In New York City in the late 1860s, Tom Vaughn, a respectably raised young man, chooses to become a male prostitute servicing the city’s affluent elite, then falls in love with Walter Whiting, a renowned scholar and lecturer who proves to be his most difficult client. Having long wrestled with feelings of shame and guilt, Whiting, a married man, at first resents Tom’s easy acceptance of his own sexuality. Their story unfolds in the clandestine and precarious gay underworld of the time. Through a series of encounters—some exhilarating, some painful, some mysterious—Tom matures, until an unexpected act of violence provokes a final resolution.
Paperback and ebook: 232 pages
Review by Elliott Mackle
Emotionally as well as financially prostrate by the early death of a husband who suffered heavy losses in a financial panic, a once stylish widow elects to rent out a room in her brownstone mansion in order to help pay bills, keep up appearances and support her two schoolboy sons, Stewart and Tom Vaughn.
The place: East Twenty-fifth Street, Manhattan, just off fashionable Fifth Avenue. The new roomer: Mr. Neil Smythe, a young gentleman of means and style. Although roughneck elder brother Stewart wonders if the newcomer’s subtle scent is “cologne or “‘hair slime,’” Tom, the novel’s narrator, is instantly smitten.
A clean-shaven man of twenty-two, he was tall and thin, with smooth skin and wavy long blond hair. He came to us [for the initial interview] correctly dressed in a gray frock coat, fawn trousers, and black pointed shoes, with a scarf pin and cufflinks that glittered, and a boyish look that I, myself sixteen, found stupendously appealing.
A bargain is struck and Smythe soon moves in. The observant Tom is fascinated to discover the irregular hours the new roomer keeps: breakfasting out, leaving again in the late afternoon or evening, always dapper, well groomed and elegantly dressed. Sometimes he stays away all night and is delivered home in a horse-drawn cab. On occasion, he leaves town for a week or two, directing that his mail be forwarded to chic resorts such as Long Branch, New Jersey.
Although I know next to nothing about the attire of sporty Manhattan young men in the late 1860s (Browder pays great attention to tightly tailored trousers, silk cravats, waist-length jackets and walking sticks), other period details ring true to this American ear. Stephen Foster’s popular parlor song, “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” is cleverly transposed into “I Dream of Johnny” by a lederhosen-wearing singer in a louche bar, the Lustgarten or “pleasure garden.” The reading matter of Tom’s pious mother consists of temperance tracts, abstinence cookbooks, the then-current bestseller Little Women and maudlin poetic musings on death and religion. No wonder both sons turn out to be something other than church-going drones: one a bullying stock broker with a taste for flashy women, the other a kept boy.
When an adventurous schoolfellow describes his night-time outings to various low bars and clubs, the virginal Tom begs to tag along. Amazed at the sight of men dancing together, men dressed as women and lisping boys making leering passes at older gentlemen (and vice-versa), he is at once shocked and convinced that this is a part of the life he wants to live.
Neil Smythe naturally turns up at the Lustgarten. In short order, Tom discovers that Smythe earns his living as an employee of Young America Messenger & Courier Service, a bribe-protected front for a call-boy operation owned by corrupt politicians and businessmen. Enamored of Smythe as well as his money, clothes and freedom, Tom asks to be taught the tricks of the trade of the b.b. (“beautiful boy,” the other categories being masculine, muscular “sturdies” and effeminate “poufs”) and to be enlisted into the ranks of Young America. Smythe is happy to oblige. During a series of one-on-one sexual seminars, both discover areas of sensuality in which they do and definitely do not wish to indulge. Few but very important physical areas, as events prove. (Spoiler details stop here.)
Once Tom settles into his role as a b.b. for hire, and learns the ropes of sexual commerce with a variety of clients, mostly grey of beard and wealthy enough to double his fee when well satisfied (which is almost invariably the case), it is time for him to meet the client who will change his life forever.
Whether by design or lack of passion for the task, the author’s sexual vocabulary is modest, as are the descriptions of the acts involved and the physiques of the men and boys who perform them. “Spent” and “come” are used interchangeably; “erection” and “sweat” often figure in the proceedings. As for “pleasuring,” however, it is sometimes difficult to know whether the method employed is manual, oral or both. In several instances I was unable to decide exactly who was doing what to who.
Fair enough. There are readers who prefer that a veil be drawn across the details of carnal commotion. But while a great deal of detail is given over to apparel and the decorative details of houses and hotel rooms, the physical descriptions of Tom’s clients when undressed are skewed to wrinkled old men, jolly fat men and corset-wearers at the expense of manly men with hairy chests, thick thighs and memorable, well-educated hands and other instruments of pleasuring.
Said clients are amusingly assorted: A wealthy European who masquerades as an aristocrat and hires young “friends” by the week; a rowdy, randy lawyer who demands energetic action in chambers; a powerful, elderly millionaire who is excited only by insults and verbal threats; even Mrs. Vaughn’s vaporous pastor, the Reverend Timothy Blythe.
After a series of try-out appointments and teasing references to a particularly interesting potential client by Neddy, the panderer-in-chief, Tom is sent to the townhouse of Walter Whiting, a scholar, lecturer and connoisseur of Greek language, renaissance culture and man-boy love. The early scenes between the two are worth the price of the book. The well-bred, properly-raised Tom’s willingness, nay eagerness to use coarse language with married, erudite Walter is hard to swallow at first, though swallow it I did. Such are the duties of a conscientious reviewer.
After the studious Tom corrects Walter’s misquotations from Keats and owns up to four years of Latin at his academy, the older scholar agrees to tutor the intelligent boy in Greek language and such higher forms of culture as Socratic love. One look at a reproduction print of a Greek urn’s decoration, however—it depicts a bearded, seated man fondling a standing boy—almost immediately turns the action into a literal erastes-eromenos moment. Walter strips Tom, seats himself on an ottoman and the two create their own, very passionate Grecian “ode.”
To a degree, this is contemporary erotic romance dressed in nineteen-century clothing. Hints of the twenty-first century sneak in, such as a reference to “truffled chicken … permeated with an earthy mushroom savor that was to die for.” Nonetheless, the author, an experienced poet, ghost writer and specialist in mid-nineteenth-century New York culture, brings the sordid underworld of Young America, the Lustgarten and Yankee-style man-boy love to life. The writing is generally crisp and well edited, so much so that when a clunker such as the following turns up, it all but stops the flow of what’s meant to be action:
“Excellent. Now if you’ll just follow me back to the viewing room …”
He raised a section of the counter, so I could pass behind it and follow him down a short passageway to a room in back. We entered; he closed the door. Having a skylight, the room was flooded with light.
Fortunately for the reader, such lapses are few. I did feel that the narrative dragged a bit toward the end and I remain unconvinced that Tom would make the one real mistake that lands him in so much trouble. But I have to admit using a similar device in my own fiction so perhaps my hesitation is merely a matter of style.
This is a valuable foray into a little-known aspect of American history, a pleasurable tale peopled by living, breathing boys and men, a recommended read. Ignore the cover which has little to do with the story. Go buy.