Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review: Strip, by Andrew Binks

You know, for a straight-up hetero guy I’ve read a number of interesting books about the gay-male experience over the last little while. I really enjoyed my friend Ron Schafrick’s first short story collection, Interpreters, published late last year by Oberon, about gay men living and teaching in Seoul. I also reviewed some stellar novels recently for Quill & Quire written by gay men—The Desperates, by Greg Kearney, Imperfections, by Bradley Somers, and the mind-bending magic realist novel The Lava in My Bones, by Barry Webster. Andrew Binks’ new book, Strip, is certainly more in the realistic mode than that latter example, but it does--eventually--holds it own with each of these other titles I've enjoyed.

I say "eventually" because I really did struggle for the first quarter of this novel to get into it. The story begins as a rather familiar bildungsroman: set in the early 1980s, the book introduces us to John Rottam (a surname that sounds, he readily admits, a bit too much like “rotten”), a struggling dancer from the Prairies holding down a tenuous job with a classical dance troupe and ends up in Quebec City. Unable to score the bigger roles and earn a decent living, he drifts into a stripping gig at a burlesque house as a way of keeping his dreams alive. For the first chunk of Strip, we don’t get much access to John’s inner world beyond his career ambitions and sex drive. We do learn early on that he suffers from an intense (and rather adolescent) infatuation with a fellow dancer named Daniel, but we aren’t given much access to Daniel’s greatness, either. On the surface, it seems this novel flounders around for the first 100 pages or so, obsessed with the superficial world of physical appearances and the various vicissitudes of the starving artist lifestyle.

But to say that the first 100 pages of Strip under-promise on what the last 100 pages deliver is a huge understatement. Readers who stick it out with this novel should prepare themselves for one of the most wrenching, devastating and deeply affecting endings they’ll find in any work of contemporary fiction. John’s saving grace is the slow-burn relationship he develops with his neighbour Kent—a relationship that grows increasingly complex as it becomes sexual, and moves with them from Quebec City to Toronto. As mentioned, it’s the early 1980s and HIV (the “gay cancer”, as it’s labeled here) looms large over the narrative. How this deadly disease comes to affect John and Kent’s relationship is absolutely harrowing.

Binks takes his time revealing his talent, his ingenious hold over this story as the book goes on. Even in those iffy early pages, he shows an incredible ear for pitch-perfect dialogue and well-chosen turns of phrase. We also get two incredibly descriptive strip scenes later on: one involving John himself (“I ground my pelvis into the floor until I felt arousal. I rolled over, reached for the ceiling, rocked up and down, up and down … I shoved and it was Kent’s mouth I saw in front of me”) and one involving a travelling celebrity stripper named Brittany (“She made you think she needed someone to satisfy her immediately, but didn’t want to give it away to just anyone. She made you think it was you who could save her”). These and other scenes reveal that Binks has some serious writing chops. But it isn’t until John and Kent relocate to Toronto that we see just what this author has in store for us, the depth of emotion he’s about to put us through.

And therein lies, I think, what Strip really is. This is not a slow reveal of John’s emotional life. Rather, it’s a slow development of that emotional life. The vapidity at the beginning of this book turns out to be paramount to the richness at the end. John’s growth as a man, as a lover, and as a conscientious member of a gay community is this novel’s true arc. It is breathtaking. By the end, I felt as if I was mourning what he mourned, was feeling as lost as he was.

It’s an incredible affect to pull off, and one that lingers for a long time. Indeed, if readers stay with this novel, I promise this novel will stay with them.

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