“I may have not had a boyfriend, but I did have a nose”
That about says it all, doesn’t it? Always appreciate what you have! Even if it means having more than just a vacant nasal cavity.
This perfect quote, which should frankly be sold on coffee mugs and throw pillows, comes courtesy of Ben, otherwise known as Big Bruiser Dope Boy, the protagonist and writer of the book-length narrative poem Something Gross. Sitting in a bar/restaurant on Pride, waiting for and stewing over his on-again-off-again-on-again-off-you-get-it not-quite-boyfriend Ryan, the noncommittal Gen X-er bear, Ben observes his fellow diner–a man who had “just a hole where his nose would have been”. Naturally, this puts some things in perspective.
Confessional with alarming observational detail, this startling sentence somehow perfectly encapsulates Something Gross, which was published earlier this year by Apocalypse Party. Poet (whose thrill of a poem “69 Remakes” is certainly worth your time. My favorite? “Remake of American Beauty where the American public admits to themselves that they adored Kevin Spacey precisely because he’s a creepy pedo twink chaser”) and founder of Gay Death Trance, Big Bruiser Dope Boy uses this longer form poem as a means to delve deep into relationships or the lack thereof, as well as their frequent changeability (“The most important things last,” he writes). More than simply romantic relationships, Something Gross also documents friendships, family, including Ben’s mother’s progressing dementia, and the larger booze and coke-fueled gay bar and party scene in Denver, Colorado.
Now, after plowing through the book in a few days, I questioned whether Something Gross was really, you know, all that gross. As a fanatic of experimental fiction (or so they call it), I’m used to writing that gets kind of messy–bodily fluids, bloody massacres, torture. In the grand scheme of things, Something Gross, particularly with its focus on relationships, seems kind of tame. That is, until I remembered certain scenes. Cum farts. “Lady Mac-shit” hallucinations of poo smell (“Out damned daddy doo-doo!”). Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea (the actual “something gross” from which the book gets its name). And an antibiotic diarrhea emergency in an Indian restaurant, which was penned so vividly that I’m not sure I’ll be able to forget it. And neither will you:
“It was the most incredible diarrhea I had ever experienced
Suggesting a kind of endlessness
Volume-wise, it was otherworldly
It just kept going
Like Rainbow Road
It was surely as colorful
Where was it all coming from?
It was awe-inspiring
And yes, it was too much
In the ferocity of the moment, I ceased to be human and became a hollow cylinder expelling the sordid waste of a molecular war”
But more than gross-out, sicko, shock value, the central tension in Something Gross is between Ben and Ryan with whom Ben connected around the time of his breakup with the New Orleans-bound Peaches. Admittedly, both Ryan and Ben are deeply flawed in their relationship. Ben, a definite minority who doesn’t even fit into his own minority, is at once drawn to and repulsed by Ryan, linked with Ryan through family trauma (Ryan also recently experienced his mother’s passing due to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s). Ben also has a penchant for extensive text messages that would have almost everyone’s finger hovering over the block button. But, Ryan isn’t exactly a prize either, a “D.C. cunt” who has never had a relationship (despite leading Ben on several times) because he’s terrified of commitment after having his heart broken decades previous. Ryan’s life is an endless parade of coke, booze, and hookups with STDs as “an ‘occupational hazard’.”
Something Gross documents the continual back-and-forth, push-and-pull between Ryan and Ben, at once a desire for closeness, intimacy, friendship, romance, and a fear of that desire. For instance, the book opens with Ryan blurting out “I love you” to Ben on New Year’s Eve 2018 while Ben was “inside him from behind”. Great timing. This may be the first, but it’s certainly not the last time Ryan makes insincere declarations of love, only to recoil and painfully rescind it.
This melodrama is further pushed by Something Gross’ poetic format with its short fragments of text. More than even lines of poetry, these fragments take on the feel of frantic text messages or DMs, bits and pieces of thoughts, drama, experiences sent to others in the midst of a personal crisis. This not only creates an immediate intimacy with the reader, but it also mimics a similar engrossing reading experience, as if you’re scrolling your phone rather than simply turning the page.
Ironically, the pages of actual text messages from Ben to Ryan that are printed verbatim are written in much more traditional prose style than the majority of the book itself. This creates quite a funny juxtaposition between the majority fractured style and Ben’s verbose and often venomous personal communication. For instance, in one text he writes to Ryan, “Your priorities, based on your actions, are partying and numbing yourself. You’re in a drug and alcohol and sex-fueled grief spiral. You’re a forty-four-year-old man, and you said to my face, a twenty-eight-year-old, that someone dating you gets in the way of achieving those priorities, it annoys you, even.” And it goes on…
Between the full text messages and emails, as well as the fractured messaging style of the narrative poem itself, Something Gross takes on a connection with gossip–those gory details shared between friends. Gossip is something certainly the gay community is no stranger to. In an interview with Gay Sunshine in 1974, poet John Giorno observed, “Everyone is always gossiping about what everyone else is doing, like who’s making it with whom, who has done what with whom, and all the weirdness.” Something Gross is about just all that weirdness. This is perhaps best observed by the line “I am telling you what he told me,” which is repeated throughout the text. Not only strengthening the sense of personal communication with the reader, it also serves to highlight just how ridiculous and at times problematic Ryan’s conversations are. About Black men with nine-inch dicks. About Ben’s bad breath. It’s an eye roll and a side-eye in literary form.
