couplings, sweat and spunk, maybe even shit and blood – a raw picture of rough gay sex through the eyes of a veteran. By contrast, the stories in Sodomy! turned out to be, in many cases, almost quiet – graceful, clever, literate, emotionally evocative narrations in which even casual encounters turn out to touch some chord beyond the physical. Don't misunderstand – there's plenty of butt-fucking in this collection, not to mention cock-sucking, spanking, and other sexual delights. Overall, though, the mood of these stories is more contemplative than shocking. A more appropriate (but I suspect far less marketable) title might be borrowed from the Victorian era classic: The Romance of Lust.
Perhaps the clearest example is “The Hula-hula Girl.” An aspiring writer turned dock worker in nineteen forties San Francisco picks up a young sailor in an all-night diner. On his way to Hawaii, Karl the Navy boy has a tattoo of a hula girl on his chest.
Maybe the smart thing would be to ask him to put on his clothes and get out. I figure I can handle him, whatever comes up. But the hula-hula girl just won't shut up. Come lie on the beach at Waikiki, she purrs, all colored ink and firm young flesh, and let the warm waves wash over your body.
It's not clear that Karl is exactly gay, but he's more than willing to have his cock sucked when he's shipping out on the morrow. The nameless narrator informs us that he's never considered a tattoo – too permanent, he says. Why tempt fate? Yet two months later, a month after the Pearl Harbor attack has apparently dragged Karl down to a watery grave, he's standing in front of his mirror with his own hula-girl tattoo and getting ready to enlist.
The romance genre is about everlasting love. In contrast, Sheppard's stories focus on impermanence, transient relationships that flare bright and then subside (or literally die). Still, the sense of romance is there, the feeling that one can be moved and changed by the experience of shared lust.
“Days” offers another, less dark instance of this theme. The narrator (many though not all of the stories in Sodomy! use first-person point-of-view) meets a young, innocent-seeming lad named Howard outside the Castro Theater. “Not a very sexy name, huh?” Howard comments, completely aware of his appeal, “perfectly imperfect” in the eyes of the narrator. An intense, kinky scene ensues.
I'm really rather good at spanking, if I do say so myself, and I tried to do my level best with you. It was so lovely to watch your fleshy ass move with the blows, like little tidal ripples of sex...I kind of hate it when people use religious metaphors for SM – it both seems rather pretentious and gives the game away – but this was becoming a spiritual experience, no doubt about it. At least for me.
They see each other a few more times and then the relationship comes to an “indecisive close.” No forever after, not even close. Yet the tiny perfect moments in those sexual encounters, the instants of simultaneous joy and complementary fantasy, remain real and somehow important.
Several of the tales take stereotypic porn scenarios and turn them on their heads. When you hear the title, “Two Bikers in a Room at the Motel 6,” you think you know what the story will be about. You wouldn't guess that one guy would be a married, straight Harley rider who just happens to like taking it in the ass, and the other a well-groomed gay college professor on a fancy Suzuki. “Brutes” is a hot yet heart-warming tale about a fat guy with a wrestler fetish, who discovers that the blond, muscle-bound star he idolizes just happens to be partial to heavy-set men. “About Gordon” is told by an experienced older man (Hal) who meets a sexy, geeky-looking young guy on the Internet (Gordon). The reader expects that Hal will show Gordon the ropes, but the reality is quite the opposite.
The story that came closest to my expectations was “Barebacking,” which concerns itself with the possibly fatal attraction of unprotected sex. The tale is raw, dangerous, and seductive, but even here there's hesitation, second thoughts. Sheppard leaves the reader to decide whether the narrator will continue his pleasurable but risky activities or not.
As Sheppard notes in his insightful introduction, many of the stories in this book are about writers. Two notable tales, “Lorca” and “Marcos y Che,” effectively alternate scenes from “real life” with excerpts from stories a character is in the midst of writing. The sharp, funny initial story in the collection, “A Retired Writer in the Sun” involves a gay graduate student named Quilty, interviewing an aged, legendary author of gay porn called the Witch of Capri for the purposes of his dissertation. As the Witch “sipped his gin and tonic and looked off to the horizon, where an improbably lovely sunset, freighted with metaphor, colored the afternoon”, he pontificates on the “lamentable” current state of erotic writing and mourns that fact that everyone wants “narrative consistency”. When the Witch becomes director of a smutty scene between Quilty and the serving boy Paulo, Quilty starts to understand the differences between life and literature.
I don't want to cover every story in the book – better to allow you to discover these jewels on your own – but I must mention “Three Places in New England” because of its structural perfection. Three places – Boston, New Haven, Montpelier. Three men, two of them strangers, one the committed partner of the narrator. In a mere nine pages, Sheppard constructs a masterful exposition on the difference between lust and love, managing to suggest, to me at least, that love may be at a disadvantage. Narrative consistency is only the beginning.
With this collection, Simon Sheppard demonstrates that literate porn is not an oxymoron. The stories in this volume offer a good deal of humor, some of it self-deprecating, but ultimately I think Sheppard is serious when he says, in “A Retired Writer...”
Personally, I think that Simon Sheppard is far too pessimistic here. His tales, by hints and indirections, do succeed in capturing some of lust's strange magic. Sodomy! might have surprised me, but it did not disappoint.
“I'd bet that many of us who write dirty stories do it, at least in part, in an attempt to master lust. Not to overcome it, but to make it, through thought and word, our servant. To capture desire, quintessential desire. And in this we are damn well bound to lose.”