Review: A Perfect Waiter by Alain Claude Sulzer

Translated from the original German by John Brownjohn.

Erneste is master of the Blue Room in a Swiss Restaurant. He is the ‘perfect waiter’, a model of order in every way, and his private life seems to embody the qualities he brings to his job. But inwardly this polite, dignified, withdrawn man has been caught in the grip of an overwhelming passion that began many years before, in the summer of 1935.

One morning three decades later, Erneste receives a letter from that lover, Jakob – now in America – asking for his help. It means that Erneste must engage with the world again and risk delving into his memories of those years gone by – and uncovering what they might really mean.

Review by Erastes

The main action starts on the first page – a letter arrives from America and we are told that it’s from a man that Erneste knew 30 years before – and that person is someone who Erneste has thought of daily for every day of those 30 years. It’s clear fairly soon that Erneste is repressed in every facet of his life. He works diligently and perfectly; he has no friends and no acquaintance aside from one cousin who he sees once a year. Soon we slide into flashback and we are in a pre-war summer in “The Grand Hotel” on a Swiss lake. Erneste is sent down to the lakeside to meet a new member of staff – Jakob, trainee waiter – and from the very moment they shake hands, Erneste knows his life will never be the same again.

It wasn’t until all four of them were standing on the shore that Jakob shook Erneste’s hand and introduced himself. “Jakob Meier,” he said simply, and the handshake that accompanied this formal introduction seemed to say: “Here I am, having come here purely for your sake.” The little world in which Erneste had so blithely installed himself collapsed under the aegis of Jakob Meier’s shadow. He quit that world for evermore- for evermore, he knew it- and gladly, unresistingly left it behind.

We are left in no doubt of Erneste’s love – at first, helpless, hopeless passion. He is content, happy to take the handsome 19 year old German under his wing and to teach him to be – as he is himself – the perfect waiter. We are convinced of his devotion, a high church kind of devotion that makes him proud just to be called Jakob’s friend and he is convinced that everyone who sees Jakob must be jealous that he, Erneste is his friend, and not they. One of the most touching and erotic scenes is when Jakob goes to be fitted for his uniform. The seamstress measures Jakob, her hands travelling over every part of Jabob’s body and Erneste sits and watches, his hands are her hands imagining every muscle, every hair. When Jakob strips down to his underwear – the seamstresses all turn away and Erneste is almost gleeful that as a man there is nothing out of the oridinary for a man to watch another in this act.

Two months into their friendship Jakob instigates a kiss and their friendship turns to the physical. Erneste and Jakob live, love and work in the hotel and Erneste – having no discernible personality of his own, is subsumed by Jakob.

However, it’s fairly obvious by the information at the beginning of the book that this love-affair didn’t last and as the book slides from past to present and back again we are shown why and how and if Erneste’s heart doesn’t break on his own account, the reader’s does for him as he tucks his emotions back into a safe place.

Back in the present Erneste isn’t entirely celibate. Even in clean, calm serene Switzerland in the 60’s there were still places where gay men would meet and Erneste indulges his longings by cottaging. It is only after an attack by queer-bashers one night which seem to bring his emotions close enough tot he surface for him to decide to do something about the letters and do what Jakob asks of him, which leads to more truth than he can handle.

The themes of first love-and of anyone hoarding that love so close to them for their entire life, not allowing themselves to live because of it- touched me closely because I understand how one can put barriers up in one’s life to prevent hurt happening to one again. But I think it was the fact that Erneste (and the others that Jakob came in contact with too) almost deified Jakob. Erneste wanted to mould him into his own image, others simply wanted to worship at the pedestal of his youth and beauty. It comes as no surprise when Jakob proves to have feet of clay, what is surprising is the depth of deceit that these men maintain – they all blame themselves, when they should be blaming Jakob.

Beautifully written, if the translation is anything to go by at least, this little book is well worth a read. It was rather too frustrating for me – I’m more active than the characters here. I’d fight, I’d make scenes – I find it hard to understand such perfect repression, but for all that – Erneste is never unbelievable and in this way I felt nothing for him but bitter pity.

