Review of ‘Candyass’ by Nick Comilla.

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

pristine punk.’

        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.

 

Book review: ‘Straight Jacket’ by Matthew Todd

Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd, who edited Attitude, the UK’s best selling magazine, for many years and is the writer of the play Blowing Whistles, was released in June of this year. It is published by Bantam Press. I read the book during the summer and was seriously impressed. Straight Jacket is part memoir and part polemic. It is an incredibly well-researched book which looks at why many in the gay community often struggle with  mental illness, addictions and have a higher propensity to attempt or commit suicide. Todd’s approach is evidence-based and he uses statistics from a wide range of sources and in-depth interviews to support his argument. He is also brave enough to share a very honest and personal account of growing up gay which, for him, was accompanied with high levels of anxiety, low-self esteem and problematic alcohol use.

Straight Jacket is similar in scope to The Velvet Rage written by psychotherapist Alan Downs. Concepts such as ‘toxic shame’, cultural and internalised homophobia, and the path to a more authentic and happy self, are all dealt with here. But Straight Jacket, published only ten years later, goes even further in exploring and addressing some of the issues that concern the gay community today. Chem-sex addiction is one such issue. It has already been dealt with in hard-hitting documentary films such as Chemsex, various magazine articles, both in the mainstream media and gay press, and plays such as Five Guys Chilling. (Indeed I saw Chemsex  at the ICA when it first opened. The Q&A session was chaired by Matthew Todd.)  The issue is approached in Straight Jacket, as are many of the other issues, in a comprehensive and succinct way. Doctors, health care professionals and key figures in the gay community, including David Stuart, who runs 56 Dean Street sexual-health clinic in Soho, are interviewed and quoted. Unfortunately for the men involved,  tragic stories concerning personal use of crystal meth, GHB and methadrone in a sexual context are also to be found in this part of the book.

The devastating consequences of  growing up gay in a culture which is both covertly and overtly homophobic are laid bare in Straight Jacket. Alcohol and drug abuse, body image issues, homophobic bullying, hypersexuality or ‘sexual anorexia’, rising HIV infection rates, higher suicide and attempted suicide rates, compared with the general population, are all examined with intellectual rigor  and compassion. I was particularly interested in how Todd would cover the issue of homophobic bullying in schools, having been a school teacher myself. The relevant chapter includes the story of Anthony whose body was found two months after he hanged himself. Anthony was the victim of homophobic bullying at school and via social media.

 Personally, I am aware that some schools are beginning to tackle the problem but not nearly enough is being done. ‘Gay’ is still often used as a term of abuse in the playground and teachers who attempt to address homophobia in schools are not always given a smooth ride. When I introduced the book Jenny Lives with Martin and Eric in a school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets in an effort to confront the use of homophobic language, I was accused by the deputy head of pushing the gay rights agenda.

One of the strengths of Straight Jacket is that it will also appeal to adolescents and young adults who identify as LGBTQ. Key concepts are explained clearly and succinctly and historical overviews are often given. And despite the often traumatic territory Straight Jacket covers, there is also much hope. And it is hope that is grounded in practical advice on how to move towards a greater sense of authentic self-hood. My one criticism of this latter part of the book would be that an abstinence-based approach to addiction is perhaps recommended to the detriment of other approaches.  Although I do understand where Todd is coming from. Alcohol Anonymous (A.A), Narcotics Anonymous (N.A) and Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA) are all programmes that are free, inclusive and, for those who stick to the programme, often highly successful.

Straight Jacket is an incredibly important contribution to the discourse on homophobia and the mental, emotional and physical well-being of members of the LGBT community. It is a book which is written with honesty and love. I would recommend this book to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, who may be affected in some way, or know someone who may be affected by some of the issues dealt with. Straight Jacket is a wake-up call to the gay community and a rallying cry for us all.

Matthew Todd will be reading at Paul Burston’s literary salon Polari on 25th November.

 

 

Book Review: ‘The Black Path’ by Paul Burston.

I first encountered Paul Burston’s work while I was studying English and Drama at university. His debut novel, Shameless, which, as an undergraduate, I devoured in a few sittings, is a feisty and funny yet tender romp of a read centred on one man’s search for happiness after his boyfriend runs off with a prostitute. It was a welcome relief from some of the dry and dreary classics I had to read for the English literature component of my degree! In addition to editing short story anthologies and writing works of non-fiction, Burston then went on to write four more novels including his latest offering, The Black Path, published by Accent Press, and on general release from 15th September.

The Black Path is a departure from Burston’s previous novels, which are all essentially comedies. His fifth novel is a dark psychological thriller which is in the vein of the ‘domestic noir’ genre. The narrative is centred around two protagonists, Helen and Owen. At the beginning of the novel, Owen, a Lance Corporal in the British army,  has gone to fight in Afghanistan and left his wife, Helen, to fend for herself in their hometown of Bridgend, which, at some points in the novel resembles something of a war zone itself! Helen is forced to face her fears and discovers that the two heroes in her life are not the people she thought they were. This theme is explored in Burston’s other novels but it is here that it is given a treatment that is both chilling and, at times, creepy. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the novel is the way that Burston withholds or reveals information just at the right time. This makes for compelling reading as the twist and turns of the plot lead the reader inexorably towards a terrifying yet satisfying end. Not only is this all great storytelling but the scenes in the novel set in Afghanistan are testament to the eye for detail and the research Burston has undertaken in this area.

 Burston has created characters that one feels emotionally invested in. We are sympathetic to the plights of both Helen and Owen as well as some of the minor characters and we champion their cause. Similarly, we cannot help but find ourselves strongly pitted against some of the antagonists in the piece, including Jackson, a homophobic soldier and violent husband.The characters in The Black Path are clearly defined yet nuanced and have depth. Similarly, the shift in character viewpoint throughout the novel is expertly handled. The writing style is clear and concise. (There is no excess fat in Burston’s prose.) And although one desperately wants to find the answers to some of the questions posed in the novel, one of its strengths are the many moving and emotional scenes that have a almost filmic quality. The Black Path kicks a punch, partly because it is both plot AND character driven.  And at the end of the journey, we find both Helen and Owen are irrevocably changed as they face their fears and their relationship to themselves and each other.

I would wholeheartedly recommend The Black Path to anyone wishing to read a gripping psychological thriller with characters you really care about. The Black Path has already been longlisted for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker Prize’ and is out on general release in all good bookshops from 15th September.