Bruce Benderson, The Romanian: Story of an Obsession (Tarcher/Penguin, 401 pages, 2006)
If you’re not particularly interested in middle-aged, pill-popping, alcoholic New York writers who specialize in tales of demimonde sleaze and who fall in love with hustlers in post-communist eastern Europe, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be immediately attracted to Bruce Benderson’s erotic memoir, The Romanian: Story of an Obsession, published a couple of years ago. Actually, that’s not categorically true, since Benderson’s book was passed on to me by a fellow reader who’s not especially interested in homosexual love stories or the travails of life in Budapest and Bucharest, but who simply thought that The Romanian was surprisingly good, and wondered if I’d ever heard of its obscure author.
I had. Benderson wrote a couple of novels more than a decade ago, Pretending to Say No (1990), and User (1994), both of them invoking life around New York’s Times Square in the days before the civic authorities “cleaned” it up. His work was loosely compared to that of gay netherworld writers Hubert Selby (Last Exit to Brooklyn) and John Rechy (City of Night), and his name was linked to an early-1990s writing movement called “New Narrative,” an unofficial mostly gay grouping that featured such writers as Dennis Cooper (Closer) and Robert Gluck (Jack the Modernist). “New Narrative” soon faded, or gave way to pursuits like “Queer Studies” and “Cultural Studies,” and Benderson melted into the crowd that drifted away from the newly sanitized Times Square, not to reappear (at least for readers like me) until a decade later when his new book turned up as a loan from a friend as we sat in the luncheonette section of my local gentrified organic food supermarket.
In the meantime, as we learn from The Romanian, Benderson had been staggering along, surviving on fringy freelance writing, mind-numbing technical-manual chores, and doing translations from the French. In fact, as he tells us, describing his first middle-of-the-night wanderings around chilly Budapest, “I’d come here to do a story about brothels for an online magazine.” Though I’m familiar with both Budapest and Benderson’s eventual destination, Bucharest, I found that opening factoid arrestingly exotic. You can get paid, I marvelled, for going to Budapest and writing a piece about its male brothels for an online New York magazine? Gosh, I’m so out of it. There are male brothels in Budapest?! How many? (Answer: slightly less than one.) In due course, I clicked around, and indeed found www.nerve.com, a sex and druggy lifestyle literary webzine, and Benderson’s dispatches from Budapest, early versions of what would become his memoir of an “obsession.”
One thing that becomes clear from the book’s very opening is that Benderson is a more reckless, generous and intrepid soul than most of us more timid travellers, who limit our intake of mind-altering substances and tend to tuck in early rather than cruising the streets of strange cities after midnight. “Planning to grope my way through the job by sheer instinct and horniness, with little knowledge of the city’s history or present,” reports the 40-something author, “I left the hotel without even checking a map. My rationale was that my own little libido was enough to carry me into the unconscious of the place… Deep into the night, around two a.m., I ended up on the Pest waterfront, where chilly gusts sharded the light on inky water. That’s where I saw him, through wind-teared eyes, in front of the Inter-Continental Hotel: a black form cut from darkness, topped by a fluorescently pale face…”
Romulus, 24, is, “it turns out, a Romanian, one of the dozens who prowl this Danube promenade, called the Corso. Struggling to get by without papers, he’s been surviving day to day through an underground network of other Romanians, on petty heists, hustling and borrowing from friends.” As the two of them do some club-hopping before winding up at Benderson’s hotel just before dawn, Romulus and Bruce sketch in the Romanian’s not unfamiliar tale of woe. It’s “a flamboyant… smug story about disappointment borne with masculine fatality,” that includes illegal border crossings, stowing away, dodging armed patrols, and using one’s increasingly scarred body to provide various economically remunerative services . A great deal of the young Romanian’s involuntary odyssey is seemingly a “punishment… for being born in a country where the average monthly salary is the equivalent of about eighty dollars. ‘Not my fault,’ he mumbles, ‘that I was born there,’ like a confession an inmate unwisely whispers into an ear, his snake eyes glittering behind curls of smoke…” Eventually, it’s bedtime and the rest is, well, a tangle of bedclothes and Romanian history.
I have two reasons for my interest in Benderson’s book. The first is autobiographical. I’m one of the dubiously Happy Few among Benderson’s readership who is unabashedly interested in eastern European rentboys. One of the challenges Benderson’s story poses, at least as I saw it when I began reading it, is whether he could sustain a booklength narrative centred around an obsessive infatuation whose horizon seemed especially limited, to say nothing of doomed.
