A delicious, glittering, if sometimes slightly crunchy, collection of essays by the American literary legend Bruce Benderson called ‘Sex and Isolation’ has just been published by University of Wisconsin Press.
Mr Benderson, author of cult classics set in the underworld of desire, such as The Romanian, User and Pretending to Say No, winner of France’s prestigious Prix de Flore, is an intellectual and a dandy. Or perhaps, a dandy intellectual. Sort of Walter Benjamin meets Charles Baudelaire, downs a thin-stemmed glass or two of Absinthe, and goes and hangs out in a male bordello, elegantly smoking upturned cigarettes like a Bond villain.
What, you might well ask, is such a person doing in America? A place where all these things, especially smoking like a Bond villain, are regarded as tantamount to terrorism. It’s a question Bruce often asks himself but thank goodness he hasn’t yet done something about it and moved to France to bask in that country’s Gallicly untrammelled adoration of him, as he offers some of the most intelligent, most lyrical critiques of what he sees as the libidinal-hating blandness of American Protestant bourgeois culture.
In addition to being an enigma, Bruce is also a friend of mine – one whom I like to address, in old-fashioned queer parlance, as ‘Mother’.
I first met him, appropriately enough, on a visit to a homo nostalgia bar called IC Guys in New York in 1998 from where he took me, like a gay ghost of Christmas Past, on a whirlwind tour of the last remaining hustler bars of Giuliani-Disney era Manhattan, thongs, muscles, Latinos and tied-off monster cocks a-go-go, all the while regaling me with his brittle, cut-crystalline observations and theories. It was one of the most delightful evenings of my life.
The blurb for Sex and isolation promises readers will encounter:
‘…eccentric street people, Latin American literary geniuses, a French cabaret owner, a transvestite performer, and many other unusual characters; they’ll visit subcultures rarely described in writing and be treated to Benderson’s iconoclastic opinions about culture in former and contemporary urban society. Whether proposing new theories about the relationship between art, entertainment, and sex, analyzing the rise of the Internet and the disappearance of public space, or considering how religion and sexual identity interact, each essay demonstrates sharp wit, surprising insight, and some startling intellectual positions.’
For once, the advertising undersells the product. Truth is, if you read Bruce’s book you will have an eye-opening, mind-expanding – but always charming – evening you’ll treasure for years to come, like that one I shared with him in NY ten years back.
But without having to tip the go-go dancers – or take a Yellow Cab to somewhere practically in the Hudson River to visit a shoreside hustler bar that was turned into a Starbucks years ago.