Dealing the dirt

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday October 30, 2018
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When a writer names his protagonist Judas Stammers, drop any expectation that his novel will embrace naturalism beyond the hyper-real. And in the case of Dale Peck's new novel, "Night Soil" (Soho Press), forget everything you think about the Dale Peck of the past — novelist, critic and controversationalist offense-dispenser — and prepare for a work of dizzying, profane, deeply comic imagination.

You could without misrepresentation say that the novel's themes are environmental degradation (man raping nature), the evils of racism and slavery (man raping man/woman), the necessities and illusions of art (man/woman mind-fucking others and themselves), the beauty of ugliness and vice versa — and, this in caps, THE SINS OF THE FATHERS VISITED ON THE SONS OF THE THIRD AND FOURTH GENERATIONS. But that would be deceptively Uptown.

In "Night Soil" Peck builds an edifice out of all manner of dirt, something perhaps only a gay man could have written so captivatingly. If you're averse to core human experience exposed at levels beneath everyday honesty, give this upliftingly harrowing book a miss.

Here, mashed as if through a potato ricer, is the saga. Judas is the delta in which the sap of a family tree as ancient as America runs, expressly to dry up and blow away. A family fortune built on male exploitation — the mining of increasingly deep layers of gold, copper and coal by generations of slaves, only to be covered over and replaced with new enterprises of Babylonic folly (a word Peck uses in its technical architectural sense) — runs out on its first woman of agency, Dixie Stammers, and her gay son, grotesquely deformed from birth. That would be Judas.

If you think you smell gay self-hatred here — and, indeed, if strong smells upset you — go back to the comforts of "A Boy's Own Story" or, if you've the mettle, "The Swimming Pool Library." "Night Soil" tackles internalized homophobia by making it, like the detritus of the Stammers' catastrophic mine explosion, both the unstable topsoil of this unsparing novel and the ground beneath its feet.

And if you thought Garth Greenwell's renderings of tearoom sex, or Neel Mukherjee's of cottaging, were brave in their candor, you ain't read nothin' yet. "Night Soil" is a book you're unlikely even to talk to others about, let alone give for Christmas. Yet, for the willing, reading it is equally ecstatic and meditative.

Dixie Stammers makes her own fortune crafting, by hand alone, ceramic pots not only perfectly cylindrical but — and here's where the art world rolls in with the "added value" — identical to a scientifically provable degree. To say that she has other problems is like saying Lady Macbeth has bad dreams, and her parenting of Judas is as warped as her pots are not, and as mindless as her artistic concentration is not, yet understandable.

Judas, accordingly, is in all ways fucked, including by everyone but the objects of his own desire. He's a survivor by dint of looking into the hearts of matters and reporting back in language of prodigal invention.

The lowest circle of his personal hell — apart, that is, from chafing loneliness and the ravages of abandonment — is a season (years, not months, though the passage of time is detailed in other ways, both graphic and inward-looking) at an abandoned rest stop turned male-on-male sex trap and scatological temple, where what he first thinks is the eye-watering smell of Lysol is in fact that of stale poppers. Here's a Peck sentence comparatively plain in its wordsmithery:

"Even if you surrounded yourself with life-size pictures of all four walls you'd still miss the squeak of shoes over sticky tiles, the clammy breath of toilet water a few inches below your balls, and of course the smells: of sweat, of cum, of piss, but especially of shit, which has seeped into the drywall like an old coffee pot whose glass has gone irremediably brown." This is but an introductory offer to Peck's serrated prose.

There are no lavender Valentines or elevating takeaways here. What take their place are less streams of consciousness than insights ejaculated in daredevil, bravura spurts. Judas' is consciousness at its most observant, as uninhibited in its imagination as it is unblinking in its psychic spelunking. Peck's unmagical realism coughs up a character as unforgettable as Oskar in "The Tin Drum."

His cantilevered sentences sometimes interrupt their manic flow to comment on themselves or to address the reader directly. And either Peck is adept at neologism, or my own vocabulary is meager. No one less schooled in circular breathing than a symphony bassoonist could read this book out loud, but it warrants, and rewards, being read word-for-word.

If you've read this far, you're in this book somewhere and perhaps all over. Even with the most consequential elections of our lifetimes about to be stolen by homophobes, you could do worse than lose and find yourself in this most scathingly American of gay novels.