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He's Angry, Raunchy and Unapologetic : Author: In James Robert Baker's new novel 'Tim and Pete,' AIDS kamikazes kill gay-bashing conservatives. What feeds such extraordinary rage?

April 08, 1993|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The idea of dismembering, burning and killing conservatives "starts out as a joke . . . almost as a way of blowing off steam," he says. "Then the same ideas are expressed in art, and later the feeling is that even the most radical ideas in art aren't enough . . . that the wrong people are dying."

Enter the AIDS kamikazes, who figure they're going to die soon anyway.

Baker says he has mixed feelings about gay terrorism: "I think assassination does change things. . . . But I'm not really calling for violence. . . . It's a novel, not a position paper."

But some observers believe he has tapped into a very real sentiment. "I'm surprised nothing like this (violence by people with AIDS) has happened so far," says Michael Goff, editor of Out, a magazine for gays. "At the same time, I'm not surprised. . . . I think gay people are much more concerned about activism that's pragmatic. Violence would immediately turn the public against us."

On the other hand, if the ban on gays in the military isn't overturned, Goff says, "Who knows what could happen?"

*

The controversy doesn't end there.

Baker, now working on a satire about "white liberal guilt" in post-riot Los Angeles, also sends "Tim and Pete" into the minefield of Southern California race relations. When Tim sits next to a Salvadoran woman at a bus stop, for example, he thinks: "Don't lay your death-squad guilt trip on me, baby. I'm not some bleeding-heart Westside yuppie. You're sitting next to a queer, senora, and we've got our own problems."

Likewise, when Tim perceives a look of "moral contempt" from a trio of black men at a restaurant, he labels them "hip-hop pigs."

He later discovers that the blacks are gay and the Latina "was just a sweet old woman putting up with a lot of (stuff) that I couldn't even imagine."

But Baker says the character's initial reactions reflect his own feeling that gay support for civil rights for ethnic groups should be contingent on their support of gays: "If blacks (and Latinos) want my respect, they have to deal with their own homophobia. I'm not playing guilty liberal anymore."

Still, he doesn't consider the book racist: "I just wanted to explore the conflicts between gays and Latinos and gays and blacks . . . the real feelings (and the) misapprehensions of each other. I realized it wouldn't all be nice and politically correct."

Unfortunately, he adds, the buzz about racial tensions and homosexual kamikazes obscures the book's other main focus: a love story.

As love stories go, however, this is raunch. Cat sphincters, bleeding hemorrhoids and graphic sex scenes litter the pages. "Supremely bad taste" is how a positive review on the book's dust jacket describes the text. "Raunch with intelligence" is Baker's own assessment.

"I'm just trying to capture the way people really talk and think," he says. "I want to write like Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones) plays guitar." And using genteel prose to describe sex is the "equivalent of doing (a Stones album) on harpsichord."

Another reason for the raunchiness, Baker says, is to offer "images of survival and hope" to young gay men in the age of AIDS: "It's important to say that hot sex is still possible."

The book seems to come down on the side of monogamy, but in an abbreviated form: Tim and Pete's relationship lasted six months. Still, even that length rankled one gay critic, who chastised Baker for promoting monogamy as the only way to avoid AIDS.

But other readers criticize the novel's portrayal of "an erotic nostalgia for the anonymous sex" of the 1970s as seemingly glorifying promiscuity, Baker says.

Baker's personal practice is "serial monogamy" (he only gets involved with one person at a time and is "not currently in a long-term relationship"), but he emphasizes the book isn't intended as a primer for other gay couples.

As the debate continues, Baker has moved on to other projects. Writing has become his drug of choice.

First drafts, in particular, are "a real rush," he says. "I don't have any major hobbies or athletic pursuits." (Even his mountain bike has been converted into a stationary, indoor exercise cycle.)

Baker says he cranks through a book in a matter of weeks, then moves into rewriting: "It's kinda like I'm on speed."

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