Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mark Merlis takes on Washington

After enjoying two of Mark Merlis’s novels, I decided to try a more recent one.


Man About Town

Mark Merlis’s Man About Town (288 pages, Harper, $3.95) attempts to tell the story of a gay man who works as a legislative analyst in a conservative Democratic administration. Joel Lingeman, suddenly on his own when a partner of fifteen years walks out, tries to come to terms with the closeted Washington scene.

As we witness Joel’s unsuccessful dating and his dull forays into local bars, we also hear about some of the work he is doing in Congress, especially work on a homophobic bill that tries to remove Medicare benefits from AIDS sufferers who had practiced unsafe sex. At first dismissive of the bill, even as he helps a Western senator to put it together, he finds himself caught off guard, when the administration takes up the plan, and Joel finds that he has to try to undermine it in some way.

While Joel is having these professional qualms and feels all the frustration of meeting closeted gay republicans who are both smart and handsome, he fantasizes about an image he once saw. The image was one of a fetching young man in a bathing suit ad, who seemed to be inviting intimacy, at the back of a magazine of the 1960s called Man About Town.

As Joel’s immediate gay life in Washington seems to go nowhere—men he meets and even those he dates seem to do nothing but disappoint him—he becomes more and more involved with the fantasy of the young man in the ad. He even goes so far as to hire a private detective to see whether he can discover the whereabouts of that young charmer.

As the contemporary world becomes more frustrating, both professionally and personally, Joel retreats into the fantasy and follows up leads until he is ready to confront that young man, now some forty years on.

The results of this quest are not at all what Joel expects, if he expects anything, nor is his response anything but surprising.

Joel is an interesting character, but I lost sympathy with him and could not really follow him into this fantasy, even when Merlis used it to point at a reasonable moral. I felt that Joel was an unsympathetic and depressive character, and Merlis let him go too far into his fantasy. There might have been a life for him in Washington, but Merlis wouldn’t really let him look for it.

Man About Town is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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