"Happy families are all alike," according to Leo Tolstoy. After reading Afternoon Pleasures, one might begin to wonder whether this is true of happy couples as well.
In this volume, Shane Allison has gathered seventeen explicit tales of gay sexual encounters, the preponderance involving men in long term relationships. True to its subtitle, the book serves up tale after cum-drenched tale about men enjoying each other's bodies. Quite a few of the authors interpret the book's title literally, writing of lust-filled, stolen afternoons in hotel rooms, trailers, log cabins, movie theaters or in one case, a museum.
This anthology includes some noteworthy stories. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it lacks variety. At least three quarters of the tales explore essentially the same scenario: a committed gay couple keeping the spark alive by inviting others into their sexual play, or by introducing new toys or activities, or by swapping roles. The style tends to be rather similar from one story to the next as well. With two exceptions, all the tales use a first person POV. Big, hairy bears predominate. The sexual descriptions almost universally involve copious amounts of bodily fluids. I found it difficult to keep the stories separate in my mind because of these commonalities.
One of my favorite tales in the collection was "Public Displays of Affection" by Logan Zachary, humorous fantasy that nevertheless manages to be very hot. Couple Quentin and Casey are both employed by the same museum and have trouble keeping their hands off each other during working hours. The situation comes to a head, so to speak, when they take delivery of a dozen anatomically correct male mannequins intended for a costume exhibit. The well-hung dummies turn out to be ideal play partners. Things reach an unexpected crisis when the museum's most important donor unexpectedly shows up to inspect the new exhibition.
Kyle Lukoff's "Something Different" was another story that kept my attention. A sub discarded by his first master decides to try being dominant for a change. The beautiful FTM transsexual he encounters in the BDSM club is more change than he'd bargained for, but both participants in the scene find a connection beyond the physical pleasure.
Although it is based on a similar premise to many other tales in the book, I particularly enjoyed "One Afternoon in the Bible Belt" by Jeff Mann, because of its skillful use of language and dynamic characterization. The narrator's a burly bear, a hot-headed good 'ole Southern boy, but his partner is a lean, self-contained Yankee. The eager young submissive they make into their "boy" for the afternoon is equally distinct.
Pepper Espinoza's "Tokens" also deserves mention, not only for its vivid characters (I loved Jake, the laid-back Mediterranean bad boy who hides his corporate lover's shoes in order to keep the man in his bed), but also because it deals with the beginning of a serious relationship as opposed to one of long standing.
Overall, though, the stories in Afternoon Pleasures are forgettable, at least partly because they are so much alike. I suspect that this may reflect the editor's preferences. It makes sense that he would accept stories that he personally found arousing. It's possible that his target audience (gay couples) would agree with his choices, of course.
If you decide to read Afternoon Pleasures, by the way, do not miss Shane Allison's deeply personal introduction, "Sex is a Cock-Ring Clad Angel." It's romantic, heartfelt and sexy all at the same time. Reading it, I have some sense of what Mr. Allison was trying to accomplish in this collection, and an uncomfortable feeling that maybe I'm looking at the book through too literary a lens.
If you're looking for commitment, happy endings, and lots of hot dick and ass, this may indeed be the book for you.
I have to admit that I went into this collection a little unsure. It’s not that I don’t trust Cleis or Shane Allison – I know their work well and know they do strong erotica – it’s that, frankly, I’m sick to death of college athletes in erotica. The Big Man on Campus isn’t remotely erotic to me, personally, and I find the closeted swaggering lugs to be vaguely enjoyable to watch at best, and incredibly annoying at worst.
So I tried to check my own internal baggage here when I stepped into the collection, and that made the stories like the ones I was expecting a bit more fun to read. But the big thing is that I didn’t have to do it all that often.
Don’t get me wrong, the handsome strapping college studs are near-constant in many of the stories, but more often than not they aren’t the character telling the story, and the authors do a good job of letting you know the effect those studs have through that narrator’s voice. There are also more themes at play here than would perhaps occur to the reader at a glance. While yes, there’s a lot of secrecy running about – guys who aren’t out, and/or don’t want to be (“Big Ten” or “Physics Professor Proves Kinky”) – and sometimes that blurs even further to blackmail for grades or a job (“Making the Grade,” or “Meeting Expectations”) – most of the stories are actually the starts of relationships.
