Sunday, February 14, 2010
Author John-Ivan Palmer’s long colorful career in American show business gives him a lens able to focus on corners far removed from the experience of most writers.
Since the 1960s, the peripatetic Palmer, has roamed the country, first as a magician and, later as a popular stage hypnotist and mentalist. Along the way, he's written a huge number of of distinctive, often brilliant, articles on the often-treacherous ins-and-outs of the fading world of traveling show business folk. He is, in his words, "the only known literary author who is a stage hypnotist."
In his long overdue first novel, the farcical, roughly charming and racy picaresque Motels of Burning Madness (The Drill Press, 195 pp; available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble etc.), he takes willing readers on a fast, entertaining, bawdy, no-holds-barred voyage into the musky backwater swamp of male strippers and other remote bizarries of live entertainment in America.
Though very explicit, Motels is not a sex novel at all of the type found in Borders’ erotica section. Instead, it's a picaresque novel, a traditional form stretching back to Ancient Rome and Petronious' Satyricon. Set in the early 1980s Rome of Los Angeles, its protagonist is Huey Dubois, a 24-year-old gigolo and stripper of fine uncut endowment, not much brain, but more heart than you’d expect. Handsome Huey is a misfit’s misfit—a good soul who’s not much good at anything but being a prancing, g-stringed boy toy, and because of that, he always seems to be bumping n’ grinding away in survival
mode. He’s paradoxical young man: though an exhibitionistic gigolo, stripper (and other kinds of performance, er, artist), he pursues these pursuits while a sense of misplaced honor constantly struggles to break through his selfish exterior.
Even his own private desires make him a freak in an environment already a-roiling with alternative, offbeat desires (S&M fans and the like). Huey has little taste for women his own age. He likes them older. In fact, much older as revealed in Palmer’s sympathetic portraits of Huey’s three main forty years-plus paramours: Malibu matron Madelein; Debra, the abused, lonely wife of an L.A. cop; and, the real
song of his heart, Gloria Madlock, the late-night waitress at the Donut Hole for whom Huey loyally puts on a free midnight show from behind his hotel window, san culottes.
As the novel opens, Madelein from Malibu has just given Huey the boot out of her beachfront bodega in the mis-belief that Huey stole her jewelry. The next day, Madelein winds up mysteriously dead. Not surprisingly, straight society’s suspicion naturally turns toward Huey, who, like his associates in the sexual underworld, is no friend of law and order, lying to the cops even when he’d better off telling the truth.
Soon, Gloria herself mysteriously vanishes as the law closes in. Huey has to leave L.A., but on the way out, he takes us on a gamy, hair-curling tour through the underground of male strip venues, “staggette” parties, private video shoots, all of this arranged by some of the sleaziest, most crooked agents imaginable.
With the hot breath of the law steaming his shoulders, Huey jumps from a bedroom window and lands in a fugitive’s gig--a traveling male striptease troupe that takes him through Las Vegas and on a zany zigzag into America’s heartland (where the biggest audiences of all exist for this kind of entertainment). This barrel-bottom, Barnum & Bailey male animal act happens to be the hideout of a fellow narcissist whom Huey suspects made off with both Madelein’s jewelry and her life: the perfectly named Billy Slipton.
After a series of entertaining and tawdry mishaps—why anyone would ever choose this showbiz career path befuddles my comparatively conservative mind—Huey rips off and gives the nefarious Slipton the slip and sets fire to the troupe’s motel in his escape (hence the title).
Hugh finally tracks his beloved Gloria in Omaha, only to learn that she, like so many in this world, keeps her own secrets, even while parading naked.
After a pungent exploration and analysis of women’s mud wrestling (there’s actually a business and craft behind this performance genre), Huey learns once again he’s only found another bad refuge and so must flee. From there, he stumbles into my favorite stop-over in the entire novel: Clown Town, a bizarro setting that could birth a whole novel of its own inside its limits. (At this point, I must leave you to discover this community for yourself.)
At the end, Huey does land on his feet, a little wiser and, as he realizes with touching insight, a little older. Like other comic heroes, he may not get what he starts out wanting, but he gets something much better.
Palmer—who worked as a male stripper to research Motels (I doubt George Plimpton went so far)—describes Huey’s world with lively evocative care, insight, humor and remarkable kindness. Such a milieu is a natural target for easy putdowns and lazy, knee-jerk moralism. Palmer avoids both.
Sometimes, though, the narrative seems thin. We’re told little, if anything, about Huey’s background and the plot eventually seems to drift away from its whodunnit aspects. Motels of Burning Madness could have burned on for a few pages longer; for example, I wanted more insight into Huey’s brief sojurns of dancing in respectable middle-class households. Though, with a roomful of women grabbing at his intimacies, Huey probably doesn’t have much time to ponder the family photos he passes by and reflect on his outsider's role in the secret world hidden behind those bland smiling masks.
(Photo by author)