This is not to say the book’s ire is restricted to Ryan alone. There’s a biting and dry sense of humor that runs through the book, allowing it to transcend its romantic melodramatic core. Take, for instance, the description of Orson, the partner of Ben’s friend Dinah’s daughter who is dying of a brain tumor. However, that doesn’t stop him from becoming an “Infowarrior” obsessed with crazed Q-drop-inspired theories about pedophilia everywhere. Dope Boy writes:
“Like, okay, yes, the world’s wealthiest people operate a sinister network of child trafficking and rape, doing it for perhaps no reasons other than their status affords it and they are powerful enough to do it without getting in trouble, sure, nobody can deny that, but what was with him harping on it?
Made your point, bruv–starting to think this has more to do with your own desires”
What more can you say about these Q lunatics?
Beloved Beat poet and speaking of pedos, NAMBLA member Allen Ginsberg doesn’t escape Big Bruiser Dope Boy’s sights either, transforming his poems into insults like “Howl–about you go fuck yourself?” or “He Kad-dish it out, but he cannot take it.” And even certain minor observations are striking, including about Sante Fe (“It was naturally beautiful and culturally repugnant” Who hasn’t been to places like that?).
However, with chapters titled “Pride 2018 and the Ensuing Bullshit” and “Pride 2019 and the Subsequent Spiral,” Something Gross saves its largest critique, not just for Ryan, but for the incestuousness and stifling claustrophobia of the gay community (ugh!) of Denver as a whole. Now, Ben also has disdain for contemporary mainstream gay culture in general. For instance, in a bookstore waiting for a friend’s reading, he observes:
“I looked around at the books in the gay section, feeling disdain for contemporary gay people
Whatever it was I glanced in the matte and gloss of the covers, I felt neither a part of, nor did I want to join
I felt alienated by it
A stranger within my own named desires
Your sad, deep gay story does not make you any more interesting, special, or worthy of love
You still have to work
You still have to be a person”
Who can’t relate to that? Happy Pride (it’s almost over)!
In this way, Something Gross serves revenge, not cold, but on the page–revenge against Ryan, revenge against the community, revenge against all the upheaval of this period of his life. The tip of the hand toward his motivation comes later in the text as Ben speaks to Pablo, a friend of Ryan’s, after sending a screed to Ryan’s work email address. He writes:
“He told me next time I felt like writing something like that to not send it, to burn it, that I was a writer, to make it into art (thanks for the advice, Pablo–how am I doing so far?)”
As many know, community, in whatever form that can take, can be exciting–everyone knows each other!–or stifling–oh Christ, everyone knows each other! Ben seems to experience both of these poles in his interactions with Ryan, his circle of friends known as Bless’s Messes, and the other patrons of the Denver gay bars where Ryan works and socializes. Ultimately, this community, centered around a handful of bars and Drag Race viewings, comes up empty with little to no real emotional connection between acquaintances. This is juxtaposed with Ben’s close friendship with Joey, the “smartest, funniest person I knew” with whom he takes a road trip early in the text (As an aside, Big Bruiser Dope Boy pinpoints perhaps the best I’ve ever seen the dual sense of dread and anticipation before heading on a road trip: “It was going to be great/No, it was going to be traumatic and epic, with the potential of us hating each other at the end/If this is not at stake, then what you are on is not a true road trip, and what you have is not true friendship”).
With its critical eye trained on contemporary gay life, Something Gross reminded me of another novel published this year set among gay bars and parties and purporting to act as a commentary about the community: Zak Salih’s Let’s Get Back to the Party. Like Something Gross, Let’s Get Back to the Party juxtaposes two characters; There’s the homonormative art history teacher Sebastian and the anti-assimilationist Oscar. I know, that divide between assimilationism and anti-assimilationism isn’t exactly cutting-edge. Sigh…Are we still arguing about that in 2021? Perhaps Joshua Gutterman Tranen of LA Review of Books said it best: “Let’s Get Back to the Party’s opening decision to jam its characters into outdated and mutually exclusive gay roles–instead of exploring the overlap between them–sets the book up for an inevitable failure.”
However, one line in Let’s Get Back to the Party struck me, courtesy of Sean Stokes, an older gay novelist who befriends Oscar as a half-mentor, half-washed-up writer seeking a muse. Observing Oscar and his hard-lined hatred for all those homonormative gays and their straight women friends infiltrating gay bars, Sean Stokes writes in his journal: “How to take someone like O. seriously” And he’s right. Calm down, Mary, that war has already been lost.
In a similar way, Something Gross seems to ask the same question of Ryan, and in lesser ways Ben and the entire gay community that traverses the book. However whereas Salih simplified contemporary gay life into a set of hackneyed stereotypes, Big Bruiser Dope Boy doesn’t shy away from the mess–the gossip, the gonorrhea, the antibiotics, the alienation, the drama, the pain. And nobody comes out of Something Gross unscathed. As he writes:
“What a timeline in which we had found ourselves
What a gay world
What a mess”