Extra-special: Ryan O'Connell's 'Just By Looking At Him'

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday August 9, 2022
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author Ryan O'Connell
author Ryan O'Connell

2022 has been a triumphant year for Ryan O'Connell. The gay writer/actor/director/disability advocate is not only one of the stars of Peacock's reimagining of "Queer as Folk," but he wrote the best episode of the series, "F—Disabled People," which featured a disabled sex party orgy or crip rave. Now he's penned his debut novel, scoring another home run.

Background-wise, O'Connell authored his 2015 memoir "I'm Special And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves," concerning his life as a gay man with cerebral palsy, which he then adapted as a television series, "Special," for Netflix, starring in it for the two seasons it ran.

COVID ended "Special" and during lockdown, he wrote "Just By Looking At Him" —what did you do during the pandemic? "Just" should make some critics' lists of the Top Ten Queer novels of the year and win the prize for sexiest book jacket, a reproduction of Henry Scott Tuke's 1927 painting, "The Critics."

author Ryan O'Connell (Instagram)  

Elliott is a thirty-five-year-old overpaid TV writer (for a popular moronic series about a robot called "Sammy Says") with cerebral palsy. The deceptively simple story is told from Elliott's perspective. He has the "perfect" supportive boyfriend Gus, together, almost six years in a co-dependent relationship.

At night, they order Postmates, drink bottles of natural wine, watch numbing television for hours, and have dissociative sex. Stuck in a rut and perhaps hit by the seven-year itch, Elliot is becoming less grateful and more resentful about the relationship. And he feels creatively stifled in his flashy job.

In talking to his emotionally abusive boss Ethan, he hears about his wild night with a sex worker named River. Seeking more life experiences to mimic those of his able-bodied peers, Elliott spends the $480 an hour with the aspiring optician River. It becomes an ongoing arrangement, which at first he hides from Gus, fearing a conversation about opening up their relationship and forgoing monogamy. Elliott slowly realizes he is self-sabotaging, with River hookups becoming a sex addiction, as is his increasing alcohol dependency.

Through an unlikely series of events, River forms a threesome with Gus, though the latter isn't informed of Elliot's previous association with him. Elliot watches River top Gus, who lets out "guttural almost inhumane, moans of pure pleasure he had never heard before. This was the way sex was supposed to be. This was sex without me."

Elliott's disability issues seem to be deflected back on Gus. Can their partnership survive all this turmoil? And what will be the impact when Elliot reconnects with Jonas, someone he knew in school, who also has cerebral palsy? Can Elliott learn to value himself in a world that he doesn't believe values him?

Gay Mad Libs
The novel starts with a fantastic opening line: "My boyfriend Gus has a beautiful penis," which O'Connell spends a paragraph praising. The many sex scenes are all explicit and graphic. The book's first half is reminiscent of Stephen McCauley novels ("The Object of My Affection") in the comic, sardonic tone satirizing many elements of gay life, though raunchier.

For example, here's O'Connell's snarky takedown of "pointless brunches with other upwardly mobile gays that our meals are basically a game of Mad Libs: Insert adjective to describe your gay vacation here. Insert name of gay famous person whose house you recently went to for a dinner party. (It's always Jesse Tyler Ferguson. WHY?). Insert flighty comment to demonstrate that you haven't gone full snooze and are DTF outside the relationship. Did a black trans woman really throw the first brick at Stonewall so cis white gays could eat $26 eggs Benedict as they unpacked the new Robyn album?"

Or this priceless blunt description of Provincetown:
"It's like someone painted the perfect picture of a quintessential New England seaside town. And that someone also happened to be really gay and horny. Husbands and wives eat ice cream with their children right next to a group of leather gays. You can see beautiful pieces of art, eat your saltwater taffy, and then mosey on over to a place called Dick Dock, which is pretty self-explanatory. You can bring your dad one week and your daddy the next."

The book is filled with witty zingers and an endless stream of pop culture references all compacted into one-or-two-page fast paced chapters, zipping the plot along and building up the characters.

Dark demons
However, the novel's second half mirrors a kind of dark night of the soul where Elliott confronts demons related to his disability that he has ignored or repressed, as well as ableism, which he critiques but also acknowledges he's benefitted. All these demons coincidentally follow similar struggles O'Connell has divulged in interviews.

Elliot tires of always trying to be the "most palatable, easy to digest, the crostini" version of disability, worrying about other people's snap judgments of him. He realizes how much of being disabled is feeling restricted or boxed in, of being told what would happen to him, a preordained life. His struggle is to do something on his own terms, instead of others trying to control him.

Elliot's worst fear is being rejected for his body, which is why he pays River to accept him and provide a safe place for him to explore without any fear of repudiation. He's also hounded by the nagging suspicion he's not good enough in bed. But when he wants River "to fuck him for free," their arrangement ends.

Elliot's mission is to get his dick back, as once you are born disabled, society doesn't see you as sexually viable. Elliot discover how sex is a great way to feel less alone, less stigmatized. That is why he's willing to put himself out there, being vulnerable, experiencing rejection and bouncing back, but regardless, not letting it act as an indicator of his worthiness or value as a person. Elliot's dream is for other people to see and accept him for who he is, including his giant ass ("a CP thing," but also a sexual asset).

The other insight underlying the novel is how much disability is deplored by our society because it's based on productivity, being bigger, faster. Being a death-denying culture, we don't know how to deal with aging and weakness. If you live long enough, you will likely end up disabled in some capacity, a fact people dread facing.

Cerebral palsy artistically has been a gold mine for O'Connell, giving him his unique autobiographical voice. He's already written the screenplay for the film version of this novel.

What's next? A Broadway play or musical on the subject? O'Connell is a singular talent along the lines of the early Woody Allen, so one hopes he might transcend his comfort zone and tackle a different topic for his next creative endeavor.

Regardless, "Just" excels in giving a window as to how disabled people feel when they are treated as other, but this instruction comes through hilarious, heartfelt episodes rather than scolding rhetoric or tirades about how able-bodied people oppress the disabled.

Elliot is on a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, but a candid one where he's not afraid to make mistakes or confess and lampoon his flaws. Readers will be thrilled to accompany Elliot as he limps toward redemption.

'Just By Looking At Him: A Novel' by Ryan O'Connell. Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, $27. www.simonandschuster.com

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