Transit tales: Johnny Townsend's 'Orgy At The STD Clinic'
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With prior book titles in his arsenal like Wake Up and Smell the Missionaries, Queer Quilting: Patchwork Designs for Gay Men, Sex Among the Saints, and Gayrabian Nights, prolific queer author Johnny Townsend knows how to attract readers to his material through the magic of an eye-catching title (and creatively-inspired jacket art).
His latest book, Orgy At The STD Clinic, also following this trademarked trend, is dedicated to "Bob, the first bus driver to fuck me" and chronicles the escapades of Todd Tillotson, a middle-aged, paunchy Seattle gay man and ex-Mormon riding the public transit bus in the present day (pandemic era-accurate).
This means all the Pacific Northwestern crazies are out and about tormenting him. Though most bus riders are wearing their masks, the easily agitated anti-maskers also board the bus, freely vocalizing their objections to scream out that "hospitals get a bonus when someone gets COVID!"
It's a violent and all-too real scenario that Townsend skewers to wincingly accurate proportions. Readers will certainly relate to Todd at a dentist appointment feeling "downright criminal removing my mask for the cleaning."
The stress of the pandemic days has predictably worn down Todd's patience as he rides the bus lamenting about days gone by when he would "cruise guys in passing cars while waiting for the bus. Helped a lot of guys get their days off to a good start."
That method of social engagement was how he'd met his partner Brigham, whose fate Townsend draws out incrementally as the novel progresses. It turns out Brigham was murdered during a Black Lives Matter protest on Seattle's Capitol Hill, and in the grim, gloomy months following that ordeal, Todd, trampled by grief, has, among other things, developed an "excoriation disorder" where he picks at his skin until it bleeds.
Whether exchanging barbed insults with the anti-maskers or jamming in earbuds to mute the world out entirely, Todd's bus travels also make him a sitting duck for random friends who travel the same transit lines, several having shared a friendship with Brigham, and making the trip that much more annoying with awkward conversation.
Commuting & cumming
But Townsend knows this is a queer novel and nothing moves a story along better than a few well-written, descriptive episodes of hot sex. The first of which occurs when Todd meets his old friend Tommy on the bus and they proceed to disembark and masturbate together in the bushes.
Morning commutes amount to evening work exhaustion; all captured on a bus packed with strangers getting busy "puffing out invisible virus particles." Somehow, Townsend makes it moderately fun and frolicsome, sexy and entertaining, mostly in a character study way, since the plot is nearly non-existent.
Todd also catalogs the variety of bus drivers on his route with descriptive ease ranging from the consistently rude Native American operator to the muscled Asian drive; all gluttons for the public's generous punishment swiftly delivered by riders who wear their entitlement on their sleeves with not a shred of appreciation for the essential workforce.
While most of the book is comprised of varietal sketches of passengers he encounters, the remaining pages feature Todd's adventures getting a colonoscopy without sedation, feeling a stranger's erection in his pants at the bus stop (then obsessing about where he put his hand sanitizer), romps with a logger named Anthony, a driver with a sex sling, or with buddy Tommy in the back of the bus after an unsuccessful night at the Bear Trap bar.
Townsend unexpectedly tosses in pages of social commentary about unconscious racial bias, internalized fat-shaming, mask policing, and COVID panic, which are refreshing and welcomed amidst the book's episodes of anti-vaxxer passengers and Todd's attempts to sexually connect to friends and random bus and train riders, all of which tends to wear thin and become claustrophobic.
But just when the monotony of bus life begins to clog the narrative, Townsend tosses out instant classic moments courtesy of his punchy, sassy, sexy lead character, who dejectedly chirps at a lover who suddenly changes plans:
"All douched out and nowhere to go." I put my hands on my hips. "You told me to be ready."
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