Saturday, December 10, 2011

Blood, Sex & Tears

The Tortured Souls of Jay Greene's Behind These Walls
by Brooks Peters

"The Seneca County Reformatory for Boys is, of course, a product of my imagination," Jay Greene wrote in an author's note at the opening of Behind These Walls, one of his earliest and best-known gay pulps. "It bears no resemblance to any such institution to my knowledge, and should not be thought of as anything more than a metaphor for the prison in which we all live -- are all inmates confined for crimes against each other -- whether we admit to these offenses or not."
This was Jay Greene's sacred creed. The quest for love and acceptance, and respect, is man's raison d'etre, but it fought against primal urges so vile that there was no possible resolution of life's conflicts other than death and despair. It is a dark, vicious world out there, according to Jay Greene (a pseudonym for a still-unknown author). And one risked utter ruin and rejection by surrendering to one's secret yearnings.
To live in Jay Greene's world was to be a victim of a cruel joke. Men who lusted after men were despicable, beneath contempt -- and yet, they were seductive creatures, brimming with life, compassion, and addicted to indescribably intense physical pleasure. Most of the boys in Jay Greene's novels are humpy society outcasts, misfits, and miscreants, quick with a knife, or the barbed put-down. At the start of Behind These Walls we meet the quintessential Greene protagonist: Skip Harding. Manly, well-hung, devastatingly handsome, "the boy was a paradox between youth and manhood." He has the "lean, muscled grace of a fully developed man," but the troubled, confused sensibility of an unformed adolescent.
Leaving his "jerkwater" hometown in South Dakota, Skip "skips town" by hitchhiking to a big Eastern city. Along the way he meets some rather disreputable characters. They're stock characters for sure, but in Greene's hands, they turn into almost allegorical figures, like obstacles in a quest straight out of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or perhaps The Magic Flute. It's a rite of manhood, this journey across the American landscape. Homeless, with only his guitar and one suitcase, Skip finds the city a cold place. He camps out in a park. But moments later he meets Allan, a young man not unlike himself who invites him up to his place for a drink. Before he knows it, Skip is being seduced by Allan, who leans over him and sucks the very life out of him. The book was written in 1968 before complete freedom of language was allowed. Greene was a master at intimation. Skip feels "a flood of sensations lapping at his very soul." Before surrendering to an orgasm, Skip pulls away, pushing "away the inquisitive fingers." Disgusted and ashamed, Skip runs out of the apartment, leaving his guitar and luggage.
One feels sorry for Skip Harding, but just when one is getting a handle, so to speak, on his personality, Greene throws a left curve. "Why get crazy?" Skip asks, finding himself once again alone and dejected, and cold. "You'd think it was the first time a guy did that to you. It wasn't, of course." And then Greene reveals that Skip is a seasoned hustler, using his body for material gain, allowing several men to sample his wares, in exchange for a ride or some pocket change."He couldn't say in all honesty, that he hadn't enjoyed what happened. He felt "only a minimal amount of revulsion," especially since "the man did all the work." Then with the next man, "the revulsion was almost non-existent." From then on, his soul is completely corrupted. "He was actually disappointed when given a lift, if the guy didn't try anything."

This is a typical Greene literary device, almost as if he's teasing the reader by implying, "You agree with Skip. What happened between him and Allan was disgusting"… but then he twists the knife, adds another turn of the screw, to use Henry James's pet phrase. For Skip is the manipulator, not Allan. And it is his existential crisis to hate himself for using his good looks and sexuality for his own gain. But what choice does he have? Society has written him off. These are the only tools in his bag. He must succumb to his fate.
It is only a question of time before he gives in again. And in a Jay Greene novel, that is usually just the next page. Jay Greene's novels were meant to be read with one hand, as the old saying goes. And no gay pulp author of the 60s did a better job of compelling the reader to turn the next page in a headlong quest for total release. Skip's next encounter is with a married businessman he meets in a train station. The pick-up is quick and efficient, although Skip, who is by nature contrary, is reluctant. In swift, deft brushstrokes, Greene paints the scene. The man's "eyes boldly took in the tight fit of Skip's pants," "his clearly outlined bulge, his clinging knit shirt." The man seduces him by flattering him. "You don't look like a hustler." He describes the terminal "as a place for creeps, the kind of animals who can't get anything." He licks his lips. "There's ten bucks in it for you."
But Greene ups the ante, literally. The man, clearly relishing his own depravity (he jokes about getting "bad lip cuts from zippers), suggests they up the stakes, offering "ten bucks for the first six inches, and five an inch for everything over that." Skip jumps at the bait, putting on a big show for the older man, proud of what nature has given him. Quickly, the man dives down and is "deeply anchored" on him (the genitalia are never specifically named), and Skip feels "a hot, slick, sliding sensation that made the boy cry, thrust up his hips." The john, Skip laughs, "believes in getting what he paid for. All of it." Greene dances around censorship problems by cleverly using language to suit his needs. There's no doubt in the reader's mind what "all of it" really means. It becomes an existential moment for the boy. His soul leaves his body and he looks down on the sordid scene: He could see "only this face, these lips, and yet he knew he was still there, too."
Suddenly just as the action is about to reach a fevered pitch, a bright light is shone inside the car, and the two are arrested. All of this, we now see, was just foreplay. A preface of sorts to the core of the novel, the scenes in the reformatory. There we meet the rest of the players in this sleazy tragic drama, call it a "don't-drop-the-soap" opera. For we've entered a new world, a dark underworld in the best sense of Greek mythology. The reform school is basically a holding pen, a purgatory between the prison of childhood and the penitentiary of hapless old age. 