As well, I’ve covered much of the territory Benderson traverses—in early 1990, just after the fall of communism, about a decade prior to his arrival in Budapest in 1999. What’s more, I’ve written about similar amorous adventures in the same settings. The political-erotic-travelogue of a book that emerged was Then We Take Berlin: Stories from the Other Side of Europe (1995), which was, as a literary project, a similarly problematic venture, not unlike Benderson’s memoir. By the by, my own afternoon walk on the Corso along the Danube River produced someone named Zoltan and an erotic encounter memorable enough that the fading files of my sensorium seem to recall the tactile heft and pleasantly gamey waft of him. Unlike the adventuresome Benderson, I prudently spared myself the heartbreak. But in any case, I can identify with Benderson’s memoir as a fellow scribe as well as a cruising confrere.
The second reason for my interest in The Romanian is that I’ve developed something of an interest in, or maybe an obsession, to use Benderson’s word, with books whose fate is to be consigned to a premature, undeserved oblivion. Even the publishing history of Benderson’s memoir was ominously roundabout: it was originally published in French in 2004 (in France, it won a minor French literary prize, the Prix de Flore), and didn’t appear in English until two years later.
It got a limited smattering of serious and favourable reviews, primarily in the L.A. Times and New York’s Village Voice, as well as some attention in the gay press, but a perhaps more characteristic treatment was that of the New York Times Book Review where it received a one-paragraph rather dismissive notice in an omnibus review of a potpourri of recent non-fiction.
The reviewer notes that Benderson is reputed to be someone who “likes to court risk,” but “if he really is the man he describes in this autobiographical account of lust and obsession, is a mass of self-absorbed contradictions that he peels away layer by layer, never seeming to reach a solid core beneath.” As for Benderson’s Romanian friend, “this supposed subject of the author’s obsession never comes into focus.” The reviewer wonders, “What does Romulus really think of this ‘pudgy bourgeois American, twice his age,’ who pays for sex and sometimes thinks he’s in love?” If that doesn’t make it clear enough what the reviewer, if not the Romanian, really thinks, a couple of bitter remarks by Romulus during a drunken argument at the end of the affair are cited: “Your money stinks. The sight of your face make me want to puke in toilet.” The reviewer throws Benderson a crumb by conceding that Romulus at other times declares, “You are only true friend ever in my life.” While granting that “there is allure along the way,” the reviewer’s summary judgment is, “It sometimes seems to be just a truculent tale of self-analysis through exploitation.” It’s exactly the sort of brush-off that is guaranteed to send a volume to the remainder bins at a schlocky Book Warehouse outlet.
I cite the Times’s squib, the book’s only “national” review really, as fairly typical of harried, slush-pile reviewing. If you’ve got to quickly knock off mini-reviews on everything from a treatise on curry cookery to historical monographs on obscure bits of the American Civil War, I suppose a volume about louche erotic pursuits in the Romanian outback may strike a reviewer as repulsive rather than reading relief (or, depending on the freelancer’s mood that day, perhaps vice-versa). The sad thing about the diminishing world of book reviewing these days is that it offers little recourse. There are no courts of appeal, almost no second looks, no forum of discussion. Once the Times (or in Canada, the Globe and Mail) has magisterially pronounced, that’s pretty much it. But this isn’t the place to lament the various books that get buried in reviewing graveyards. Rather, the point is that this particular squib seems to me pretty much dead wrong about its central claim, namely, that the “supposed subject of the author’s obsession never comes into focus.”
Indeed, the precise virtue of Benderson’s tale that makes it unexpectedly engaging is that his portrait of Romulus is very much in focus and convincing, especially if you’ve ever been there and done that. While distant, often middle-class, liberal observers, for whom all of this is mere fantasy (or nightmare), frequently tend to romanticize male prostitutes (as well as moralise about them as hapless “victims”), Benderson never forgets that Romulus is simply a human being, and a rather complicated one at that, who comes complete with a cultural context, monstrous family, uncertain friends, conflicting emotions and all the rest. It’s Benderson’s appreciation of the reality of the other person that sustains the book, that takes it beyond the author’s alleged “lust… and self-absorbed contradictions.”
