Thursday, November 4, 2021

 Monsterpiece & Tramps Like Us 

Steve Keil & Paul Bellini bring us two distinctly different novels 

with similar themes in their recent books



Oh, baby  this  town rips  the  bones from your back

It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap

we gotta get out while we're young

Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

Yes, girl, we were


                                                            Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run


Summer is long gone and fall is in the balance, so let’s take a moment to remember some of our favourite summer reads. I read Zoe Whittal’s The Spectacular, Jordan Tannahill's The LIsteners, am still moving through Brad Frasers wonderful memoir, just finished Michelle Berry’s 9/11 semi-thriller (Everything Turns Away), am continuing to occasionally immerse myself in Elena Ferrante's The Lying Lives of Adults, and have just under a hundred pages left of Colm Toibin's The Magician. I'm fickle. Sometimes I have to start a book all over again because I left it alone for too long in order to dive into something else. I'm planning on plunging into Sky Gilbert's I, Gloria Grahame any day now.

But rather than reviewing any of them at length at this particular petticoat juncture, I want to focus on two wonderful local novels that entertained me wildly during the late summer heat waves when I chose my outdoor time carefully for fear of sun stroke, or worse, a blowjob in a back alley on a humid late summer evening. I haven’t done anything like that in years - not since youth, and the middle decades following, that left me satiated and happy to live on the memories of a thrilling sex life. But why ramble mindlessly on about sweltering days long gone. Well, memories of sex and all its encounters, in hidden, frequently dank urban spaces, and the corners of cosy bars, are enticing parts of Paul Bellini's  Monsterpiece and Steve Keil's Tramps Like Us.


While Bellini's title speaks directly to the particular length and girth of a favoured body part, Keil's title takes on a more prosaic tone culled from the lyric of Springsteen's iconic restless tale of a “runaway America dream.” Both novels are set in periods not so far from each other. Keil's structure takes on a seasonal tone beginning n the summer of 1998, chronicling the intersecting lives of various gay men in Toronto's Church/Wellesley neighbourhood, and venturing into gay suburban respites in upscale areas of London Ontario and semi-conjugal kitchens in Guelph.


Set in the same neighbourhood of Toronto as Keil's book, Bellini  focuses on three connected characters, moving from summer through to Christmas. An occasionally gay, frequently straight hustler-cum-porn actor, and the man and woman who become precariously involved with him, intersect throughout the book in an unconscious game of hide and seek that offers up some prime sex scenes that reveal the writers knack for describing a particular setting in titillating detail that punctuates the sexcapades, in one instance, with a nostalgic, almost camp, comic ending conjuring visions of classic porn settings -


At one point, when Alvin coincidentally looked into the lens while his shaft was deep in Renatos hole, Perry froze the image and jerked off to it.


            Then he went to sleep, wishing he could wake up in a sun-dappled 18th century hayloft.                                                                                                                           (p123)


Lively lines create vivid descriptions that lure us into webs of popular culture references and concisely drawn porn settings as sexual playgrounds for marginalized trysts. After a rendezvous in a theatre back alley a main character finds solace in a a cosy hearth and home scenario;


"It came fast, the sky changing like a drag queen changing between sets” 

– leading quickly over the course of a three page chapter to a wonderfully indirect Judy Garland citation after the sex has happened and the satisfied participant wanders “home to chill out with his new kitten, Baby Gumm. (p29)


Both novels negotiate, in brisk and lively prose that is quick to engage and never let go, the frequently conflicted, frequently joyful interactions between people living in a bold & vibrant neighbourhood. Bellini never shies away from creating characters and intervening narration that speaks directly of specific types, shapes, sizes, etc, crafting characterizations that are simultaneously unsettling, precariously hilarious. soothingly sexual - all  examples of the writers unwavering and uncompromising eye for human detail and forthright observational intimacy.


Keil embarks on somewhat more dramatic narratives woven into the lives of journeys he describes on the back cover as A tangled web of friendships, mistakes and assorted mixed drinks.” He describes, early on, a scene in a bar that indirectly conjures contemporary moments watching Canada's Drag Race in a crowded drinking/drag establishment on Church - subtly revealing that queer activities change over the decades and yet, at times, bear striking resemblances to each other as a sense of community through popular culture has, and continues to thrive, in various queer day and night spots. But for Keil and his characters, in 1998, it becomes The Price Is Right being watched in bars by eager patrons - a kind of consumerist drag race of its own brand, replete with bevies of coveted prizes rather than gorgeous bedecked queens competing for fame and top dollar. By the end of his narrative, however, Keil lands some of his primary characters in “the first warm weekend of the post vernal equinox” in a welcoming home on Gloucester Street with a drag breakfasty/brunch in full swing, not so unlike some  of the activities we enjoy in the Church/Wellesley area some twenty years later.


Both writers have taken similar themes and given their own unique and engaging take on aspects of queer identity two decades ago. Monsterpiece and Tramps Like Us are great reads for anyone interested in reliving and/or taking an intimate glimpse into particular times in a community that continues to mount and re-mount the hunks and the hurdles, the highs and the lows, of a thriving, at times stumbling, queer neighbourhood during challenging times. 

Decidedly more pornographic with a light comic edge, Bellini treats us to a fast ride through 181 pages of heartbreak, sex, connect, disconnect, and camaraderie. Keil clocks in at 214 pages, illustrating the complexities of love, loss, connection and re-connection among a group of friends trying to make it in the city and in the regions as they reconcile their queer lives with the lives some of them never quite choose to leave behind, all the time noticing the delightful details marking the culture they populate, from The Price Is Right to Richard Burton and Popeye's "spinach eater meat hooks".

Vibrant images, intimate connections, pictures, frozen in time, of an iconic Toronto neighbourhood.


Monsterpiece & Tramps Like Us are available at;


also find Steve Keil's poetry collections at Barnes and Noble & Amazon:

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