Here we meet Skip's compatriots in this seamy realm of the senses. First up is Rick Mazzio, an olive-complexioned street kid, with a hairy, well-maintained physique, the ninth child of a dockworker. Home to him, he says, "is a place you went back to with dread." He is a "lone wolf" who believes "the best way to protect yourself is to stay away from people." He's hard, he's mean, and -- as is mandatory in Jay Greene's universe, he's incredibly well-hung.
None of this is lost on his bunk mate, Paul O'Brien, the "All-American boy" next door, from the suburbs, whose life took a turn for the worse when he met an Italian stud at school named Steve Olivetti (Greene couldn't resist poking fun at his own writing here; no doubt he wrote the book on an Olivetti typewriter). Paul became obsessed with Steve and lost his way. Now he's falling for Rick Mazzio bigtime. But Rick is a sadist who delights in taunting Paul. "You want your breakfast in bed?" he asks, playing with himself as Paul ogles him, his mouth agape. "For God's sake, why do you have to make everything so disgusting?" Paul cries out. "Maybe because it is, fella," Rick shoots back. "It isn't," Paul says defiantly. "Not when the people who do it really feel for each other. It can be wonderful." Rick answers this entreaty (and its hint of a burgeoning gay liberation sensibility) by shouting, "Can the crap!"
One has to wonder if Jay Greene was just poking fun at the zeitgeist of the era. Behind These Walls was written a year before the Stonewall riots. Its hard-edged gritty realism is a far cry from the sensitive queer romances to come. Was he giving gay liberation the finger? Or did he side with the Rick Mazzios of this world? Did he really believe that true love was impossible for homosexuals? Or, perhaps, more probably, did he surmise that his readers at that time were equally conflicted, equally tortured, equally self-loathing. It's hard to know in hindsight. But I think Greene's game plan went beyond mere political incorrectness.  He was grasping at something deeper, something at the core of all human relationships, something particularly prevalent in American society: a double standard that has shaped the dynamic of our culture, one part Puritan prudishness, and self-denial, with an equal share of licentiousness and louche decadence. What's remarkable about Jay Greene is that he was able to tackle these thorny issues, and to expose them, without the benefit of full literary freedom, or the right to free speech. He had to censor nearly every sentence in his books, but they are stronger because of it. He used metaphors, allegory, nuances, and very often, black humor, to dance around the topics, while all the time titillating, teasing and taunting the reader into questioning his own desires, his own motives and his own hypocrisy.
Behind These Walls continues at a swift pace to paint similarly tortured human portraits. Next up is Charles Connell, the bottle-dyed blond who at 13 lost his parents in a car crash, a lonely, friendless boy who was raised on his uncle's milk farm where he lived among 20 men in a bunkhouse. Meeting one of them in the shower for a late night tryst, "Charles felt as though a tightly drawn rope inside him had suddenly snapped." During their coupling, Charles "felt a strangeness in his mouth," which is Greene's way of depicting the end result of fellatio. But Charles is caught by his uncle. Frank is fired. And Charles descends into a world where love doesn't exist, only brutal animal desire. He becomes the village "faggot; he'd do it for anybody." He is smuggled aboard football buses, servicing the entire team. "Frail and willowy" he "affected a lisp." As one of the prison guards says, "if he wore a wig, and a pair of tits, he could easily pass for a woman." And in Jay Greene's estimation, nothing was less appealing than a member of the fair sex.
Perhaps the most interesting character in Behind These Walls is Leroy Thompson, a proud, openly rebellious black youth, who lashes out at his tormentors and his peers. "My name's not Boy," he tells one guard, fighting for his dignity. He only softens up when he meets Skip Harding, who is put in his room, by a savage guard who felt rejected by him. One day the two wrestle, and a strange feeling of love takes them both by surprise. Leroy fights it. He's no stranger to man-on-man encounters. He'd profited from them in his past. But he feels, perhaps, even more shame about them than his white brothers. "The horror of what he'd done crept over him like the decaying hide of some dead animal." For Jay Greene, the slightest hint of abnormality was a death sentence. But the passion Leroy feels for Skip is inescapable. He lets Skip make love to him, submitting to his dominance, bringing on a fit of tears from years of pent-up frustration, anger and resentment. It's as if the mere act of penetration can unlock floodgates of shame.

As the novel speeds along to its inevitable conclusion -- a veritable clash of titans as the guards and a sicko kitchen aide named Grizzy beat and torture and rape the boys in their care -- there's a thin ray of hope at the end that things might work out for Skip and Leroy, the two lovers.  Leroy kills Mac, the meanest of the guards, "a steady puddle of darkish ooze" leaking from his head wound. (Even in describing death, Jay Greene uses the language of sex). He turns to Skip. "He killed because he loved," Skip rationalizes. Leroy answers him by stating perhaps the clearest rendition of Greene's strange system of beliefs: "Your hurt would hurt me more than any hurt they'd give to me. That's love, ain't it?" They kiss (an act that is rare in a Greene novel.) But there is not to be a happy ending. Charles, who lusted after Leroy, shoots him dead. Skip is devastated. "He hated me and he loved me and either way he had to die because of it."
Behind Jay Greene's walls, the impenetrable fences civilization raises, preventing real love, and any genuine connection between men, there are faint glimmers of hope, but these are routinely shot down, broken, destroyed. One can not win either way in a corrupt world. It's a post-Eden nightmare, where one's nakedness is suddenly shameful, innocence reviled, and freedom forever lost. Those of us who hide behind our fears lose out because we never live, are never taken to the heights of passion. And those who do venture out to explore, to seek their freedom, to prove themselves worthy, are set upon and devoured like Sebastian Venable in Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer. Jay Greene's world view is not a nice one. And it may be excessively skewed. But even now, after years of liberation and profound societal transformations, it's still got the ring of truth.