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Review: The Leather Boys by Gillian Freeman

They’re Britain’s ‘Wild Ones’ – the motorcycle cowboys who live for gas machines and faster girls – who ton-up along the Motorways, terrorising drivers and defying the law. Who experience sex too young, marry unthinkingly and live only for the next kick – whatever or whoever it is.

The Leather Boys is a savage, brilliantly told novel of these aimless young men and women. It is also the story of Dick and Reggie and the strange, twisted love that developed between them.

Review by Erastes

First off let me say that the first cover (with the girl) couldn’t be more erroneous of the title and the content of the book. I couldn’t scan my cover in, and couldn’t find a picture online. The blurb is pretty ghastly too making it sound like a British version of the Hell’s Angel’s books so popular in my girl’s school in the 1970’s. I object hugely to the term “strange, twisted love” because as you’ll see it’s nothing of the sort. The second cover is the original one, when the book was posted in 1961 it was published under a (jokey) masculine pseudonym. Nothing changes, eh?

The book is an essential read for anyone who might be interested in the late 50’s and the youth of that time, it may come over as rather quaint to Americans, because I’m sure that American bikers were never quite that shy and gauche as some of the characters here.  Although – sorry to disappoint you once again – this isn’t exactly about biker boys either.  Hell, could a book and a blurb and a cover BE more misleading?

Anyway, there’s not much to the story, really. Reggie is married but dissatisfied. His wife has told him that she’s pregant with another man’s child so he leaves her.  He meets up with Dick, another biker, who lives with his ailing grandmother in a typical two up  two down terraced house with no loo but the one outside.

When the two young men do get together it’s not accompanied by pages of pre-kiss angst. They are friends, and neither of them see much further than that. Reggie has moved in with Dick, and as was more common in those more innocent times they sleep in the same bed.  One night it just seems right and they kiss. Any sexual conduct is off screen, but is clearly alluded to afterwards. Dick is the one who asks “is this love? And do you think of me as a girl?” and Reggie, who is far more pragmatic simply says “of course not – you aren’t the right shape.”  Dick voices his confusion by saying that he thinks it’s strange that neither of them want to start playing the girl, by putting on lipstick and stuff like that. There’s none of the questioning of self and identity that we see more often in more recent coming out books. Dick loves Reggie and that’s it, really. For better or worse.

They decide-not just for the sake of their relationship, which they are aware they can’t share with anyone-but also to get away from Reggie’s wife, and Dick’s grandmother, and the book winds to a terrible conclusion, sadly in keeping with most gay novels of the time.  It is interesting to note that the film – which is well worth seeking out if you can get hold of a copy – has a completely different ending and one that disgusted me more than the end of the book.  In the film (as in the book) Dick goes to the naval yard to inquire about signing up with the Merchant Navy, and while he is there he meets up with a few of the other homosexuals who band together and all know who’s who.  In the book Dick simply wonders at these men – almost like a different species.  He realises then that although he is homosexual – that he’s not like these camp men, neither is Reggie and hopes they’ll be left in peace onboard ship.  However – in the film, the director makes that the end – Dick decides that he can’t accept that camp lifestyle and walks away from Reggie forever.

This doesn’t ring true with the depth of feeling in the book, and I don’t know why they changed it. Perhaps it was the only way to get the film made – in 1964(!) Dick was far too much in love with Reggie to have done this, and the last few pages of the book convince any reader that he never would have done that.

It’s a lost world – Britain’s Gone with the Wind. There are no more leather clad gangs who frequent coffee bars.  The day of the outside toilet are gone forever and Britain has lost that tang of innocence.  I remember the early sixties (just) but it takes the film to put it clearly in the mind of anyone who wasn’t around then. The empty roads, the way people lived, I don’t often advise reading the book and watching the film, but for anyone interested in the social history of this time, I highly recommend doing both.

The book is – in its way – comparable with Renault’s Charioteer, and certainly deserves to be as popular and as lauded as that book. Perhaps the prose isn’t quite as beautiful, perhaps the heroes are dirty, criminally minded and working class – far far below the lofty heights of Ralph and Laurie, but for my money it’s every bit as good and deserves to be back in print, not labelled as pulp – but a modern classic.

