If there were a Lenin for the revolution in attitudes that recognizes homosexuality as an alternative normality, Dale Peck would be in Siberia. Not for right-wing obstructionism but for left-wing deviation. Once a revolution gets under way, its literature tends to be conservative in form and upbeat in outlook, like the primer about an amiable two-mother household that has caused such a furor in some of the New York schools.
"Martin and John" will never get into the schools. Not just because of its stylistic complexity and sometimes its difficulty, or its graphic renderings of homosexual acts ranging from tender to savage, or its grim detailing of the physical horrors in the last stages of AIDS.
Peck's first novel has a dark brilliance and moments of real beauty, but it is a book that is shocking, hard to accept fully, and hard to ignore. It is impassioned in its identification with the gay condition, yet it rides fiercely athwart any common notion of political correctness.
It is a de profundis that in some ways comes full circle once more to suggest the homosexual as ill, and AIDS as his scourge. But the older belief holds that homosexuality is a disease in a healthy world. "Martin and John" seems to imply that it is a flaming reaction--not healthy, exactly, but authentic and uncontainable--to a diseased one.
This is not explicit, and perhaps it is not quite the author's intended message. It is this reader's sense of the implications of a book that is a dazzling explosion of voices and stories that hide behind and emerge out of each other. It is a book of theatrical quick changes. Costumes are flaunted and removed to reveal other costumes, or to flash glimpses of what may be either flesh or a body stocking.
Peck has created two parallel sets of narrations. One is about John, who flees his prosperous and abusive widower father in Kansas, spends some time as a male hustler in New York, falls in love with Martin, who contracts AIDS, moves him back to Kansas where he nurses him until he dies, and then, HIV-positive, begins to write.
The second narrative is a string of episodes in which John and Martin move through a series of fictions about gay life, changing their own roles and identities in each one. Although typographically distinct, the two sets of narratives bleed into each other. By the end, after a woman in one of the episodes calls him Dale, it is clear that both the "real" and the "fictional" John largely represent the author, while the two Martins stand in different ways for the author's loves, needs and fantasies.
It can be hard to make out, and I had to go back over it a second time; and it changed color and shape somewhat when I did. But the darkness, glitteringly backlit or spotlit--it is impossible to get away from theatrical images--prevails almost entirely.
At first, and recurringly, it is in variations on the abusive father and the mother who dies, leaves or is destroyed. Later, it takes up a sexual chiaroscuro: promiscuous rough trade, a pseudo-masochistic episode, an old pimp who brutally initiates the "fictional" John, introduces him to physical ecstasy, cares for him lovingly, and then is nursed by him when he is dying. There are the different Martins, with brief moments of happiness and then the long despair and degradation of AIDS. There is, above all and through both sets of narratives, John's vertiginous sense of horror and unstable identity.
"I tell myself that by reinventing my life, my imagination imposes an order on things and makes them make sense," he tells us at the end, alone and trying to write. "But sometimes I think that horror is all I know and all I'll ever know. . . . "
The darkness has many variations. Some are stagy, for example a scene in which John gets a customer to penetrate him with a rifle and then scares him away by insisting that he pull the trigger. Others are pure agony: an episode in which John helps the dying Martin bathe as a stream of blood and feces washes down the drain. John imagines it contaminating the entire earth so humanity will die.
There is a comically campy fantasy in which Martin--rich, charming and talented--squires John around New York and spirits him off to Jamaica and Paris. When Martin performs at the piano, "the most masculine looking men rolled their eyes like queens. . . . The women leaned to one another and whispered 'Oh, if only . . . ' " It is impure, demented Cole Porter. There is a breakfast before Martin falls ill. "Love is in the morning"--there had been sex the night before--Martin says, and for a moment, we get a sense of happiness that is universal.