by Jim Piechota
Fault of Babylon by Richard Kempton; Take One Press $12.50
So Many Ways to Sleep Badly by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore; City Lights Books, $15.95
With such a plethora of things to fret about these days, it's always nice to hear locals cooing about how even in the midst of this dire economic state we're drowning in, nothing can hamper their love affair with San Francisco. It's also nice to pick up books written by local writers who set their tales right in the Bay Area, for richer or poorer, for better or worse.
The premise of Richard Kempton's slight, innocent, self-published debut novel Fault of Babylon may be hokey, but his story holds its own with lyrical prose and some engaging dramatics. The book is set in 1989, with the Loma Prieta earthquake still on everyone's minds. Italian stallion Gino lives in the Castro district with his lover Skip, but Gino is severely closeted and terrified at the thought of what would happen if his large family discovered his sexuality. He does a great job of covering it up at home, though living in the Castro doesn't help matters. Gino flinches when Skip tries to hold hands with him ("we wandered the city, mentally hand-in-hand"), and to protect himself from further insinuation, he even has his mail delivered from his ex-boyfriend Rodney's address on 19th St. Even Skip takes pause to nervously consider "however much he enjoyed sex with me, he was unwilling to discuss either our time in bed or the nature of our relationship once lovemaking was over." Skip, 26, the poster boy for passive-aggressive partners, works in the library of an unnamed scientific institute under the supervision of his intimidating boss Anthony Gigli, who not only wants him fired, but also happens to be Gino's uncle.
Eventually, all of the hiding and protective antics become ridiculous and superfluous as Kempton's story gets progressively melodramatic, with Gino exploring heterosexual options in order to save Skip's employment. It's a shame that fueling the book is a somewhat boneheaded 30something gay guy who won't verbalize any feelings of love for his lover, rejects the notion that he's gay, and lives every moment in fear of being outed, even though he lives in the heart of the country's largest gay ghetto. Go figure. On the plus side, the author paints San Francisco with affectionate brushstrokes, and creates a story that makes for an amusing diversion.
Supremely outspoken gender-bending author and local shit-disturber Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's second novel So Many Ways to Sleep Badly also takes place in San Francisco, but Sycamore's yarn is set in more contemporary society, which she is clearly less than enamored of. The first is that she's dedicated her book to San Francisco, but adds "or what's left of it." But once a toe is dipped into her Burroughs-like stream-of-consciousness writing, it's difficult to turn your back on such a wet and wooly ride through the streets of our beloved SF. Sycamore's protagonist (herself, possibly?) lives in an apartment festering with roaches, hangs with some eccentric friends (including a hot BF/fuck buddy named Jeremy), and turns tricks for $150 an hour from a newspaper ad. The resulting carnal carnival is effortlessly provocative.
Plot cohesion does take a back seat to pages of meaningless, scattershot-shotgun sex from the street, phone-sex lines or online, with men whose crotches smell like "rotten eggs" or have repulsively rank feet. These events only complement other adventures enjoyed at very recognizable local haunts like Powerhouse, Power Exchange, Buena Vista Park, Aquatic Park, Nob Hill Theatre, Safeway, Bagdad Cafˇ, and many others. Sycamore may not be in love with SF anymore, but she knows how to namedrop like a champ. The good thing is that it surprisingly doesn't get tired, and if you are part of the SF gay scene, it will all become relative. Her protagonist's hustling adventures are humorous and have an authentic ring to them. Tricks can vary wildly from "Ms. Diamond Heights" ("of the three-bedroom house, views of all San Francisco, and artifacts strewn about like knick-knacks") to those with decrepit apartments with wax stains on the carpet, to both Lower and Upper Haight guys who have cheap soaps in their showers.
Toward the book's conclusion, Sycamore declares, "Everything is saved by good sex - it really exists." Readers who love blogs will adore Sycamore's meandering rants and endless amounts of cock-and-ball talk and boy obsessions, but she frequently breaks out with ruminations like a reaction to a Tommy Hilfiger bus ad: "The whole ad is this guy's abs and the stars-and-stripes." She writes, "It's sickening, and suddenly I'm horny in that desperate way." Scenes like these seem to say that while we might be looking at something, are we really seeing it? Sycamore and her aggressive material are much alike; there seems to be a lot more here than meets the eye.