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Review: Oblivion by Harry J Maihafer

On Saturday, January 14, 1950, at 6:18PM, Cadet Richard Cox left his room at theU.S. Military Academy at West Point to goto dinner with an unidentified visitor. The man was supposedly someone Cox knew when he served in Germany. Cox never returned from that meeting.

Thirty five years later, a retired history teacher named Marshall Jacobs decided to pursue the mystery that had been a national story. Jacobs plunged into a labyrinthine search of Army and FBI records – and what began as a hobby became an obsession. After piecing together the puzzle for seven years, he found the one witness who enabled him to bring the case to closure.

Review by Erastes

An interesting find, this. The story was pointed out to me by a friend with a penchant for random surfing and it sparked my interest. I looked into it a little more and found this book which I promptly bought. I believe it’s out of print, but I picked up a copy for pennies.

Richard Cox is the only West Point Cadet ever to have disappeared without trace for for many years the American police, the Criminal Investigation Department and the FBI were involved in trying to track him down. It brings to mind just how easy it might have been (or might still be) to disappear in a country as large as the States.

But – did he disappear or was he murdered? The theories are thick and fast and the amount of threads that lead away from Cox’s last sighting are legion. The trail leads to New York gay bars, Washington spy masters, German secret missions and even behind the Iron Curtain.

There were a few questions I would have asked, however – why on Earth did West Point allow people on site that they didn’t know? Why didn’t this mysterious visitor give his full name and why didn’t anyone ask it? Why wasn’t a certain woman’s second marriage investigated? I suppose it was all a more innocent age – I bet that West Point is a little more rigorous in their security now.

The book was, for me, a real page turner – I had an idea from the reviews on Amazon that many people were not convinced or impressed by the Marshall’s conclusions – but that’s the great thing about conspiracy theories one can form one’s own and you are unlikely to be proven wrong.

I would like to think that – in these days of computers, networks, DNA testing and the like, that someone will – once again – pick up the enormous body of research compiled by Marshall since 1985 and seek out a more definitive answer, and proof that Marshall’s conclusion was the true one. Because I’d like to be sure what happened to Cox – it’s impossible not to want to know for sure by the end of the book.

Despite the labyrinthine tangle of facts, Maihafer catalogues the case well without too much irrelevancies and it kept me absorbed right until the very end. If you are a fan of cold cases, conspiracy theories and other subjects of that ilk – then you’ll probably enjoy this.

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Review: Slaves to Love: 1 and 2 by J P Bowie

Raised in the city of Capua, renowned for its gladiator training grounds—Lucius, a young patrician, is unprepared for the obsessive desire that almost overwhelms him when he first sees Callistus, a captive Gaul condemned to a life, and probable death, in the arena. Unsuccessful in his attempt to buy Callistus and save him from a premature death, Lucius instead follows his career, attending all of his bouts in the arena, including one with Spartacus, the rebel slave. Spartacus incites Callistus and his fellow gladiators to rebel and form an unbeatable army, almost bringing the Roman legions to their knees.

Although torn between his love for Callistus and loyalty to his friends and family, Lucius determines that before one, or both of them might die, he must find Callistus, confess his feelings, and spend at least one night in the arms of the man he loves.

When Damian, a young artist, is commissioned to sculpt the image of Demetrios, Rome’s current darling of the arena, he finds himself falling in love with the handsome gladiator. Despite his father’s vow to disown him, Damian follows his heart—and when he and Demetrios are caught in the conflagration that threatens to destroy Rome, their love for one another gives them the strength to survive the flames.

But their future together looks uncertain when Damian, rounded up along with Christians accused of setting the fire, is separated from Demetrios and forced into a fight to the death in the arena.

Review by Alex Beecroft

‘Slaves to Love’ is a beautifully written book consisting of two novellas. The linking factor which connects the two stories is the fact that in each story a youth of a Patrician Roman family falls in love with a gladiator.

