GUEST WRITER – BUCK JONES
Today I live in Paris where on any given fifteen walk from my apartment I will come across men holding hands, gender fluid queers with pink hair wearing make-up, posters for the latest gay film coming to theaters soon, and, if I’m lucky, a smile from a handsome stranger. All of which is to say my daily existence now couldn’t be more different than from the small Southern town in which I grew up.
When I was a kid, gay visibility in popular culture was like a celestial event, as if a comet was passing by, and on the precious few occasions when it happened, it was the subject of social debate as to its significance. Typical of gay portrayals prior to the AIDS era were caricatures of us as a fey accessory in a sit-com, a comedic trope that carried on from Paul Lynde (on The Hollywood Squares) and Billy Crystal (on ABC’s Soap) in the 1970s up to this day (exhibit A: Carrie Bradford’s “Stanford” on Sex & The City). Or if a gay man was featured in a drama, he undoubtedly met a tragic end. By the time of the horrible AIDS scourge in the 1980s, we were useful as an object lesson in an endless morality play. Either way, there was little to positively reinforce my own existence or to give me a practical roadmap of how to navigate my own life as a gay man.
As a shy teenage boy, I didn’t know of any other guys “like me” ⎯ sensitive and perfectly content to be left alone in my bedroom where I could read and draw, escaping in my imagination to someplace far, far away. I had friends, of course, but they were normal boys. Their interests were in sports, both playing and watching, whereas my interest lay in boys, both playing and watching. Far too rarely my sexual Venn diagram overlapped where there was another cute boy who might be secretly interested in exploring past the safe boundary of chaste friendship and crossing over to experimentation.
Now and Then.
In my novel, “The Last Good Republican,” the protagonist is named Carter Ridge. The setting for the story is the South of the 1960s, but he came of age as a youth during the Second World War in the 1940s. In comparison to my adolescence in the 1980s, he had even fewer guideposts as to what was going on with his sexuality. Yes, there were very coded gay characters in film following the Hays code introduced in 1930, but for the uninitiated, certainly, someone not living in a metropolis, it must have felt as if one were truly alone in the world. Despite these challenges for Carter Ridge, he manages to figure things out easily, although finding lasting love and building a relationship continues to escape him, as it does for so many of us still today. Going from one surreptitious blow job to another anonymous fuck in a darkened parking lot, it is an all too familiar pattern that is born out of necessity, and Carter is able to find pleasure in those stolen moments even while he knows that he wants something more. But how does one build a durable future, particularly when there are no examples of same-sex couples in the 1960s?
I wanted to explore this in the novel, for then, as now, society and life often get in the way of finding that special someone to have that “happily ever after.” Even for hetero couples where roughly 40% of marriages end in divorce, learning the art of staying in love despite the challenges and the flaws we all eventually exhibit, is difficult enough. This is despite centuries of role models and social constructs that practically spoon-feed us a constant diet of hetero conformity. Through the character of Carter Ridge, I want to push back and create our own paradigm of a gay literary figure who doesn’t end up dead at the end of the story, and who doesn’t have his heartbroken.
A major difference between now and then is the ubiquity of erotic images. Today it is at times an unwelcome distraction with my favorite porn sites just a click away on my computer, but when I was growing up in my small town in the middle of nowhere I had to be creative. Imagination played a crucial role in augmenting the dreary reality of my teenage life. A random photo of a male model in a magazine like “GQ” could sustain my private fantasy until it was replenished by another source. The embarrassingly obvious mail order catalog “International Male,” which practically screamed out “STROKE TO THIS!”, I kept tucked in a desk drawer away from my mom’s prying eyes. But as for television viewing, we had a family tv that served as the altar in our family room. Whatever masculine beefcake I could gather up from watching Primetime television on the three national networks would have to really sear into my cortex. Thankfully the “Dukes of Hazzard” provided just the ticket as family-friendly fare for a Southern audience. The episode when the two Duke “boys” went skinny dipping… well, that was a frequent go-to for my mind’s eye.
If inspiration came in irregular sources for a resourceful boy such as myself, it proved even more so for Carter Ridge in my novel. While the focus of the story is on two years of his adult life in his early thirties, I wrote three short story novellas that act as a prequel trilogy. In these, I visit Carter during his teenage years when he has his first crush on a fellow student at his prep school (“Sunday’s Child”), and then later when he is fresh out of college and on his own for the first time.
