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3AM BOOK REVIEWS


TESTOSTERONE



Cover - Testosterone "Seagrave's adventure is told through a series of cassette tapes sent to Baker, narrated almost entirely while driving around Los Angeles in what certainly is one of the most exciting, imaginative, and unfortunate 24 hours I can ever remember reading. Baker's narrative unfolds with enough twists and turns, flashbacks, chance encounters, violence, anger, and sex, to make your head spin. Literally every page contains a new character, surprise, or sexual adventure. It's fast paced and once started, I didn't want it to end."
by Greg Wharton

COPYRIGHT © 2000, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


"Hey, Jim. By the time you hear this, I'll be dead. Just kidding. But you're probably wondering what this is. One thing it's not is what you were expecting: a tape of the Bad Religion show at the Palace. I missed that, as it turned out. A lot's been going on. I'll tell what this is, on one level anyway. An experiment. A novel, a living novel, spoken directly onto tape... because it's taking place right now as I speak. I mean, I don't know exactly what's going to happen. I don't know how each scene is going to unfold. . . ."

So begins the tale of Dean Seagrave and his frenzied quest for his ex-lover Pablo Ortega, in James Robert Baker's new novel Testosterone (Alyson Books, 2000). It seems that Pablo went out for cigarettes one evening and never came back, and Dean Seagrave is obsessed in finding his Pablo. Along the way, Seagrave finds out some pretty nasty details about his ex-lover. Seagrave's adventure is told through a series of cassette tapes sent to Baker, narrated almost entirely while driving around Los Angeles in what certainly is one of the most exciting, imaginative, and unfortunate 24 hours I can ever remember reading. Baker's narrative unfolds with enough twists and turns, flashbacks, chance encounters, violence, anger, and sex, to make your head spin. Literally every page contains a new character, surprise, or sexual adventure. It's fast paced and once started, I didn't want it to end.

Baker authored four published novels before his suicide in 1997: Adrenaline, Fuel-Injected Dreams, Boy Wonder, and Tim and Pete. Editor Scott Brassart of Alyson Publications worked on Baker's novel Testosterone three years after Baker's death, stating that he did as little as possible, only reworking the novel's original structure and breaks in narrative for better flow, but not the sequence. Mostly he updated cultural references, such as Baker's use of AZT to a more current treatment. I would have to hope that he would be pleased with the final result. Baker's life partner and literary executor Ron Robertson has stated that Baker lived constantly with depression, much of it from his lack of being published regularly; a depression that finally forced him to take his own life. Arriving late, perhaps, but his finest work is now out, and his other work being posthumously republished thanks to Robertson's efforts and Alyson Publications.

His first novel Adrenaline was published in 1985 under the name James Dillinger. Alyson Publications has simultaneously released a new paperback version this year with the release of the new Testosterone. It starts with a simple sexual meeting of two characters: Nick and Jeff. Interrupted in mid-liaison, and then brutalized by police, the tale goes on a wild, passionate, metamphetamine fueled road trip with an amazingly imaginative cast of characters including psychotic cops, jaded old movie producers and their boys for hire, and corrupt religious leaders. It has been successfully described as an anarchist's howl of rage at oppression and the soulless culture of Hollywood. Though not his best writing, this is a very fun piece of work. I couldn't resist the constant turmoils that our two anti-heroes Nick and Jeff face as they run through this very paranoid roman-noir novel. It's the kind of book you don't put down until it's finished.

Tim and Pete was published in 1993 (also slated to be re-released this next year by Alyson Books) and is probably his best known work. Similar to Adrenaline in many ways, it is the story of Tim and Pete (you couldn't guess that, huh?). Tim and Pete are ex-boyfriends, and the book focuses on twenty-fours hours of their ambivalent reconciliation, once again in that scary setting of corrupt, evil, decadent southern California. It also boasts an amazing cast including a homophobic Orange County congressman, a demented southern drag queen, a recovering Manson girl, and lots and lots of angry, anarchistic queers. The characters are seething with fury against injustice, the losing battle with AIDS, and the right-wing government's lack of either compassion or action against the plague of disease. Their actions are irresponsible, and yet satisfying to the reader. Another hard to resist just-one-more-chapter-then-I'll-go-to-sleep read.

