by Neal Drinnan
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Published August 15, 1998
Fiction (dark comedy)
224 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
August 31, 2003
We might frighten ourselves, us fags, but we are what we are and we do experience some extraordinary sensations in our endless pursuit of whatever it is we are looking for—momentary oblivion or eternal rest.
Inadvertently, I read gay Australian novelist Neil Drinnan’s three novels in the reverse of their order of publication
It is probably just as well that I read the third one, Quill, first, because it is the one I like best after having gotten around to reading the two earlier ones. I don’t know that it has more to “say” than Glove Puppet, but Quill is wittier, defter, and more palatable to a general audience than Glove Puppet is. 1
Glove Puppet is a very dark comedy of laws and mores and social assumptions. It has some very graphic sex (and I am not easily taken aback by sexual explicitness!). It also shows how someone (the narrator) who knows all about safer sex has unsafe sex. Plus, it implicitly challenges taboos that have come to be upheld more fervently than ever before, even while the “sexual revolution” has washed many others away. Despite the generally breezy tone of its narrator, Glove Puppet is not a light-hearted or light book.
The 21-year-old narrator, Vaslav Usher, was born Johnny Smith and raised in England by his junkie-prostitute mother until she overdosed in London’s Victoria Station (a nod to The Importance of Being Earnest, I assume, though he is not left in the baggage-check). Johnny is rescued or voluntarily kidnapped by Shamash Usher, the gay cofounder and lead dancer of an Australian dance company who (ever so coincidentally) is in England to take back to Australia the seven-year-old son he had never seen. However, his ex-wife has driven into a lake with their son, killing them both.
Shamash comes from a rich and socially prominent Sydney family, and he provides Vaslav (the name of the drowned son who Johnny pretends to be) a considerably plusher and more privileged life than Johnny’s dead mother or the English state would have. The boy is in a great hurry to grow up and knows a good deal about manipulating horny men from having watched his mother in action. Shamash tries and tries to tell his adopted son to slow down and savor his youth but falls into the vortex of Johnny’s lust. The sexual coupling of boy and man (which no one else knows is not incest—in biological terms at least) becomes public knowledge. The men who corrupted Vaslav (with his more-than-eager participation) are not celebrities, and it is the celebrity (Shamash) whose life is smashed by the media and the legal system.
More a survivor than his mother was, Vaslav survives, sells his version of the story to a tabloid, and writes the book that the reader can imagine leading to prosecution of the real villain (Ashley). I think that someone who was neither a reader nor college-educated would not make some of the literary allusions Vaslav’s memoir includes, nor produce some of the florid locutions it sometimes includes.
I know from the shock and denial I recall from college classmates when we read Freud’s case study of “Little Hans” that there are many who refuse to consider (let alone acknowledge!) that children are anything but innocent and are incapable of seductiveness. Those with such assumptions (who probably don’t read my reviews anyway) would hate Glove Puppet. The 21-year-old portrays a very knowing 7-year-old, though the 7-year-old did not understand some of what the 21-year-old looking back does. The seductive (rapacious?) boy of 12–15 did not understand some of the dynamics of power and manipulated trust, particularly what Shamash’s lover, Ashley, was up to, and multiple disasters result. But even after them, Vaslav does not deny that he wanted to molest various adults or even consider that he was the victim of the desires of the adults. Such a perspective shocks many, including many gay men—and the book might make any contact with adolescent boys even scarier for gay men.
Readers are able to maintain a belief that Lolita was not conscious of her seductiveness and that Humbert Humbert was rationalizing his predations. Since Johnny/Vaslav rather than Shamash is the narrator of Glove Puppet, a similar interpretation is impossible. As in Lolita, the man who engages in pederasty (Humbert Humbert is a pederast, Shamash is not) is destroyed, though it is jealousy and delusion (and Quilty, if he is not a delusion of the jealous Humbert) and the indifference of Lolita that destroy Humbert Humbert, whereas is it the media (for whom celebrities are fodder), laws, and prison systems that destroy Shamash, whom Johnny/Vaslav continues to love.
I found most of the incidents of the narrative present tedious and some of the turns of phrase too literary, and the premise of the book (the substitution of one seven-year-old for a dead one) requires a leap of suspending disbelief. I guess the transgressions are too aggressively “in your face” (as in the violence of Dennis Cooper’s novels) and can easily imagine many readers being shocked and/or annoyed by the book. I think it very interesting and certainly challenging.
Po-mo as the narrative is (or the narratives, the three books feeling different from each other though all told by Johnny/Vaslav, with some interpolated texts pasted in), there is also something very late-19th-century naturalism about it. Naturalism (Zola, Stephen Crane) wallowed in fated degradation and genetic determinism. Drinnan enjoys dragging readers through the gutter in a similar manner, and it is easy to read Glove Puppet as a case study of “bad genes” (hereditary viciousness and prenatal drug exposure) emerging to negate the effects of an improved environment. (I might have picked up echoes of such genetic determinism in Pussy’s Bow, if I’d read it after reading Glove Puppet. Instead, my reading out of order helped me pick up some of the Maupin-like cast of supportive nonbiological family in Glove Puppet, the aging, wise housekeeper, Thel, in particular) and I’d recommend my own backward trajectory to Drinnan’s first novel.
This first appeared on epinions, 31 August 2003
©2003, 2017 by Stephen O. Murray
- Pussy’s Bow is more a “crowd-pleaser” than either its predecessor or is successor, and it has a softer “message” than the other two. My review of it saw Drinnan as the Australian Armistead Maupin, an analogy Glove Puppet would not have suggested; in Glove Puppet, Drinnan was striving to be a bad boy from Oz, more the Aussie Dennis Cooper than the Australian Maupin. ↩