This isn’t to say that the erotic charge in all the stories is off. That’s not the case at all, and having read Cleis anthologies in the past that Shane Allison has edited, I knew from the first step I was in for some hot scenes, and every story absolutely gives the reader the hot moments they’re looking for. Again, this does lead to a few stories that are more scene than story, but I know that’s a popular vibe, so again I’ll tuck away my love of foreplay as personal, and note this as a likely strength for many readers. More, there’s some kink, some submissive stuff, a few sweatier and raunchier tales (“The Jock and the Professor”) – enough, I think, to please a wider audience than I would have expected.
Is there original stuff here? Yes. Particularly clever was “TILF” by Martha Davis, putting a writing student in the class of a hot teacher and having the student try to seduce the teacher with his writing assignments. For the kink lovers, “Leather Dreams” by Dominic Santi had a nice progression to it and the erotically charged reaction the character has to leather was well written and felt real. I also liked the sweetness of “Robin’s Hood,” by C.C. Williams, which had a softer side to it, a tale of coming out and acceptance among peers that was nicely placed in an anthology that otherwise was a bit more rough and tumble.
Jocks abound, of course, as so often the Big Man on Campus is exactly that – the burly, strong, popular athlete. There was a good range of sports, though – swimming, football, wrestling, basketball – and also enough variety to the physicality of the men involved that it wasn’t just buff blond jock after buff blond jock. There was even a solid mix of racial diversity, which is always a welcome breath of fresh air.
All in all, Big Man on Campus was a pleasant surprise for me. Enough of the stories strayed far enough away from what I expected them to be that I had a good time with the collection as a whole. And the stories I was expecting didn’t read too much like a stereotype or a rehashing of old ideas. There was freshness even when the professor was approached by the handsome athlete for a better grade, and that’s not an easy task.
I’ll probably always have to remind myself when I see “Jock” or “College” anthologies that I should back off on my own preconceptions before I open the book, and Big Man on Campus was a good reminder of that.
I just came back from the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, and while there I finished reading my review copy of Black Fire - oddly enough, right around the time I was gearing up for a panel about reviews.
One of the points that came up during the panel was how important it is to emphasize why something doesn't work for you, given that it might be a plus for someone else. I'll use the same example I used then: I can't handle gory scenes. Medical thrillers will never be my thing if I have to hear about the viscera. They're also incredibly popular, and people love them.
I like my erotica with a big helping of story. For me, much - in fact most - of the titillation is in the lead-up and foreplay. Scene erotica doesn't often work for me. It's a dive, rather than a slow wade.
So when Black Fire began with Landon Dixon's "Fitting Room" I'll admit I was a bit worried. It's not that the scene doesn't scorch - by no means is that the case - but the scene between a clothing clerk and a well-hung and fashion-conscious customer was immediate. I wanted more from the characters before the blowjobs and sweaty sex began. The sex is hot, the men were hot, but I didn't manage to connect. But if you're one who likes your erotica to launch from the springboard, you'll likely enjoy this piece just fine.
That said, the very next story, "Alex's Adventures in the Land of Wonder China Emporium" was as fun as it was hot, and the characters were incredibly well woven. Jamie Freeman has a whimsical re-telling of the Alice tale here, complete with musclebears Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Alex's attempt to head on back home is amusing - and hot - throughout. I'm a lover of the retelling of tales, and Freeman's erotic retelling is a blast. Definitely one of the more memorable stories.
"Mutinous Chocolate" by Tom Cardamone is another standout. Blurring the lines with a paranormal twist via magical chocolates that managed to titillate as well as deliver a bittersweet - pardon the pun - tale that was as moving as it was erotic. The sheer variety of the magical chocolates as they deliver sexual release to the character on a slow spiral of a breakdown is great. I want a box of these chocolates, and I hope Cardamone knows where I can place an order.