As for what Romulus “really” thinks, he thinks all the things that Benderson reports him as saying and thinking about, and they range from edge-of-violence despair to genuine expressions of friendship, in registers that oscillate from overdramatic to starkly realistic to maudlin. Although some readers may find the sexuality of such accounts shocking and/or alternatively tantalizing, it’s important to remember that the sex is not shocking for Romulus. The sex, often characterized by critics as strictly exploitation, is frequently experienced by the rentboy (and here, perhaps, we should emphasize that this is still partially forbidden male-male sex, rather than heterosexual prostitution) as not only sufficiently pleasurable, but the occasion for a display of competence in a world where he’s otherwise hapless. In any case, Benderson conveys all of this with a degree of originality and insight.
A good deal of Benderson’s narrative turns on the grotesquely comic, and is driven by the boredoms, needs, and ambitions of himself and the people he encounters. There are stultifying heat-wave afternoons in a Bucharest apartment, where, in one room, Benderson pounds away at a translation from the French of—of all things—the half-potted autobiography of Quebecois queen of pop, Celine Dion (yes, Celine Dion!), a gruesome eyes-glaze-over labour that finances this rather extravagent affair, while in the next room, Romulus is sprawled out in undies, where he “immolates himself with cigarettes before the television in the sweltering bedroom, watching soccer and soft-core movies until he’s nearly comatose.”
In due course, the two of them drive cross-country to Romulus’s hometown, and this time there’s noirish sit-com as Romulus’s entire family (and the inevitable girlfriend who’s been half-stashed away) glom onto the “rich American.” There’s the drunken dad, the bouncer older brother, the cute but mad younger brother, the desperate mama and sundry others crammed into the sardine-can lodgings of the clan, all importuning, in one way or the other, the living American cash machine who’s appeared on their doorstep. Are they really thinking about the grotty details of Romulus’s relationship with the provident foreigner? I doubt it. It’s all pretty grim, but it’s also funny. “A Soviet style housing project looks like it’s caving into a shiny new adjoining bank. Everything looks pieced together by Krazy Glue, fighting for space and contradicting everything else, like Cubist structures on a Baroque wedding cake.” Ditto for human relations.
The Romanian is necessarily more than a memoir, given its circumstances and location. It’s also a fairly terrifying travelogue through a deeply corrupted, crumbling, former fascist, former communist society whose first decade of free-market capitalism has hardly proven a panacea. Perhaps not all of Benderson’s Romanian themes work, but the reader does get something more than touristic pop versions of Dracula. There’s a running account of the degeneracy of the pre-World War II monarchy, featuring a libidinous queen, a playboy Prince Carol and his Jewish mistress, and the gradual encroachment of the fascist movement that took over by 1940. Benderson, in his quirky way, tries to draw parallels between the historical soap opera and his own situation.
There’s also, in the course of an automotive tour of Romania’s peasant outback, a knowledgeable meditation on the early 20th century modernist sculptor Brancusi, whose mysticism is an eerie reflection of what’s to be found in the contemporary countryside. Not all of it works, but at least there’s an idea there and the reader has a sense of Benderson’s mind, however intermittently besotted and befuddled, grappling with it. While reading Benderson, I remembered that the last book about Romania written by a North American that I’d read was a late, not very good novel by Saul Bellow, The Dean’s December. Benderson’s Romanian is the far more interesting work.
Finally, there’s Benderson himself. True, his journey begins with improbable eros as the first step on the road to knowledge. And yes, it gets bumpy along the way, and perhaps it’s predicated on an illusion that something more lastingly romantic is possible than what is actually on offer. Or, no “perhaps” about it, it is in fact an illusion, and one to which the middle-aged are no doubt prone (it’s a delusion that thankfully can dissipate as old age advances, we are told).
Sure, Benderson’s a troubled soul, ingesting a lot of pills and other substances. He travels on the fringes and sometimes in the heart of a notion of the “transgressive,” as it’s been called. But when Benderson isn’t in the midst of his picaresque adventures, trailed by scary packs of abandoned dogs in the Romanian capital, he’s also a guy who manages to navigate intellectual and not-so-intellectual circles in New York, Paris, Bucharest, and points in between, and he’s a filial son who maintains a quirky, believable, relationship with his 96-year-old mother in upstate New York. So, maybe he never reaches a “solid core beneath,” as the Times reviewer complained, but he’s not evasive nor does he lack self-critical awareness of the ludicrous aspects of an obsession. More important, in The Romanian, he writes a pretty solid book. I’m not claiming it’s great, or that the prose is deathless, simply that it’s interesting, and worthy of attention. I’m also suggesting that writing a pretty solid book might be a more useful activity than displaying one’s solid or shaky core.
Vancouver, Feb. 29, 2008. Stan Persky’s most recent book is Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education (2007).