In the first story, Lucius and Callistus, patrician Lucius, a rather limp youth, falls for a barbarian warrior, Callistus. Callistus is a barbarian chieftain, captured in the wars and forced to fight as a gladiator. He soon becomes involved with fellow gladiator Spartacus’s rebellion, and clearly leads a much more exciting life than Lucius, who is a (lackadaisical) teacher. The big drawback of this story, to me, is that all the exciting things are happening off camera, as it were. We are riding along in Lucius’ point of view, while he worries about his big brave man away at the war, but we don’t get to see any of the action.

In point of fact, Callistus treats Lucius exactly as a traditional hero treats his lady; he keeps the youth away from any danger, sends him home and refuses to allow him to participate in Callistus’ dangerous life at all. I believe this is meant to be romantic of him, but it’s exactly the sort of example of one person refusing to allow another person to live their own life and make their own decision that the rather heavy handed anti-slavery message of the story denounces. The lovers are so star crossed and so hobbled by Callistus’ refusal to treat Lucius as a man – and Lucius’ spineless acceptance of this ‘chivalry’ – that *spoiler warning* if one of the things you demand in a romance is a happy ending, you’re not going to like this at all. *End spoiler*

J.P Bowie writes with such authority about the period that I hesitate to wonder if any Roman youth, particularly of a patrician family, could be as passive as Lucius. But still I can’t help but find it odd. Taking orders from a barbarian slave? It really didn’t work for me at all.

I was also not at all happy by the fact that all the women in this story were bitches. In a climate where m/m is often attacked as misogynistic, I would find it hard to defend this story.

Which was unfortunate, because as I say the research seems impeccable, and the author has the most beautiful, powerful writing style. I desperately wanted to like the story, but I couldn’t.

Fortunately, there is a second story. The story of Damian and Demetrios is much more to my taste. We do start off with a similar setup – Damian is a high class boy starting out as a sculptor, and Demetrios is a gladiator. But almost everything I didn’t like in the first story is overturned in this. Damian reacts to being thwarted by growing a backbone, becoming active in the story and beginning to shape his own destiny. Demetrios tries the high handed ‘I’m letting you go for your own sake’ tactic, but eventually gives in to Damian’s persistence. They go into peril and adventure together, and when one goes into exile the other goes with him. It almost seems a reward for their persistence that this story does have a happy ending.

Oh, and Damian’s sister, Portia, turns out not to be a bitch after all, so even there I have nothing at all to complain about.

I sincerely hope that the second story was written after the first and represents the author growing into a m/m sensibility where nobody has to be the damsel in distress. If that’s the case, the combination of gorgeous writing, wonderful world-building, and likeable characters makes this one a winner and a definite sign of a rising star to come.

Author’s website

Lucius & Castillus  Manloveromance

Damian and Demetrios  Manloveromance

Submission Call “Don Juan and Men”

Don Juan and Men
stories of lust and seduction
Edited by Kyle Stone (ManLoveRomance Books)
Deadline: 30th September 2008

The story of Don Juan is a popular one and has appeared in many guises throughout literary and musical history. The Spanish Don with his single minded drive to seduce, conquer and desert those who fall under his spell, fascinates us all. He is a man of power, a man who goes against the rules, a cynic with devastating charm. But the stories in this anthology will explore a side of the Don that has not been examined before. What if Don Juan were gay?

The kind of stories I’m looking for can be set in any place, in any time period, even the future. They can explore any dynamic, make the seductive one older… younger… looking back or far ahead into a future we can barely imagine. The content of the story can be romantic, darkly gothic, or modern and stark; the erotic element can range from subtle to very explicit S&M. Always the focus of the story, as with the Don himself, is on the process and psychology of seduction, in other words, on the hunt. The majority will be original stories, with no more than three reprints allowed. I expect to have from twelve to eighteen stories, running from 3000 to a maximum of 8,000 words. Deadline: September 30.

I hope to have about half the stories by invitation to writers of all sorts of genres, with plenty of room for an open call. I always enjoy discovering new voices (to me) and know the thrill of giving a new writer a first publication.

Needless to say this is a small press publication, the pay an honorarium. What we do for love… :)

Send queries to carosoles@rogers.com

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