This Time I Know It’s For Real

It seems hard to believe–and writing it out makes it seem even harder to believe–but my first book came out over nineteen years ago. Right? I’ve been a published author of crime fiction now for almost a third of my lifespan–more, if you consider my career beginning when the original contract was signed–and yes, it makes me feel a bit old and weathered, and no, it doesn’t seem like it’s even possible (well, that so much time has passed).

It’s also a little weird to remember that one of the launching pads that got publishing in the first place was book reviewing. I started reviewing books for IMPACT News here in New Orleans around 1998, which led me eventually to national magazines, and an assistant editor position at Lambda Book Report (now LambdaLiterary.org) for a few months before taking over as editor-in-chief for twelve issues. Over the next few years I still did the occasional book review, but was slowly backing away from it. As a novelist myself, reviewing books was basically a mine field for me. If I reviewed a book badly, someone would inevitably pull out the old canard of “he’s just jealous!” (nothing could be further, ever, from the truth; I am not jealous of anyone’s success; if anything, I am jealous of other writers’ abilities and skills and creativity–which would never result in a negative boo review in the first place)

Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ve never been accused of jealousy of other writers’ careers and/or success; it amuses me a bit, because clearly the person lobbing such an accusation doesn’t know me at all–but I also don’t like being perceived that way. So I stopped reviewing books for money and for publication–it wasn’t a big financial loss for me in the first place; few places pay incredibly well for reviews; certainly not the places paying me for them, at any rate–and it eliminated any future accusations of “jealousy.” I also stopped talking about queer writers, and/or blogging about their books, a while back for various reasons. For one, I don’t want to be seen as a reviewer or my blog as a review site; as it is, I got requests from authors and publicists periodically wanting me to read and review their book(s) here; inevitably, I never am able to get to it and I don’t want to read for anything other than pleasure anymore.

When someone sends you a book to review, it turns the reading from pleasure to work and I don’t want that; it’s hard enough to turn off my editorial brain when I read, let alone adding the reviewer’s mindset back into my psyche.

I also realize, now, that all of this dissembling might sound like I am about to write some terrible things about PJ Vernon’s Bath Haus; nothing could be further from the truth.

This is a fucking mistake.

My heart beats against the back of my sternum like it might knock itself still.

I kill the ignition and Nathan’s SUV sinks into silence. My wedding band slides right off, joining spare console change. Nathan and I aren’t married, but he insists we wear rings.

The iPhone buzzing in my pocket is a miniature washing machine. Nathan’s calling. I wait it out, don’t move. A simple phone call I treated like a kidney stone. Excruciating and it needs to pass. He leaves a voicemail.

“Oliver. Dinner’s wrapped up, heading back to the hotel now. Give me a call if you can. Wondering what you’re doing. Did you remember Tilly’s heartworm medication? Don’t forget. It’s important. Call me. Love you.”

Mental note: return Nathan’s call within the hour. Thirty minutes is his typical limit. If he doesn’t hear back within half an hour, we fight. But he’s out of town, and I can stretch it to an hour. He can’t fight me from Manhattan, and it sounds lie he’s been drinking anyway.

First of all, I want to point out that back when I was getting started, the chances of this book being published by a mainstream press like Doubleday, in hardcover, were so infinitesimal I can’t even think about such a manuscript being delivered to a mainstream editor in 2000 without laughing out loud. The book opens in a bath house, for God’s sake; my QUEER publisher made me make a slight change to Murder in the Rue Dauphine, which meant not having the murder victim and his wealthy closeted lover meet in a French Quarter bath house. (I was told they would not be seen as sympathetic by the reader, which also struck me as odd; but it was also my first book and I wasn’t going to argue, assuming my queer publisher knew better than I did) Hell, even the title is Bath Haus–which kind of lays it all out for you, right there. This book also doesn’t shy away from gay sexuality, either–another third rail in thriller/crime fiction. It’s all right there for you, and not done in a prurient way; it is simply presented as another facet of their lives, much as it would be if it were a heterosexual couple.

And I absolutely love this opening–which contrasts the mundanity of the coupled existence vs. the lure of cheating.

I mean, how genius to have his main character, about to enter a bath house to cheat on his partner, get a text reminding him to give the dog her heartworm medicine! Well played, indeed!

PJ has called this book “Gone Girl with Grindr and gays”–which is a great elevator pitch, really–but the only similarities here with Gone Girl is that the book focuses on a dysfunctional relationship that spirals out of control, and that it’s a thriller with the same kinds of surprising twists and turns and surprises that keep you turning the page, very curious to see how this is all going to end–and to find out what is going on as well.

The book focuses on a relationship that really isn’t an equal one: wealthy surgeon Nathan, from a socially prominent family, has rescued a lower class drug addicted younger man from drowning in his own no-where life. But that power differential (rescuer/savior and rescued/victim), when added in with the financial differences, has made Oliver almost as dependent on Nathan as he used to be with drugs; if he loses Nathan, he will have nothing–which he is very aware of, and yet…like all addicts, there is a self-destructive streak in Oliver. He has never gotten over the self-loathing that was only amplified by drug addiction–and so he has begun checking out other guys on a Grindr-like app called MeetLockr (props for the clever app name! PJ needs to trademark that before someone else makes a fortune off it…then again I am assuming it’s NOT a real app, aren’t I?) and finally, with Nathan out of town and the coast, as he sees it, clear–Oliver decides to go to Haus, a bath house, for a night of anonymous sex which should never intrude into the picture perfect life Nathan has provided him. But his encounter turns terrifying, as Kristian, a gorgeous Scandinavian, begins choking him far past the point of pleasure and Oliver panics, fights back, slashes Kristian’s cheek open with his locker key–and then has to lie to Nathan about the bruises on his neck, beginning a downward spiral of lies and deception that begets more lies and deceptions as he frantically tries to hide the truth from Nathan–but few things in this book are what they seem at first glance, and the deeper the reader gets into the book, the more surprises are in store….

Bath Haus is definitely a thriller; a non-stop thrill ride that is difficult to put down, with brief chapters and short staccato sentences that come at the reader like bullets from an AK-47, almost daring you to put the book down–which you won’t be able to.

The book has received a lot of hype–also thrilling for me to see–and I am very happy to say it lives up to said hype.

Well done, PJ–can’t wait to read your next one!

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