Considering the amount of books I read, it’s unusual when a friend recommends a book I haven’t read that was a Lambda Literary Awards finalist. Somehow, SoMa escaped my attention until friend John praised it. So thank you, John. I owe you a Stoli with lemon, on the rocks.
This is GLBT month at Erotica Revealed. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered – the order of those letters in the acronym also reflects how often those sexualities and gender identifications occur in books. So it was a surprise that the main character in SoMa was bisexual, and a pleasure to see him portrayed as truly bisexual instead of being in denial. Confused, however, is another matter.
Raphe is a dot.com bust, a former programmer who lives off unemployment and under the table payments for babysitting P.O. boxes in San Francisco. He has a crush on the redhead woman, Julie, who lives above the P.O. Box place, but never works up the nerve to talk to her. Other than sorting the daily mail, there isn’t much to do at his job, so Raphe tries to write. The only break in his day is when people come in search of Dr. Kaplan, Suite One. Suite One is really box 1, and there’s no Dr. Kaplan. Bored, Raphe lets his curiosity get the better of him and he opens one of Dr. Kaplan’s letters to find it’s a penis enlargement scam. With so much time on his hands, he starts musing about his size, and starts trying to guess how big other guys are. His curiosity is interpreted as interest, and although he keeps telling himself that he isn’t gay, he finally begins to notice sexual signals from other men.
Friends who live in San Francisco tell me that it’s a small town in a way, where they run into the same people everywhere they go. So it wasn’t that much of a stretch to believe that Raphe keeps running into a hot Latino guy, Baptiste. He first sees Baptiste when he’s on the last car of the BART train, where exhibitionists and guys into quick circle jerks congregate. Raphe convinces himself that he’s doing research for his book, and that maybe it’s about his curiosity about comparative cock size, but you can understand why later on Baptiste’s friends dub him Raphe the Retard. He seems to be the last person to catch on to his sexuality, probably because he’s hung up on the word gay. Later, he literally runs into Baptiste at the bank. They go out for dinner, and Baptiste skillfully talks Raphe into bed.
Raphe and Baptiste have an open relationship, but two things endanger it. Raphe goes home with online RPG game guru and sexual hedonist Mark, who barebacks Raphe. That leads to a month where Baptiste withdraws from him emotionally and sexually as thy wait for the results of an AIDS test. Raphe is hurt and misses the closeness between them. While job hunting, Raphe runs into Julie. Raphe enjoys sex with Baptiste, and he likes their relationship, but he can’t seem to get past the idea that he isn’t gay, so when he has a chance to sleep with Julie, he goes for it. Julie is into holistic health. She talks Raphe into getting a colonic. He gets addicted to them. It’s Baptiste who helps him with that, and Baptiste whom he turns to more often for support. Still, Raphe also likes women, and he is, as Baptiste’s friends pointed out, a bit of a retard, so he manages to destroy his relationship with Baptiste by sleeping with another woman after he promised he wouldn’t continue to seek other sex partners.
Hurt, broke, and quickly becoming addicted to meth, Raphe decides he wants revenge against the people he feels have ruined him. The only skill he has that people will pay for is his tolerance for pain and medical fetish. He becomes a sexual freak show. Mark, the guy who barebacked him, is celebrating his birthday by indulging in an all day sex fest. Raphe, now an underground sex star, comes to Mark’s party, fists him, and webcasts the scene. Raphe plans to leave a trail of ruin in his wake. Mark was the first on his list, but not the last.SoMa is much more complex than I can cover here. Like the South of Market neighborhood it’s named for, this story is a mix of straight, gay, rich, poor, technology, and simple scams. Every character (except Baptiste and maybe Julie) seems to be lying to others or themselves about who they are. They use and are in turn used by others for sexual satisfaction that leaves no one satisfied. Like all spectacular train wrecks though, even when you can see it coming a mile away, you won’t be able to turn away for a second. Thumbs way up.
The title of Kemble Scott’s The Sower is from the parable in the Book of Mark in the New Testament. If you got kicked out of Sunday School classes as often as I did (I swear the teachers started it) you might not be up on your gospels. Basically, things thrive in a hospitable environment. Or if you spill your seed in enough places, with luck something good will come of it.
Last year, I reviewed Scott’s book SoMa (recommended), so I was already familiar with the character Mark Hazodo. Is he a villain? I guess you could make the case if you have an extreme black and white view of the world. By the end of SoMa, I decided he was the kind of guy who got away with things most of us wouldn’t dare try, and a self-centered ass with no concern for anyone, which made him enviable and vile, but not evil. Now I think he may be Loki, or Brother Coyote. He’s not a main character in SoMa or The Sower, but he’s always an important protagonist.
As The Sower begins, Mark has a bareback (no condoms) orgy planned. Everyone coming knows that there will be one HIV+ man there. Despicable? They’re going into this with full knowledge of the risks. But put that aside for a moment. The HIV+ participant is Bill Soileau, a petroleum engineer. (Soileau is pronounced Swallow, but I’m sure the Soil part of his name was chosen with great care. This is, after all, a parable.)
After the orgy, Bill goes to Armenia to look at an abandoned Soviet Era oil refinery to assess what it will take to get it running again. While he’s there, he meets a French doctor working for the UN, and she shows him a laboratory on the grounds of the refinery that obviously was used for advanced research. As he helps her gather evidence from the lab, he’s pricked by a needle that contains a viral phage that somehow miraculously cures everything, even HIV.
The French doctor’s blood samples of the villagers living near the refinery show that they have the same immunity as Bill. Before she can take an investigative team from the Pasteur Institute back, the lab is blown up and the villagers killed. The only other person who saw the lab was Bill, so she begs him to come to France to verify her story. He tells her he’s cured of HIV. She runs tests and verifies the existence of the phage, but it’s fragile and can only be transmitted through his ejaculate directly into another person. Word of this miracle cure gets out. Soon, the Catholic Church, a fading popstar, the CIA, and even more sinister folks are after him. I can’t say too much more about the plot without spoiling it for you.
What I found interesting was that the phage seems to cure emotional maladies too. Bill was raised in a home without love, and he’s never looked for a relationship. Within days of contact with the phage, he falls in love. The doctor’s sister is in the last stages of AIDS, and she asks Bill to pass the cure to her sister. When the sister recovers, she and Bill are bound by platonic love. Since a high-ranking enforcer from the Vatican demands Bill share the cure with him, it’s nice to dream that this altruistic ability to care also spreads quickly through the church hierarchy. Evangelical Christians in the CIA proclaim they’d rather die than receive the cure, but as with the bareback orgy, everyone is an informed adult. No one is forcing them to take part. They enjoy their hatred too much to risk being cured of it.As with SoMa, this isn’t a wankfest. There’s a lot of sex, but it isn’t written to arouse. It’s a suspense thriller, so the pace is pleasantly brisk, and the plot will keep you guessing. If you want to read something that will make you reflect on the nature of sex, healing, and what would happen to the churches if suddenly sex were the source of a miracle, then read The Sower.