Brad Gooch's 'Golden Age': promiscuous

June 16, 1996|By Judith Schlesinger | Judith Schlesinger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Golden Age of Promiscuity" by Brad Gooch Knopf. 301 pages. $24.

This novel about the Seventies world of gay cliques and clubs offers some light but surprisingly little heat, for all its explicitness. The fabled promiscuity is numbing and dreamlike; often violent, it would be a nightmare if it had any passion.

The narrator is Sean, a Columbia student in 1972 who drops out, moves to Greenwich Village, becomes a hard-core porn filmmaker and embarks on a series of joyless, experimental couplings. He uses his "life as art" mindset to blunt everything with voyeuristic detachment, even while participating.

Sean is so depersonalized that his most sustained emotion comes from applying Ben-Gay in a place the label specifically forbids. To be fair, he makes no pretence of being involved: "I feel like cardboard," he says early on. In fact, he - and nearly everyone else - seems flat and dry; part of the problem is writing like " 'The two wires of love and violence are crossed in me,' Sean explained trippingly" and "Sean shared this taste, unawarely."

We learn about the baths and bars, including the Mineshaft, the Ramrod, and Studio 54. Bizarre characters perform and vanish into the shadows, like Fellini's "Satyricon" without the wit. Gooch is thorough in defining atmosphere, detailing music, fashion (no designer sweaters allowed at the Mineshaft), current drugs and phrases. Names are dropped: Bianca, Elton,Truman, Andy.

Curiously, despite all the pre-AIDS freedom, no one seems to be having the fun usually associated with a Golden Age. I found the graphic sex less disturbing than the casual degradation, but any shocks were soon dulled by repetition. So was Sean's search for humiliation. Lacking geniuine attachments to friends, family, or self, he floats free, drifting toward other people's hunger.

There are two rounded, likable characters, both on stage too briefly. One is Sean's possible love Willie, a nephew of Three Stooges Moe, who has humor and depth; by the time he appears to kindle some warmth, the wood is too soggy to catch.

The other is Annie, Sean's roommate at the Chelsea Hotel. A performance artist whose idea of a poem is repeating "toilet kiss/porcelain piss" over and over; at least she has enough heart to cry at a murder, while Sean and a friend just stand over the body and "investigate each other's expressions with helpless bemusement."

This might be a redemptive quest if the hero gained something besides gonorrhea from his subway encounter. But Sean just gets seven years older. Near the end, still chasing self-annihilation, he places an ad requesting "personality extinction," and meets someone who leaves him for dead in the (( snow. The result? "He lightened up," whatever that means, finds someone he might love - then answers another personal ad.

In the last scene Sean "exults" at his first taste of Wagner and wants "a kiss to find his way home." But it's far too late to invest anything in his potential. Gooch is so determined to suppress Sean's caring that it works on the reader as well. The result is the story is finally as empty as Sean strives to be.

For a Golden Age, things were pretty grim.

Judith Schlesinger writes a column on creativity and the arts for Topia magazine and has had work appear in several reviews and journals. She holds a doctorate in psychology from New York University and has written a book, "Music and Madness," about the psychology of music.

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