Even as the first wave of AIDS cut short the creative careers of gay artists and engulfed gay culture, the disease proved fertile territory for the imagination. In writing, a whole genre emerged from the loss: the AIDS narrative.
From the first sentence of Craig Curtis' debut novel, Fabulous Hell, it's clear he's building on that genre. Some writers like to keep their readers guessing, but Curtis flings us into his fiction, opening with a distinctly postmodern moment of truth: "The positive test result is given to me by a volunteer in the county clinic in Santa Rosa, California. I am also given a selection of handouts, including information on safe sex, support groups, and proper diet. I am told to limit my alcohol consumption to two ounces per week. I am urged to seek counseling. I am invited to stay and speak with a social worker. I decline. Numbly I exit through a rear door. I cannot face the people in the waiting room. They know."
What follows is a whirlwind trip to some of this nation's least fabulous locations (Orange County, West Hollywood, Pomona, Las Vegas, Seattle), with the unnamed narrator as our tweaked-out tour guide. A queer Virgil guiding us through the nine rings of a very gay inferno, we watch him snort, whore and drink his way through a series of bathhouses, beer busts, badly decorated apartments and short-lived jobs. We join him on the elevator down, as he speedily descends into his own private hell.
This is no hero's journey. The narrator is skeptical of the "heroes of HIV" he sees in posters on the walls of clinics. He finds himself unable to relate to those "thriving with HIV types," more comfortable when steeped in his own dysfunction. Curtis is not out to present us with a character who finds that life suddenly shimmers with meaning. If anything, life feels more pointless; HIV is no route to easy transcendence.
The book brims with wry asides on the disease. At a birthday party, he is "presented with a variety of plague-related gifts. Books by Louise Hay. A bathrobe." But irony often gives way to raw honesty. Annoyed with people asking for advice, he tells one friend, "The worst thing I ever did was get tested."
Curtis' pessimism recalls the work of such French writers as Cyril Collard and Herve Guibert, both of whom refused to be coerced into presenting an upbeat vision of life with the disease. His wicked humor brings to mind Gregg Araki's rigidly anti-P.C. movie about HIV, The Living End; like that film, Fabulous Hell is no advertisement for the gay life. The narrator, despite his near-constant state of intoxication, has a clear eye for gay culture's hypocrisies. Describing a club in Mexico: "Around the room pretty boys form tight, impenetrable circles. Less fortunate souls line the darkened wall. Geoff and I, like most of the other average-looking patrons, mill about the middle of the club. Fags are fags the world over."
At times, the protagonist's remarkable clarity and candor come off as little more than everyday bitchiness. He observes a waitress "in a uniform designed for a girl years younger. Rawhide shoulders protrude out above a ruffled, sleeveless bodice. Judging by the do, she hasn't seen a fashion magazine since Carter was in office."
But the bitchiness is always tempered by the fact that he is most ruthless with himself: "A fling will satisfy my precious ego, prop my vanity, and give me a taste of Life. The fix I crave before going back to the chilling reality of an emotional retardation that disables. A disability cleverly disguised by the glossy veneer to which I tend fanatically. Such devotion to an outward appearance makes it easy to ignore the hollow fissures lurking beneath."
Despite its bleak terrain, the book is eminently readable, thanks to its twisted sense of humor and the crisp, minimalist language that Curtis favors—think Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, only more so. Curtis' vision of LA is even more nihilistic than Didion's, though colored with his distinctly gay sensibility: his eye for the high kitsch quota of Orange County will almost surely upset local real-estate agents.
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Structured in short chapters, the first half of the book flows particularly well, moving gracefully between a self-destructive present and an abusive past. The latter sections contain some of the book's best writing and insight, and I would have liked to see more of the childhood sections. That's where the narrator locates his present numbness without force-feeding us textbook psychology. Recalling the way he handled his father's violence: "I hover over the bathtub while a little boy is held underwater until his grandmother frees him. I hide in the closet while the boy is fed baby powder until he pukes up some orange paste. I peer from behind a potted plant as the boy, beaten with a pepper mill, bleeds into the cracks of the hardwood floor. His mother is concerned for the boy and the floor simultaneously. 'I hope this comes up,' she angrily tells the man."
But the book occasionally loses momentum. The narrator's voice becomes slightly grating, and Curtis fails to keep the relentless self-destruction interesting. A couple of experimental chapters don't feel fully realized; a long interlude into a job at the Duquessa Hotel adds little to the story.
Though Curtis thankfully steers clear of any big scenes of redemption, the book is full of lovely tiny ones: a surprise tear the protagonist sheds at a friend's funeral, the simple solitude of an early morning. Best of all is the scene in which the narrator is forced to play the Easter bunny at a company event. In these moments and others like them, Curtis shows his skills as a writer, and the tone moves from the cynical to the hilarious to the moving to the marvelous.
Fabulous Hell by Craig Curtis; Alyson Books. 256 pages. Paperback, $12.95. Curtis signs copies of and reads from Fabulous Hell at Different Drummer Books, 1294 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-6699. Sun., 2 p.m.