In Testosterone, Baker is still paranoid, still horny, and still very angry. But the writing is a step above his other work. Though his earlier work was a fun ride, and very worthy, the prose wasn't the point. The raunchy roller-coaster action ride was. In Testosterone, the writing is stronger, and it's still one hell of a mysterious, bloody, sexy, fast ride. Baker moves from the ACT-UP gone ballistic protagonists of Tim & Pete to the mind of an artist going over the edge in Testosterone.

Baker's work finds a spot next to Barry Gifford (Sailor's Holiday, Wild at Heart, Night People, Arise and Walk) in a niche in contemporary literature, though certainly different in prose style and content. Both writers have a talent for writing the ultimate road trip, exploring the margins of society, taking you to the border and beyond. Both authors let it all go, giving you far more characters and sub-plots than your average novel, not afraid to let some points go off without explanation and characters appear for, in some cases, very short and often unexplained reasons. That's part of why they are so much fun. You never know what to expect.

But while Gifford's and Baker's rides are similar in construction, or sometimes lack of, Baker's are definitely more paranoid and angry. All his books contain angry gay anti-heroes. Not always justified in their actions, but always justified in their feelings. The underdogs, the repressed, the misunderstood or framed. The gay man's version of the angry white male: the angry white gay male. And watch out. He's pissed.

I'll tell you this much: I'm out looking for action, some very serious action, today. I'm seeking catharsis, a visceral catharsis‹-that's what I'm up to right now. I'm a no-bullshit guy, and one angry queer, so don't fuck with me because I'm on a mission.

He's not kidding; Dean Seagrave takes us on a frenzied journey that before you know it has him brandishing a machete‹because a chainsaw is too noisy‹ready to take the head from his once true love to save himself, and the world, of the curse of one Pablo Ortega.

Out Magazine recently contained an accurate description of Baker's work: "a Blair Witch Project in hardback." The action is fast, hardcore, frenzied and unfocused. When it's all done, you are left with the sensation of not really knowing what was real and what imagined.

Written in the form of first-person narrative as a series of cassette tapes delivered to Baker, the story is ever changing. You only know what the narrator lets you know, as it happens, or when he feels it is best to let you in on a detail. In fact, by the end, when all details have been delivered, the ex-lover found, the quest finished, and the deed done, you still don't know which parts are true and which not. Was Pablo Ortega really that evil, a monster, has he really done all that we've been told? Did he really deserve what he got? The question might be better asked: Did any of the characters deserve what they got?

I say, "Lie down on the ground." He looks at me and says, "Oh, Dean." The way he used to say it when I was fucking him and he was about to come. He gets down on his knees, but stops there. Presses his chin down to his chest, so that his neck is almost horizontal. "Like this," he says. And I flash on some photo I saw as a kid. In a World War II book. Of some Japanese prisoner-beheading scene. Where the prisoner is kneeling just like this, the executioner with his sword raised. And I realize that's the way Pablo wants it to be. Like a ritual. Since he is this total ritual queen. I get the machete out of the car. If he'd wanted to bolt, he could've done it then. But when I turn back to him, he's still on his knees like a supplicant. I hesitate and he says, "I'm ready, Dean."

Testosterone reaches even deeper into Baker's vision of the world (OK, a paranoid, angry, white gay man's slice of the den-of-sin Los Angeles) that he wrote of in earlier works. No matter how odd, trashy, shocking, evil, or sometimes even downright cliched his characters are, Baker delves into their souls and lets us understand them, making it impossible not to eagerly devour page after page to find out more, until the journey is finished. Not always giving you the expected results, and the characters involved definitely getting more than they bargained for, but always leading you on a seriously satisfying, sexy, adventurous and violent ride that is hard to find anywhere else.


Greg Wharton is the founder/editor of Suspect Thoughts, "a journal of subversive writing". He is a Development Manager for a nonprofit arts education organization by day, husband of 18 years to an extraordinary man, father to two cats, avid antique toy collector, tennis junkie, and writer. He lives in Chicago and travels, usually in his mind, throughout North America and the world. His writing has been featured in Black Sheets, Blue Food, Mach, and spoonfed:amerika; online at The Church-Wellesley Review, Mind Caviar, Outsider Ink, Redsine, Scarlet Letters, and Venus or Vixen?; and in the anthology Quickies 2: Short Short Fiction on Gay Male Desire. James Robert Baker's website is at:

http://www.jamesrobertbaker.comYou can buy James Robert Baker's books here:

http://www.alyson.com Greg's website is at:

http://www.suspectthoughts.com

SEND CORRESPONDENCE TO:
gregw@suspectthoughts.com


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