11 August 2011
Making an auspicious literary debut this month is my friend Alan Clark, whose novel Rory’s Boys is a comic romp set in contemporary gay London.
Rory’s Boys is an amusing romp about life in gay London, through the eyes of his world-weary protagonist, Rory, a slightly priggish middle-aged Lothario. Told in a jaunty first-person narrative that’s half boastful flourish, half therapeutic confessional, Rory describes his various means of warding off his mid-life crisis through the accidental accrual of a surrogate family. Along the way, there’s a lot of gleefully described rough sex, some well-bred sneering at the shallowness of urban gay life, and bittersweet reflections on growing older.
As a protagonist, Rory is a complex and contradictory creation. He appears to embody all of the qualities of Mark Simpson’s metrosexual – an obsessive gymgoer with a pathological fixation on the flatness of his stomach, promiscuous to an Olympic level, and relentlessless self-consciousness about how he’s perceived. In the first few chapters, he prowls around like a tomcat, hooking up with strangers in saunas, gentlemen’s clubs and gar bars. He’s proud of his status as a top, which he equates with manliness, and often repulsed by the submissiveness of his sexual partners. Following in the footsteps of the disaffected gay heroes of Armistead Maupin and Edmund White, Rory is existentially at odds with himself – he loves his freedom from responsibility and the easy satisfaction of his desires, but his life feels weightless and lacking in purpose.
In the tradition of Dickens and Henry Fielding, Rory goes on a journey of discovery, covering some heavy emotional terrain. He learns some dirty little secrets about his family past, reconciles himself to his estranged family, falls in love with a young Arab doctor and experiences a devastating eleventh-hour loss. It’s serious stuff, but Clark keeps the tone light and jaunty, punctuating
also acquires a family of colorfully-drawn eccentrics, who provide the novel with much of its humour. There’s a salty Scottish boarding school matron, a geriatric lounge singer, and a comely teenage Goth who fancies herself as a gardener. The “boys” of the title are a legion of well-heeled cravat wearing old Tory poofs who become the residents of a retirement home in Rory’s Brideshead-like family manor (the “boys” of the title) and who counsel Rory towards the gentler humanist virtues, of kindness, good humour, companionship and the blessings of good upholstery. He writes very amusingly about the uncomfortable co-existence between dark sexual fantasies and the fussy niceities of middle-class good taste to which so many gay men aspire. In a particularly funny sequence, Rory meets a troupe of leather queens, observing that most of them probably work in the soft furnishings department of John Lewis.
In the end, Rory’s Boys doesn’t quite become the Vanity Fair-type satire that Alan seemed to have in mind. There are slightly too many plot twists for my liking, and the finale piles up incident and catastrophe in a way that’s slightly more contrived than it is charming. Sometimes the scaffolding of each character’s story arc shows too clearly, and the revelations of character and plot don’t sparkle quite as well as Rory’s acidly sketched observations of the first few chapters. In the finale, Alan plumps for sentiment over self-revelation, and goes easy on his protagonist. Rory’s perspective never really gets challenged, and many of his prejudices (especially his casual racial stereotyping of non-white men) pass by unchecked. And as is often the way with first-person narrative, the focus on Rory means that the secondary characters are reduced to comic sketches, providing wit and colour, but little depth. Rory ends the novel to some extent as clueless about other peoples’ motivations as he did when he began – even the married Asian lover he acquires is only ever seen as an exotic fantasy, rather than a flesh-and-blood person with needs independent of Rory’s cock.
It’s not a crime, of course, to become besotted with your own (autobiographically-inspired) protagonist, but I would have liked to have seen Alan work his material a bit harder and push the boundaries of his story a little more. As a debut novel, though, it’s all that it needs to be. I enjoyed Rory’s Boys’ lightness of touch, the well-made observations about modern gay sensibility, and the sheer pleasure of reading Alan jaunty, sharply observed prose. I feel very proud (and just a teeny bit jealous) of his success, and can’t wait for the “difficult second novel” that he’s promised me is soon to follow. Bravo, mon frere.