The theme of the erotica collection itself - Gay African-American Erotica - is presented in a range that doesn't shy away from some of the stereotypes, but doesn't wallow either. S.J. Frost's "Like a Dream" was my favorite of the collection. It's a great story of second chances and conveys a deft sense of the extra depth the closet often holds in the realm of the black male. There is a sense of the romantic, often lost in erotica. Garland Cheffield's "Tomorrow" gives us a club-culture snapshot, and delivers a wry and sexy story of a couple meeting in the frenzy of dance and music. But there's more - clandestine sex parties, boot fetishes, master-slave, college seduction and sex on the down-low. There's range.
The stories that had fleshed out plots were strong and definitely kept my attention. There's enough in here if you're like me and prefer your erotica to hold a tale while delivering the tail. If you're a fan of shorter, in media res scene erotica, then I think this collection will be all the stronger for you. It's a mix - like many anthologies - but didn't fall and stay trapped in cliché - a risk this theme might have easily presented.
There’s a wonderful Walt Whitman poem I love so that includes the following lines: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” If that seems like a stuffy and odd way to introduce a review of Cruising, by Shane Allison, just bear with me for a bit.
Cruising is a collection of just that – erotic encounters where strangers negotiate quick trysts with the flick of a glance, the tap of a foot, or any other myriad signals that have evolved between men trying to hook up with other men for some quick relief. There’s often something of a dichotomy at play here – these are marginalized men (as Shane points out in his introduction) who haven’t got the typical outlet that straight society has – these are men resorting to the stink of a dirty highway bathroom, tea room, or dark bookstore stalls. There’s the edge of desperation here, as well as the shiver of anticipation of finally – finally – having some fun with whichever random stranger comes along. It’s dirty. From the outside, it seems empty and sad – but in the hands of the right authors, it can be all the more titillating for the rushed danger of it all. And in some cases, it’s only the outside appearance after all.
The “empty and sad” does have its place, and in the opening tale by Bob Vickery, “School Queer,” the overwhelming presence of this isn’t entirely unwelcome. The one boy that everyone knows is queer – but blows the straight boys behind the boathouse – carries this mix of pride and outcast status perfectly. This is what Pete can get right now, and he’s damned good at it. When something “more” appears – in the form of popular and handsome Bill, who is taking an odd amount of interest in Nick, another boy Pete services, there’s a tangle of power that starts to unravel a bit.
I look up into his face, but his eyes are trained on Nick’s spit-slicked, fully hard cock. Bill’s the big man on campus, and I may be the queer boy with zero status, but tonight the tables are turned.
I think this was a major part of “getting” the anthology for me in terms of theme. I’m not sure if I found something that wasn’t put there on purpose, but there’s a projection of power and freedom in many of these stories – especially from the characters most trapped and powerless – that breathes a freshness into what otherwise might have been an anthology like many others: eyes meet, clothes fall, orgasms happen. Instead, in many of the tales, there’s a sense the characters are claiming these moments and making their lives their own – even if that happens in a seedy bathroom stall.
This is not to say there is no danger. Anytime Jeff Mann’s name pops up, I sit up and pay attention, and with his tale, “Keeper,” a young trucker bear is about to learn the dangers of taking unknown cargo for some extra cash. In this case, an innocent cruising at a truck stop could lead to murder. Fans of Mann will know they’re in for a great piece of erotic prose with that edge he manages so well: bondage, rope, deprivation, and perhaps an end very final. Mann’s ability to leave you unsure until the last few moments plays out as strong as ever. It’s dangerous, violent, bloody and terrifying; all these things should not be erotic, but in Mann’s hands they rage. Again – the sense of contradiction so prevalent in the anthology.
I have to also mention “The Tuggle Muggs Magic Cave Ride” by Jonathan Asche as an amusing favourite in that it has a lighthearted and amusing tone throughout. Trapped with his sister and nephew at – horrors – an amusement park, here the narrator makes eye contact with a handsome stranger, and takes a quick trip to a closed amusement park ride to find some relief. The occasional sounds and theme park music overlaying the enjoyment the two men find inside the cave is funny, and I had a few good laugh out loud moments with this one. It brought a less seedy fell to the anthology.
