"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
by Greg Wharton
COPYRIGHT © 2000, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
"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
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
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
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
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
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:
Greg's website is at:
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