Gutter Boys by Alvin Orloff
One of them is a shy, virginal New Wave devotee in San Francisco (Jeremy) and the other is Colin, the assured, stylish scenester Jeremy gets hooked on right away. They’re total opposites, yet somehow, and right away, they become roommates and friends and the suspense of the novel lies in Orloff’s superb recasting of the age-old Jane Austen question about when will Pride wake up and see the light about Prejudice? Add the romantic backdrop of San Francisco and New York punk fashion as Reagan becomes President, and the whole romantic mess becomes allegorical, an emblem of a moment in which revolution seemed possible—but should you pursue it through direct action, or was buying a Marc Almond record enough? Complicating the storyline are two specters, the spirits of Jeremy’s two grandmothers, who comment on his actions and sharply disagree with each other—one, “Gramma Bea,” a genteel, refined British lady, the other, “Nana Leah,” a Jewish Communist firebrand like something Anne Bancroft used to play late in her career, or the sort of Rosa Luxemburg tragically divorced from her own time. Whenever something happens in the story to give Jeremy pause, both old ladies chime in with their own two cents, which leaves Jeremy able to distinguish between alternatives, to negotiate the difficult path from awkward nerd to cool indexical alternative god.
Colin’s there already. Orloff loves a storyline in which somehow the nerd educates himself through a sometimes painful crush on an impossible object. What happens when you begin seeing through the man you love, when you begin to realize that despite the erotic haze he brings on, despite his endless well of street smarts and personal beauty, maybe you’ve got a better handle on what’s right and good than he does? When Gutter Boys came out I wrote a blurb for the book, a signal of my devotion to Alvin Orloff’s writing. Earlier I had explained that he wasn’t a writer as much as a stylist—that every sentence is curved and curled like the baroque workshop of Geppetto in the Disney film. But blurbs only go so far. Here’s what I wrote back then in 2002, when the book was still called Into the Gutter with Jeremy Rabinowitz: “There will never be a shortage of funny gay writers, but Alvin Orloff’s in another category altogether. Like E. F. Benson before him, Orloff knows how to do things with the absurd and the acidic that make a perfect dollhouse for his absurdly huge heart.”
I like what I was saying, but it opened me to charges of snob appeal, especially for people who didn’t recognize the name of E.F. Benson (1967-1940). Benson, from a clerical family in England, wrote a series of hilarious society satires exploring the conflicts between Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas over social domination of a picturesque Jamesian British village in the 1920 and 30s. I continued:
Alvin Orloff’s first book [I Married an Earthling] was so inventive and funny I wondered how he could top it. Gutter Boys lays those fears to rest. It’s touching and tender as the best John Hughes pictures from the 80s, a decade Orloff knows more about than any other living writer. The passion of Jeremy for Colin is a continual blur of abnegation that attains a religious aura by book’s end. And the two ghostly grandmas are like Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard come back to life to tickle and torment us all. You’ll enjoy this trip into the gutter and maybe leave your heart there.
Rereading the book today, provided the rare occasion to reconsider and re-contextualize a lifetime of reading this book and the whole l’Orloff oeuvre, I’m struck by the way the novel deftly foreshadows the coming of AIDS right around the corner from the East Village and Mission District denizens Orloff follows. It was an Edenic time sexually: you could literally fuck whomever you wanted and the worst that could happen is that you’d get “the clap” or crabs, or wind up with a Reaganite prettyboy boring you about the stock market. While individuals fell into sorrow and tragedy, one didn’t feel the weight of Fate upon us all the way we did a few years later. Here, when Jeremy becomes a hustler in order to provide spoiled Colin with deli roast beef sandwiches, he has sex with a man who strangely won’t take off his shirt, and then he discovers his skin marred by some unusual purplish bruises; and a little jolt of fear stabbed through me. When Colin, by now dissolute and feckless, gets so zonked on black beauties he allows a whole train of guys to pull a train on him in the backroom of “Alex in Wonderland,” Jeremy’s there to rescue him, pull up his pants, and hustle him out the door. It’s not a systemic fall, it’s personal at this point—but they’re on the brink of a cataclysm, and Orloff allows the full horror to show its face, however obliquely.—Kevin Killian