Man’s WorldRupert Smith
Published by Arcadia Books Ltd
Reviewed by Max Fincher
Man’s World, Rupert Smith’s latest novel, is a novel that explores friendship and desire between men, particularly how and where it shades into queer love. Contrasting both the 1950s and modern-day gay London, Man’s World’s highlights how society and gay life has changed dramatically, but also perhaps suggests that there are some continuities in the experience of friendship.
Michael Medway, a reserved, ‘artistic’, amateur photographer, is enduring his national service at RAF Neville in Lancashire, in 1957, and keeping a secret diary of his experiences and desires. He is befriended by another outsider who doesn’t fit in, Stephen Poynter. Stephen is openly mocked and taunted by the other men for his effeminacy and is bullied by the sexually-repressed, homophobic Sergeant Kelsey. Michael shuns Stephen’s initial attempts at friendship, afraid that he will be tarred with the same brush and be labelled a queer. Stephen acts up his flamboyant nature, cross-dressing and trying to seduce Michael by leading him into the back of a disused ambulance. Telling Michael to run away, Stephen is caught and discharged from the RAF, moving to London to work as an art director at Muscle Boy magazine. Unable to admit to his homosexuality, Michael secretly desires and fantasizes about the universally popular Mervyn Wright, the class clown and prize-winning boxer on the base. Handsome, charming, narcissistic with a Greek-god body, Wright is a jack-the-lad ‘straight-boy’ fantasy.
Taking inspiration from the models who pose in physique magazines like Health and Strength and Man’s World, Michael initially photographs Wright to promote his boxing matches. Wright asks him to take more pictures of him to help him be discovered as a body-building star in the magazines, and to realize his ambitions of working in the film industry. Wright’s enthusiasm and tactile physicality, contrasted with Michael’s quivering reticence and neurotic self-doubt, is tantalizing. The passages that describe their photographic sessions together are intensely erotic as Michael’s increasing sexual arousal is established gradually. Michael realizes that Wright really wants to have sex with him, and not the girls Wright tries to pick up when they go away together on a wild weekend in Blackpool. Back at their hotel room, drunk and frustrated, Wright asks Michael to photograph him nude:He unlaced his shoes, pulled off his socks. His trousers fell around his ankles. He had an erection. I kept shooting....
‘How about it?’
‘Want a piece of the action?’
‘Come on,’ he said, in his gangster accent, ‘give a buddy a helping hand; He thrust his hips forward, eyes closed, lips parted.
It would all be forgotten in the morning.
I put the camera down carefully on the bed and squatted in front of him. His groin was at eye level. There was a small wet spot on the fabric of the pouch. Wright pushed closer.
I had a brief flash of clarity – I saw a dirty old man kneeling before a drunken airman in a cheap boarding house, about to take the step that would turn him from latent to practising.
It was a step from which there was no return.
I took it.’
Smith effectively portrays the power of the closet over Michael. When he visits London, Stephen tells him: ‘You’re living a lie. You’re pretending your normal because you’re scared to death of being one of us.'
Michael and Wright eventually leave the RAF (after Michael has a spell at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire, where the doctors try to cure him) and they set up home together in London through Stephen, who gets Michael a job as a photographer and introduces Wright to the influential Edward Templeton. However, Wright does not think of himself as gay, or even queer, and is no way loyal to Michael sexually, even if he loves him. We learn that throughout their relationship Wright had ‘a wandering eye. Men, women, you know – he wasn’t fussy.’
Smith has a fine ear for realistic dialogue, and he acknowledges that a number of people contributed their memories in researching the novel. In the second narrative of the story, which is set in modern-day London, Stephen appears as a wonderfully authentic character. A fiery, feisty, camp old queen whose tender sensitive spirit is still evident in his fierce protectiveness of Michael who has recently lost Wright. Stephen is unafraid to tell a few home truths to what he sees as the indifference of Michael’s young gay neighbour, Robert, who lives in the flat below him. Michael and Robert become friends, and through Michael, and Stephen, Robert discovers a lost secret world of late-1950s London, a world of high-society parties, secret bars, and police raids.
Like Michael, Robert keeps a diary, writing an online blog of his thoughts and feelings about his life and friends, and his experiences of being gay in London in 2010. In particular, Robert reflects on his friendship with Jonathan, a superficial, narcissistic, selfish drama queen:Jonathan is my best friend, my “sister”, more like family than family, and although he’s a constant source of irritation I could never really chuck him. I like to think that we’d do anything for each other, that we’d be ‘there for you’ as they say on Friends, although if this was actually put to the test, I wouldn’t put money on the outcome.
In fact, the novel explores the limits of friendship between gay men, what it means to be a good friend, and the delicate balance between putting oneself first and behaving selfishly. Robert refuses to bail out Jonathan when he gets into hot water with the grotesque pimp and drug-dealer Hadley and owes him three thousand pounds. Similarly, when Wright is charged with the murder of Gerald, a photographer who supplies pornographic photographs to high-society queen Edward Templeton and his friends, Michael begins to doubts the limits of his love for Wright:The only person who never gets the blame is Mervyn Wright – the man who loves another man, who used his body to get him and who wasn’t averse to trading it for fame and fortune either. How much can I do for Mervyn? And what is the point? I f he gets off this time, he’s going to turn his back on me and everyone else.
There is an authentic realism in Smith’s depiction of both the hidden party-world of the 1950s, and a wry observation of a certain contemporary gay world that is solely dedicated to shopping, drugs and fucking. The characters that Robert meets, particularly the rampant sex-fiend Stuart, the boy-next-door Simon at the office, Hadley, with his uber-fashionable party-set in a Shoreditch loft-conversion, are all convincing and are painted with a dry humour. There are some very funny sharp observations of character and situation, and some classic one-liners to remember: ‘...the idea of being a VIP in a sex club is like being on the guest list at the clap clinic’. When Robert goes to a contemporary art exhibition organized by Hadley, his introduction by the easily-impressed Jonathan to the self-important pretentious artist, Nicolae Vladimirescu, is very funny:‘Hi Nico,’ says Jonathan, ‘great show.’
‘Yes,’ says Nico. ‘The creative power of the universe flows through me.’ He makes a gesture with his hands – very large, hairy-backed hands that would be more at home wrapped round a pickaxe.
‘How did you make them?’
‘It’s a very complicated process,’ he says, ‘based on the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure. I write thesis on him at university.’
‘Wow,’ says Jonathan. ‘I did a thesis too. Mine was about...’
‘The art world at home...pffff.’
‘Oh yes,’ says Jonathan, ‘it’s so hard to get shown...’
‘So I come to England and here I find wealthy collectors.’
‘Fascinating choice of subject matter,’ I say. ‘The pigeon, for instance.’
Nico shrugs. ‘I hate fucking pigeons,’ he says, and walks off, as if mortally offended.
Smith alternates each chapter between the two narratives, encouraging us to draw parallels between the respective friendships and emotional roller coasters of Michael and Wright, and Robert and Jonathan. Michael and Robert have much in common in searching for love with narcissistic personalities. They are both dominated in their friendships, even bullied into decisions by their friends that go against their better judgment. Yet at the same time, they show a strength and emotional resilience. Both are level-headed, with their feet firmly in the ground, and loyal in the face of adversity. Father-figures to their more extrovert, wild friends, both characters come to understand how their friendships shape their lives, and for Robert, that friendship can cross the generation gap. He comes to realize that it’s all been said, felt and done before.Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.