In one of the short stories, “The Seduction of Carter Ridge,” I write about that curious excitement one has when finding oneself in a cruising space for the first time. For me, my first time was as a naïve innocent here in Paris while a student. Not fully baptized as a card-carrying gay, I was clueless as to the many possibilities for meeting other men that live in a big city offered. I thought it was just bars and big disco dance clubs. Oh non, mon frère! There was, and still is, opportunity EVERYWHERE. But of course, well-known cruising areas are only found about either through word of mouth (again, prior to the magic of the internet), or in my case by accident. I stumbled upon the once infamous cruising area in the Tuileries Gardens on a summer Saturday afternoon when I climbed up the steps to the elevated promenade that separates the public park from the road that runs along the Seine. In the shade of the towering plane trees with the flowering French garden facing the Louvre below, mingled men. Only men. Most stood by themselves, some were smoking, but everyone was watching the other men as they walked by. The heady rush when I realized that this was “our” space shot through me, and I recalibrated my walk, slowed down my pace, and returned a gaze when passing by a particularly interesting possibility.
Then, and now, cruising is a part of our shared experience as gay men. You might have never stepped foot into the enigmatically termed “cruise bar,” but anytime you have had a pair of male eyes land on you and linger for long enough to know that there is an interest from the other you have entered the magical realm of gay cruising. Sadly, I fear that the finer points of this artform of publicly checking out other guys are being lost in this digital age, and there is now more of an awareness that one man’s “following” can be interpreted as another man’s “stalking.”
As difficult as it used to be for a closeted high-school or college kid to sneak moments together with another guy. In high school, I tried (and failed) with a boy who was on my soccer team during a sleepover one night. We stayed up watching “Saturday Night Live”, each in our underwear while in our sleeping bags. I waited patiently until I was sure his parents were asleep, and then gradually lowered my sleeping bag until it was revealing my torso. He didn’t take the bait and showed no indication of interest on his part. I asked him if I could have something to drink, and he crawled out from his sleeping bag with a slight chub showing in his briefs. Perhaps there was something stirring, after all, I thought. An elaborate game of cat and mouse ensued, with me trying to up the ante as the night continued. Arm wrestling, followed by leg wrestling, followed by giggling, and then he’s falling asleep while I feigned slumber. I listened to his breathing, watching his chest gently rise and fall as he slept. After what seemed an eternity, I worked up the nerve to rest my hand on his shoulder as I pretended to sleep.
Surprisingly enough, that was all I needed at that age. The sheer excitement of surreptitiously touching another boy in high school gave me plenty of fodder for later. It wasn’t until I was in college, far enough away from home to be living independently in a dorm that I pushed the frontier of my sexual awakening. Don’t get me wrong, I was still deep, deep in the closet, but I had at least recognized this clawing need from deep within me that I was attracted to certain guys, and I, in return was attractive to them. Years later I would joke with my best friend that I was attracted to seven distinct categories of guys (“…# 5, Armenian auto repairmen.” This was when I was living in Los Angeles).
It is this realization of same-sex attraction, of being inextricably drawn to a certain kind of guy, that animates Carter Ridge as he begins his young adulthood. We all have our favorite flavors of ice cream, and the same goes for gay men and their partners they seek out. In Carter’s case, he is a product of his era. The American South of the late 1940s and early 1950s was a deeply conservative place, and his best friend Margot (who he ends up marrying as his beard), is cognizant of the dangers his particular “flavor” might bring.
As a gift to the readers of this blog, I am including a free e-book copy of one of my novella prequels. “Apollo & Dionysus” is a more erotic, sensual short story that I think this audience will appreciate. To get your free download, go to https://www.monsieurbuckjones.com/trilogy-prequel and scroll down to “Apollo & Dionysus.”
If you appreciate gay literature, my novel “The Last Good Republican” is available to pre-order at any bookstore prior to its release on March 15th, 2022, after which it will be available on Amazon. I would appreciate you sharing this article with your friends who like to read gay literary fiction and please, please, please if you read my work, leave a review on Goodreads or Amazon. It means a lot to me.