Mark Wildyr’s “Bully” bothered me in a different way. It’s not to say that the erotica wasn’t well written, but more that the main character’s evolution left me feeling nauseous. From bullied to bully – especially over a smaller, more innocent character who never does anything wrong to him – Toby generated no empathy from me, and I was left more disgusted than anything else. This could easily be a case of “too close to home” though, in that having your face kicked in generally leaves you unable to connect with bullies thereafter.
The settings vary more than I’d thought they might. Beyond Mann’s truckstop, Asche’s amusement park, and Vickery’s boathouse, we’re also treated to Shaun Levin’s cemetery, Donald Peebles Jr.’s subways, Jeremy Anders Windsor’s greenhouse – there’s a good mix of age and body types, as well. And in a funny retelling of “Little Shop of Horrors” Gregory L. Norris gives us the “Little Shop of Hummers.” Another laugh-out-loud fun story.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with Cruising. Dirty anonymous sex, sure, but how could an entire book of those stories continue to be interesting? Well, put in the hands of capable authors, it can be done. These are not endless married men on the down-low (though some of their tricks might be), these are guys getting off incognito, and mostly doing so with a sense of empowerment I honestly hadn’t really considered before. Cruising is definitely worth a toe tap or two.
Oh super. More frat boys. Just what the world needed.
Okay, that sounds harsh – and I suppose there’s some bitter in there, too – but in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that my own personal experiences with a frat were anything but erotic. Frustrating, discouraging, and outright mean would be closer to the truth. It will likely surprise no one that in the long run I didn’t end up in a frat – though to be fair I made some good friends in the process. But when I got a copy of Frat Boys, I cringed. To me, frat boys are about as sexy as Big-C Conservatives (which are Canada’s answer to the republicans).
Now, I’ve definitely been one to have my preconceptions slapped around before, so I opened the book – and tried to do the same with my mind – and delved in.
First story? Jeff Mann.
There’s nothing like finding a story from Jeff Mann to make me sit up and pay attention. If you haven’t read Fog – his most recent erotic novel – I insist you stop reading this review and go order it somewhere first. I’ll wait here.
Ordered? Okay, good.
That novel you just ordered is full of Mann’s astounding ability to pull erotica from violence, bondage, or the edge of things usually left to the realms of fear and pain. So imagine my surprise when I read his story, “Blue Briefs,” and found myself suffering from a bittersweet heartache and the sniffles. It was the perfect way to lead off the anthology – a story that brought me to a place I’d never expect to end up in an anthology about frat boys: somewhere bittersweet (after a brief stopover in the world of sublimely sweaty and hairy bondage, of course). The ending was startlingly unexpected, and all the better for it.
As was the collection. It’s in these surprisingly fresh tales that Allison’s anthology shines.
Gavin Atlas brings forth another of his trademark style: a tale of an insatiable bottom who struggles with how he enjoys the humiliation and dominance of his frat brothers in “The Laius League.” This is another story where I wasn’t sure where the author was taking me, and even though I know and love Gavin Atlas stories, I didn’t quite see the ending coming. Again, that’s a good thing.
Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “Stripped” was another great story – a pledge colliding with a she-male stripper that the frat has hired mostly to humiliate him, and the dawning self-worth and self-realization that the meeting inspires. I loved this story, not the least of which for turning the usual frat boy tale on its head and slapping it around with some gender fluidity. Thank you Rachel Kramer Bussel.
That said, there are also some well-written stories that delve in the more typical arenas of the frat boy trope. Hank Edwards gives us “Old Glory” – named for a glory hole “stall” the frat has set up in the basement where the guys bring their very drunk ladies for some through-the-hole pleasure. That the young man in the tale ends up inside the booth is no surprise, but the story itself teases in just the right ways. C.C. Williams steps outside the frat for his main character, Noah, who has been watching frat boy Jerry from afar in “The Pickup Game.” The sparks – and the meddling of Noah’s friends – had a genuineness to them that was charming. “Lessons in the Library” by Rick Archer tells us the story of a young man who came out – and the fallout was terrible from the frat he was pledging – and how the scars might heal. “Lessons” showed a more plausible side, from my experiences, and I appreciated its inclusion.
