by Tom Bradley
Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press (April 1, 2008)
Tom Bradley's Lemur and the Maturation of the American Gay Movement
by Cye Johan
During an interview in the current issue of Unlikely Stories Magazine, novelist Tom Bradley is grilled pretty thoroughly on the issue of man-boy love. The interviewer seems to have something of an axe to grind. Which is good. The best interviews grind lots of things: teeth, nerves, egos. A modicum of bumping goes along with the grinding, too, in this case.
In the six thousand words of that strange conversation, they range all over the place, and pretty well dispense with the notion of pederasty as practiced among certain secondary characters in a sub-plot of Tom Bradley's new book, Lemur. But I find it interesting that they seem deliberately to ignore the largest presence on the pages--I refer to Spencer Sproul, the would-be serial killing protagonist--and the biggest theme: gayness itself. I mean among consenting adults, of course, by definition.
Before the reader is made aware of Spencer Sproul's erotic orientation--indeed, before even he himself becomes conscious of it--a sympathy has been established in our hearts. Affection for Spencer is sturdy enough to remain unshaken by any sexual revelations and the phobic reactions they might spur in all but the most reptilian subcortex. And the beauty is that the sympathy has been engendered in a most venerable manner: via the expedient of the Bildungsroman.
We have followed Spencer Sproul all the way to the top of his profession, from the bottom-most menial trench to the middle-managerial stratosphere. We have ascended with him to psychic wholeness, from deep in an unhealthy serial killer infatuation. This obsession is nonetheless unwholesome for its self-delusion: it would be hard to imagine someone with less of a killing knack than Spencer. His lack of self-awareness is even sicker than the collections of splatter shots which paper the walls in his "lair"--actually just a squalid duplex.
We have gone along with him as he rises to the rare level of individuation that permits real work to be performed, where creativity comes within one's reach. And the fact that his canvas is a crass family-style restaurant only adds piquancy, for he has clearly done what the Hindus have always considered the point of manifest existence: he has found out what his karmically determined Sadhana is, and has managed to arrange circumstances, both external and internal, so he can pursue that work which his inner nature predetermined for him at the moment of incarnation.
And, this being a classically structured comedy (even though a tragic chorus of bums sings in the dumpster out behind the restaurant), he comes to the point of being able to feel and express love. Spencer Sproul achieves the capacity for tenderness, which is signaled in the patting of a special pair of buttocks at the very end. His face, which in all the previous pagination has been distinguished only by its incapacity for expression, smiles patronizingly at his favorite employee, his "special-best bus boy," namely Spud.
What must happen at the end of all comedies, in all times and places? On the last page, Spencer stands in fond reverie with Spud on the front stoop of his newly successful restaurant (poignantly enough, a family-style establishment). What is this place other than a chapel? And what is the seven-foot tall fiberglass effigy of Lemmy, the restaurant's Lemur logo, other than a god, presiding over this sacrament? What color is Spud's bus boy apron but bridal white? And, as for the wedding party, who are they but the hundreds of morbidly obese customers queued up for the brunch buffet? Like all comedies, this is the story of a fragmented self becoming whole. And the wedding at the end is requisite, the bringing together of the conflicting elements of the protagonist's nature. It may not be chymical, but it's a wedding.
And this brings us back to accusations of homophobia, dealt with so strangely in the aforementioned interview. Spud is not exactly the most attractive character in the annals of fiction, yet Tom Bradley has cast him as the successfully won love-object. The fact that it's a gay marriage, and the bride is a compulsively nose-picking borderline mongoloid, might seem calculated to anger activists. Tom Bradley has never been loath to anger folks with his writing.
But a mark of the maturity, indeed, the triumph of any progressive social movement is its ability to embrace other than cosmetically ideal public personas, types, stereotypes and archetypes. Think of Sidney Poitier, and then fast forward through twenty years of cultural ripening in the African American community, and consider Cedric the Entertainer--particularly in his role as the Right Reverend Beverly H. Hooker in the film Kingdom Come.
On the contrary, to have Spencer and Spud get hitched at the end glorifies gayness in all its manifestations, warts and all. Lemur can be read as a homophilic tract, at the very least. A touching gay wedding, like the ones you used to see on CNN when it was still news, where the bride and groom were often pudgy, dressed clumsily, in violation of every golden gay rule, can do more to legitimize the practice than any ten Attitude Magazine photo spreads. These are just plain old schmucks like the rest of us, trying to temper the agony and horror of incarnation by cleaving to someone stuck in the same bucket of monstrous worms.
In these latter days of metrosexuality, even hetero males are investing emotional and financial resources in the perpetuation of the gay ideal, trying to live up, superficially at least, to the stereotype of the consummately presentable gay. Where does that leave the zhlubbs and the pudgy dorks and stupid homos who have no sense of style and no elegance of self-expression, but still love and need each other just as deeply?
An Early Frost was the first major movie to deal with HIV-AIDS. In that film, the great actor, John Glover, says, very cattily, "He's not good-looking enough to be gay." That was twenty-three years ago. Lemur has just followed the natural progression, taking that same maturation process further in the same direction: from averageness to sub-.
In the meantime this novel has introduced a type that seems new to the public eye, but has obviously been there under our noses ever since alternative sexuality began: the compulsively nose-picking borderline mongoloid member of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender community. Spud's IQ and personal hygiene don't necessarily make him inhuman--quite the opposite--nor do these demerits and handicaps render his love illicit.
Spud is distinguished with what appears to be a depth of stupidity that sinks to pre-linguality. Finally, on the past page, he breaks his near-bestial silence, with the penultimate utterance of the book. It's a malapropism, but what the hell? Lemur could do as much to raise the rainbow flag as two medium-sized midwestern Stonewall Day parades.