Black Gay Livability

An encounter from Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. Shit and Eric meet Mr. Johnston, a white conservative who wants to shut down the porn movie theater they manage. Mr. Johnston, it turns out, once debated Robert Kyle, the black gay founder of the Dump. A brief exchange ensues between Eric and Mr. Johnston:

“Hey— are you Mr. Johnston?”

The man frowned back. “I ain’t met you— I don’t think.”

“I saw you back at a town meetin’, ’bout fifteen or twenty years ago, in the Dump. You was havin’ a debate with Robert Kyle.”

“Oh,” the man said. “Oh, yeah— starry-eyed coon with way, way too much money, who thinks there ain’t nothin’ more important than the lives of some crazy black faggots.” He grunted.

Though he was surprised, Eric laughed. “If you are one— a black faggot, I mean— that can seem pretty
important to you, actually.”

Perhaps what strikes me most—hence I repeat it—is that the Dump is a world in which Shit can live and even thrive.

Shit understands its rules and codes of conduct:

“If you end up inside one of them cabins [in the Dump] and you wanna mess with one of them black bastards—” back in the cab, Shit made fists near his shoulders and stretched—“ don’t be shy. Down here we figure any kind of suckin’s okay; kissin’, anything like that. But when it comes to fuckin’, you need your paper— or a rubber.”

As Dynamite elaborates,

“Ask to see it and make sure it’s less than four months old. It’s free, and it don’t cost ’em nothin’ to come over here and get it. That’s been keepin’ the guys in the Dump pretty healthy since eighty-five, eighty-six now.”

Permit a slight, necessary detour.

Douglas Crimp opens his 1987 “How to have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” thus:

The sloganeering of AIDS education campaigns suggests that knowledge about AIDS is readily available, easily acquired, and undisputed. Anyone who has sought to learn the “facts,” however, knows just how hard it is to get them.

He notes that in the mid-eighties, mainstream anti-HIV campaigns (to the extent they existed) were anti-sex and largely homophobic. In this environment, “gay people invented safe sex”:

We knew that the alternatives – monogamy and abstinence – were unsafe, unsafe in the latter case because people do not abstain from sex, and if you only tell them “just say no,” they will have unsafe sex. We were able to invent safe sex because we have always known that sex is not, in an epidemic or not, limited to penetrative sex. Our promiscuity taught us many things, not only about the pleasures of sex, but about the great multiplicity of those pleasures.

As always, the problem of that “we.” Those with better AIDS histories can trace, more aptly, the race and class splits that, increasingly, defined a “we” worth saving and worth mourning, and a “not-we” who could not be mourned, who never existed to be mourned.

This “not-we” is the “foundation” of the Dump. As Shit explains,

“Now the whole thing is Mr. Kyle’s. He lets all these gay niggers live over here. He got a’ office in Hemmings, where they interview you and everything. You just gotta be gay and homeless and not smoke. And black, pretty much mostly. But he kinda liked Dynamite. If you’re some serious alcoholic or drug addict, you gotta go into rehab for three months. They pay for that, too. It’s Mr. Kyle’s experiment.”

A little nap has provided me with the rude language I’ve been seeking.

Across many reviews the normative classed object of (the reviewer’s? culture’s?) desire displaces Shit’s importance in the text to install the more familiar (even comically so) Eric: the “crazy whiteboy” with the gym body who has “weird” fetishes. The idea that Eric lives in Shit’s world is inconceivable, so much so that the world—the Dump—becomes invisible, unimportant, in review after review that must rescue this novel through the loving couple form. (Note, for instance, that despite Through the Valley’s insistence on describing Shit—his hair, his smell, his eyes, his teeth [and their absence], his hands, his bitten-back nails—these descriptions are all but absent in many reviews of the book, many of which contain physical descriptions of Eric.)

The normative subjects-objects of desire insist on their presence with anecdotes and prejudices and tolerance (Jo Walton rides a bus and worries about offending the “Jamaican woman” sitting next to her; Josh Zaidman dismisses “the Dump” as a place where “garbage haulers and other blue-collar workers can live and practice sex acts of any kind without discrimination,” that is, a place that does not and can not occupy a place in a “proper” ethical imagination; Paul di Fillipo revels in his “open-mindedness,” insisting on the gem-like quality of the novel—the repetition of “Diamond Harbor” in the review is symptomatic of many things; Hedley Bontano emphasizes, along with many others, that this book is a “challenging read” “for us,” an unspecified “us” defined by “squeamishness,” though, of course, “love” conquers all—work through the icky bits to find redemptive love.) This is cherry-picking, polemically so. Only, I keep noting how irrelevant it is to many reviewers that this novel insists on valuing the lives of “crazy black faggots,” or poor and homeless black gay men. The force with which these figures are removed from reviews is as startling as it is predictable.

Very little exists that teaches “us” how to read a Shit, let alone how to value him. Very little teaches “us” how to read a world set up to enable and value Shit, set up, that is, to keep him free and safe and fed and working and retired. For, in the end, part of what is miraculous about this book is that Shit—who refuses to learn how to read, who does not know how to use an ATM machine, whose plays of public nudity would get him arrested in many elsewheres, whose manners even Eric describes as “crude,” who is in no way equipped to live in any bourgeois version of gayness—in the end: this Shit has a long, vibrant, and happy life.