All this to say that I was surprised – pleasantly surprised – by Frat Boys. There are some very original ideas in the book, and even those stories that aren’t exploring new ideas are told with verve and definitely sizzle. For the Jeff Mann-Gavin Atlas-Rachel Kramer Bussel trifecta alone, this anthology is a worthy grab, but the rest of the tales aren’t filler, either. It’s a sexy book, with some great surprises, and an overall variation to the theme that keeps it from being just another collection alongside Daddies, Jocks, and Twinks.
And when you’re done, you’ve already got Fog on order, too.
The best thing about an anthology for me is in enjoying the wide range of places a group of writers can go within a single theme. You can take something mundane and almost cliché – daddies, twinks, frat boys, jocks – but if you’ve got one of those great anthologies in your hand, you still end up with a surprisingly fresh collection of stories.
Variety – I imagined – was going to be pretty high when the theme opened up the collection from the typical boy-meets-boy duality. I went into Middle Men: Gay Erotic Threesomes looking forward to seeing what the authors had done, and the length and breadth of stories that Shane Allison had combined for this collection, and though I did like it some – mostly on the strength of specific stories – I wasn’t blown away.
I did like Middle Men, but it took me a while to read the whole collection. If that sounds like faint praise, I suppose it is. The problem I kept having was that the stories – for the most part – were about quick trysts. It felt like most of the stories had a similar set up - three ways happening spontaneously between guys meeting for the first time. I was a little surprised that there was only one story where the three men involved were actually involved in the sense of having a long-term trio relationship. I may be misremembering, but I think of the rest of the tales, only two (or three?) also had couples that were having a third (or in one case, fourth, and fifth and maybe sixth and seventh) join them for a dalliance.
It’s not that the erotica doesn’t burn and sweat in all the right ways. Most of the stories have scorch. It’s more that I felt a lack of set-up in many cases; most of the tales are very quick, and as I’ve mentioned before, I like my erotica to have a narrative lead-in, rather than be “scene” erotica.
There are exceptions to this in the anthology. I liked the clever set up and play of “Middle Man for Madam Blavatsky” (one of the stories where a couple are enjoying a playmate). Here a deck of tarot cards open up the door for a young fellow to realize that it’s going to take time to convince his partner that they could bring another fellow to their bed. “Grip” by Sleepy Lopez was another story with a couple – this one with a gritty urban take, and the gap between childhood friends who have grown apart while one has been in prison, and their reconnection thereafter. The third couple story that stuck in my memory was “The One in the Middle” which was still somewhat a “scene” piece (we join the couple already having sex with at least two other men) but actually had a trace of kindness and sweetness between the couple involved: I was left with the sense that this couple’s relationship was built on a very solid love – and a love of being the guy in the middle. It probably was the single story that seemed to have nailed the theme of what I thought I’d find in Middle Men the most.
On the clever side was “Fox Goldman and the Three Bears.” This was the story where there is a three person relationship, and the play of a modernized Goldilocks and the Three Bears was as sly as the sex was hot – the “Goldilocks” gets to enjoy one of the home movies the bears have made while he lounges in their conveniently empty home.
I also liked “Dogging It” by H.L. Champa, who gave me a character whose desire for exhibitionism simmers with a realistic steam, leading to a public display in a park for all to watch.
Those five stories (out of the eighteen in the collection) stuck with me. If what you’re looking for out of Middle Men is some hot scenes where three guys get it on, then I think you’ve got an adequate choice here. I wanted to like this more, but I was left with a kind of foggy memory when it came time to look over the table of contents at the end of the book to write this review. Many of the stories blend a bit too much. Boy meets boy meets boy, followed by sex. Sometimes it’s rough, sometimes it’s escorts, sometimes it’s cops, sometimes it’s strippers, but there was a repetition in the stories that wore a little thin. I had to put it down quite a bit, and pick it back up again later. Again – that might be what you’re looking for, if you’re a fan of quick and dirty shorts with three men colliding by happenstance and riding their good luck out to the finish.
I just wanted a bit more variety.