The place is gaudy yet drab, lively yet death-like, dispassionate mother hen to a brood of dithered chicks. Discover its bizarre existence from the inside, through the muddled collective mind of the outcast in-group, a gay throng of third-sex bewildered ones who frantically seek a why–but must always settle for The Why Not!
Review by Aleksandr Voinov
I just went back through my Speak Its Name reviews and saw that I’ve only given one five star review, namely to Josh Lanyon’s how-to book. Well, make this another five star, then. I’ve read some excellent books as a reviewer here, and I’ve given 4.5 and 4 stars to books I really enjoyed. For me to give five stars, however, I want to read a book that grabs me and doesn’t let me go, that picks me up by the neck like a puppy and shakes me, emotionally, and then, either tosses me away or puts me gently down.
Victor J Banis’ The Why Not is one of those by-the-scruff-of-your-neck books. I was a goner after a couple pages, and I’m flattened after finishing it, part fearing to go back and re-read it again, part wanting nothing more than to read it more slowly this time round and pick up all the small things that I must have missed, even though I inhaled every line and felt every character echo in his own way, for a few moments.
And it’s so cleverly done. The eponymous “Why Not” is a gay bar in California, and we’re in the Sixties, before Stonewall. The book consists of short stories or sketches, or portraits of men connected to the bar, their individual storylines crossing, approaching, diverging, moving apart, and vanishing just like faces in a crowd. The reader gets to know these people, sees moments in their lives, rather like cruising the crowd themselves. Do I like this one better? Do I recognize myself in that face?
There is little romance in here; I keep saying it, because so much about reading gay lit or m/m these days is all about the romance and I wouldn’t want to see people disappointed – but I would want people to read this book. Whatever they think they want to read, whatever they think they are prepared to deal with, because this book has such a strong emotional resonance that it is rather like a living thing. One of those books that pick you up and might put you down again. Might. If they are feeling generous.
The portraits, apart from being faces in a bar crowd, also form a chorus of solitary voices. Sometimes, you pick up a harmony, or a disharmony, sometimes a deeper layer unfolds and allows you a glimpse into what is really the human condition, not just the gay condition. Seeking mates, always hoping, with emotions and desires overwhelming the mind, the terrible silence between mother and son, the denial, the victimisation, unexpected moments of humor and lightness that sometimes just hide the shrillness papering over a deep sense of ennui and lack of fulfilment. Pretty much like real life. There are no heroes here, no idealised love, this is just about people in their helplessness, their moments of courage and pity, and of taking advantage and being taken advantage of. I found it deeply moving, because it’s all so very true, and facing those emotions honestly, regardless of what readers might expect or people might think, is the greatest challenge for every writer. Writing the truth is so much harder than going through the motions because people drop a coin in our hat – or promise to drop a coin.
Picking out quotes is difficult with this one, there are so many beautiful, intense passages. Most often, one passage stands out – I call that, in my metaphorical mind, “the beating heart of the novel” – but this doesn’t offer any quick and easy passage. The whole thing is pulsing with life, and I struggle picking out one over the other, but here’s a passage from a visit to the steam baths:
“The walls inside are rotting and musty, the floor dirty and unswept. Only a single customer in the locker area, a fat old man, eyeing me with interest but without hope as I strip. Cruelly I pose to heighten his appreciation, give him plenty to admire, and time to admire it, coolly aloof and impervious to his desire.
Upstairs, the darkened chamber reserved for sexual encounters is a snake pit of arms and legs, bodies writhing and twisting together, the smell of sperm overpowering and alarming. Someone follows me in, an arm slipping about my waist, but it is the old man from the locker room, made bolder now in the darkness and the universality of the chamber’s activities.
I shrug off his arm, and leave the room. Retreating back down the stairs, to the steam room, where the sperm smell is still strong and supplemented by another less pleasant odor. The heat, as one climbs higher on the benches, grows devastating, until one ceases to care when a body approaches, the unseen face of a stranger seeks my flesh and I am caught up in the act of fulfillment, weakly and mechanically performing until I shudder and draw away. The body goes, but not before another approaches, standing above me.
The door opens, a shaft of light in the darkness, and the room becomes for an instant a frozen tableau, everyone motionless, wary. But the newcomer is too young to be Tillie Law, young and pretty—too pretty, I tell myself, a lovely flower to be thrown into the muck and mire before him. In the fleeting light, the jackals can be seen crouching, tensely poised for the attack. The door closes and the movement be-gins, vultures moving in upon the newcomer, vying for positions. A new conquest, fresh meat upon which to feed.
Finally, wearied with the parade, unending and infinitely varied in its sameness, of bodies—large bodies, small bodies, short and long bodies, fat and thin bodies—I leave the steam room, make my way down the corridor, blinking my eyes against the glare of the harsh naked lights.
Unable to suffer myself longer, I leave and make my way back to the locker room. I avoid the mirror there, ex-pecting to find that my flesh is gone, ripped from me by the frantic clawing of teeth and mouths, but the mirror defeats me, remains stubbornly in my way, and I see myself, whole after all, a ghost of reflection in the glass—the reflection more real, perhaps, than I myself.”
It’s not an easy, fawning book; it packs a punch and I fully expect I’ll be reeling for a little while, but it came at the perfect moment for me, when all I wanted, after reading too many lifeless, competently-made pretty little things, was real emotion. Well, I received it, and plenty at that.