Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Looking for Mr. Gaybar


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Intimacy Idiot by Isaac Oliver; Scribner, $24

We know we are in for a hilarious time when in his Online Dating Profile that introduces Isaac Oliver's new book, Oliver writes that his typical Friday night is "wine in mouth, dick in hand, hope in heart." Intimacy Idiot is a debut collection on the trials and tribulations of a gay 20-something single man in New York City, ranging from Grindr hook-ups to amusing but disastrous dates.

Oliver's stories have been featured in Showgasm, Dead Darlings, and Naked Radio compilations as well as in his own blog. He is also a playwright and solo performer whose hit show Intimacy Idiot was developed at ArsNova in Manhattan, where he read stories onstage in a kind of gay Prairie Home Companion style. Those stories have been adapted for this book, which is a loosely structured "comedic cornucopia" of essays, sketches, vignettes, lists, diary entries, recipes for singles, prose poetry, and riffs on the search for love.

Intimacy Idiot is not really sustained self-reflection, but rather smart observational musings on the foibles of humanity. "Subway Diaries" are biting transcriptions of conversations Oliver overhears while riding the subway, usually late at night, while "Scene(s) from a Box Office" transpire behind the glass of a Time Square theater box-office job, with the often mean, clueless patrons he endures. But most of Intimacy Idiot concerns Isaac's sexual escapades. He confesses to having slept with half the people in his Washington Heights neighborhood. He is quite explicit about his no-holds-barred sexual adventures, part of the honesty he brings to all areas of his life.

The writing is hysterical, whether he is choking on a dusty dildo during Skype sex, rendezvousing with a flight attendant who dresses as a dolphin (part of the furry phenomenon), spilling a glass of red wine on his date then using a Tide-to-Go pen on the crotch of his pants to clean up the mess, or having an eczema attack during a sexual liaison. Some of the lines are cocktail-party banter: "If the attractive person is talking to you and seems interested, genuine, or even flirtatious, you're probably going to get murdered. You could do worse: an ax in the back is still penetration." "The best place to meet men, I've found, is your mind." "I was in the middle of fellating an aloof actor when suddenly out of nowhere, he said, 'God I hate Edward Albee. I see you have a bunch of his plays. He's like needlessly obtuse. Sorry, didn't mean to interrupt. You can proceed.'" "If you use the lint roller just right, it can feel like physical affection."

Oliver has been compared to author David Sedaris, but so far seems to lack his compassionate insight and character development. Many of Oliver's perceptions are scattered thoughts, a la Joan Rivers. He has the knack of finding humor in the most heartbreaking of situations, yet oddly exhibits a minimum of self-awareness. While some of the pieces work, about half fall flat. I suspect some of the less successful ones might function better on the stage, where they can be seen and heard. Two standouts that testify to his storytelling abilities: a handsome hockey player calls Oliver out of loneliness and despair after being diagnosed with Huntington's disease; and Oliver, on a writer's retreat in the New Hampshire woods, abandons his cell phone to focus on his work, yet still obsesses about getting laid. In these two essays he is willing to be vulnerable and self-deprecating.

There is a dark streak. In the awkward dates and unrequited hookups, Oliver shows a need to be loved, but he never finds it in a stable way, intimacy always just out of reach. Sadness and lack of fulfillment underlie the comic veneer. Oliver perceives that he tends to treat his existence as a dress rehearsal for a life he has yet to live. He captures the loneliness and despair of looking for love in Manhattan, yet remains true to his own standards. Intimacy Idiot is an auspicious but flawed debut, but there is no doubt why the Advocate named Oliver one of their "People to Watch in 2015."

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