For all the chaos of which he seems singularly capable, the ex-boyfriend remains a strangely underrepresented character in literature. We might have Gatsby, Baldwin’s Giovanni, any number of Emma Bovary’s paramours (if they qualify), but I can rattle off twice as many charismatic fictional cats, and almost as many pigs.
But along comes Brontez Purnell with his new — novel, is it? Linked stories? Let’s settle on hurricane. This hurricane of delirious, lonely, lewd tales is a taxonomy and grand unified theory of the boyfriend, in every tense.
Purnell’s stories pinwheel, with a rotating cast of narrators and shifting points of view. Paragraphs run quick and cool, like stacked ice cubes; the chapters are often devoted to one particular man — the meth head, the white boy with the dreadlocks, the Satanist offering Magic: The Gathering tutorials and pentagram-embossed condoms.
It is known that mothers retain fetal cells of the children they have carried. In the world of Purnell, there is no intimacy that doesn’t leave its traces, its residue. “There have to be 100 ghosts in this room already and that’s just the baggage I’m carrying,” one character thinks. “There are too many men here” — and not, he laments, in a sexy way.
Purnell himself, based in Oakland, Calif., has been called “a living archive of the Bay’s queer and punk scenes.” He is a restless, prolific artist in almost every conceivable genre. A member of the bands Gravy Train!!!! and the Younger Lovers, he has directed a documentary and founded a dance company. He is the author of the zine Fag School, a children’s book and several works of fiction, including the novel “Since I Laid My Burden Down.”
“100 Boyfriends” follows his short film, “100 Boyfriends Mixtape.” For eight minutes, Purnell talks on the phone while he soaks in a bath, shrink-fitting a pair of shoplifted jeans — “I liberated them from capitalism.” The monologue anticipates the mood of the book — the candor, wit and weariness.
The book’s narrators are often, like Purnell, Gen X, born in Alabama and now in Oakland. Others were raised in California, and one is considerably older. They share a set of tactics and traits, however, a certain sweetness and passivity, and, above all, a militant refusal to judge others. “One thing I can truly say I love about myself is that I’m too sketch to lead a moral campaign against anybody,” one man says. “Also, leading a moral campaign against anything just seemed like a lot of work and I was stoned.”
Other characters describe themselves as “willfully nonjudgmental” or make the same joke: “It’s like my favorite saying, ‘Where God closes a door, He opens a window,’ but in this particular case the window was on the fifth floor and the house was on fire.” The scenes in bed blur, the mornings echo — the same hangover, the same offensive morning light. A critic might find fault with the repetition, the way scenes swirl rather than build — and some critics have — but that feeling of eternal recurrence is beautifully by design, it is the very argument of the book.
Feeling mildly jilted, a man searches himself for pain. “I was not hurt, distressed or even bothered,” he finds. “Only filled with a weird feeling that was somewhere between a premonition and déjà vu, like this was a day that had happened many times before and would also, one day, repeat itself.”
Pain is present everywhere in this book but muffled, felt through a fog of whisky and experience. There is no new unhappiness, no shock. Every humiliation has precedent; the heart breaks along its usual fracture lines.
Which might be another way to say this is a book about aging: “Some friends had died and some were disappearing, having babies and going away, getting old and weary and going away, or simply going crazy in secret and going away — it all had the same effect. The climate felt colder.”
Still, the erotic adventures continue. Purnell is so good on sex; the scenes are so filthy and true that they draw all the attention. The book has been warmly received but reviewers, describing the sex, have curiously uncoupled it from the lives of the men, who meet between shifts at work or move in together because one is homeless, say, or addicted. Here is less of the exhilaration of cruising, of anonymity, of imagined utopias, and more of the headache that is real communality, the honorable, bankrupting work of loyalty and endurance, of shoring up old lovers, even that roommate who is a “flaming piece of human garbage.”
Recall the Satanist boyfriend? With the pentagram condoms and the Magic: The Gathering lessons? The sex was terrible. “I should have just, like, eaten a cheeseburger or goofed around on the internet,” the narrator laments. The two sleep together just the once, but “I still to this day meet him every other Wednesday to play the game.”
No one is discarded. The white boy with the regrettable dreadlocks remains a friend. Even when characters are humiliated, as they walk out the door, they confess to us that they’ll be back — “For sure. But this next time, my role would be clearer.” At the S.T.D. clinic, thinking about the lover who sent him there, one character pockets his pills. “I would be his snack tonight and take my antibiotics again tomorrow.”
What does “boyfriend” mean in this context, where the men are so often exes, lovers turned friends or johns? “Boyfriend” is a fantasy of rescue, permanence, care — but that’s a reality, Purnell shows, that the men often already possess, in one another, albeit in forms so different from their expectations they can’t recognize it.
But how starkly these characters seem to seek in one another what the world does not provide — a kind of safety and permanence of work and housing, which are so scant and fragile in this book. Whatever support networks can be created unravel at city bounds. Taking a bus into the country to his weekend gig cultivating marijuana plants, one man is struck by the Confederate flags on bumper stickers. “He remembered that an hour outside any city it was business as usual in America.”
All these desires, these imperatives, lodge themselves into that little word “boyfriend,” into fantasies of men past and present, into those ghosts, who prove so necessary.
“My mother had explained to me that buildings needed human breath in them to keep them moist and held together,” one character recalls. “Abandoned buildings are like abandoned people — they die sooner.”