Candyass is Nick Comilla’s exciting coming-of-age novel, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, which charts a young man’s tumultuous love affairs in both Montreal and New York. Arthur, the protagonist of the piece, which one cannot help but feel is a thinly disguised version of the author himself (I may be wrong!) is young, idealistic and open to what life has to offer – including many highly-charged sexual encounters! But as the narrative develops we realise that deep down, like many of us, he is really searching for a genuine and authentic connection to a significant other. But both Jeremy, his first love from his hometown of Montreal, and Jason, a good looking escort with psychopathic tendencies who he meets in New York, fall short of the connection Arthur is searching for.
This is a story written in the first person POV and present tense which gives a real sense of immediacy and intimacy. There are several scenes of a sexually transgressive nature in this work and much promiscuity and hedonistic drug-taking. These are familiar troupes in gay fiction. However, in Comilla’s hands, they are expertly handled and given a fresh overhaul for a new generation. His keen eye and balls to tell it like it is, also cuts to the heart of the matter.
The prose itself has a poetic quality which is perhaps not surprising considering Arthur is a poet, and Comilla himself completed his MFA in poetry and fiction at The New School in New York. There is a no holds barred honesty to the writing which I found refreshing; it captures something of what it is like to be a young and queer millennial. In many scenes, there is a raw, in-yer-face energy which makes for an exciting rollercoaster of a ride. At other times the writing belies a deep longing for love and intimacy. This is no more evident than in the beautifully crafted pieces of actual poetry which are peppered throughout the main narrative. Many of the poems and poetic fragments capture a romantic yearning and longing and the nostalgia for lost love:
I searched for you
where the smoke plumes
loom in a luminous light
yes, like the moon.
i like the doom
of the night. i roamed
the tombs for you.
my wallflower, candyass
But as the story develops, both the poetry and the prose reflect a much darker aspect of human nature and human relationships. This is Arthur reflecting on his abusive relationship with Jason.
”Tells me I’m more beautiful broken. ‘I hit you but your more beautiful because of it.”
One of the book’s strengths is how sexual encounters are dealt with. Descriptions, particularly in the early stages of Arthur’s journey, are often rooted in sensual and physical pleasure – a joyous celebration of our carnal, animal nature. (The author does not hold back from appealing to the reader’s sense of smell – to put it mildly!) But the sex becomes much darker as Arthur embarks on an abusive relationship with Jason; sexual role play gets out of hand and escalates into physical violence and a desire, on Jason’s part, to humiliate. And we recoil with horror when Jason spikes his lover’s drink with a drug Arthur is known to have a bad reaction to. But perhaps the most disturbing part of all this is Arthur’s tendency to normalise this. Until he doesn’t. But as Arthur becomes ever more fatally attracted to his Bad Boy escort lover, and the narrative assumes a relentlessly dark momentum, we cannot help but hope that Arthur finds a way out – for his sake and ours.
Towards the end of Candyass, Jason’s drug taking eventually spirals out of control as does Arthur’s addiction to this Bad Boy (who, at times, verges on evil/a nasty piece of work). But I commend Comilla for his courage in writing with such verve and honesty about a difficult aspect of certain relationships which, for many, are frought with guilt and shame.
My only criticism of the work would be the large section in the middle of the narrative written in French. Great for the French speaking Canadian market but for me this passage remained incomprehensible. I also found Arthur’s attraction to both Jeremy and Jason, at times, frustrating. But then again, who said that our attraction for certain people, or indeed life, can’t be frustrating? This is part of the trip and part of the fictional world Comilla has created.
Edmund White has said that Candyass is ‘…thoughtful and skilful in dissecting the exquisite corpse of gay life today.’ Strong words indeed.
If you like gay fiction that is beautifully written, has the feel of a memoir and deals with the darker aspects of contemporary gay life, I wholeheartedly recommend Comilla’s debut novel.