Eliot Duncan's 'Ponyboy' — trans-male autofiction

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday August 1, 2023
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Author Eliot Duncan (photo: Lucien Phoenix)
Author Eliot Duncan (photo: Lucien Phoenix)

Oh, to judge a book by its cover. Eliot Duncan's debut novel, "Ponyboy" (Norton), enters wearing a striking collage of photos by three different photographers, provocatively welded together by designer Richard Ljoenes. It's the kind of cover that will make queers of a certain slant of mind and lovers of black and white photography generally want to pick it up. Just as in the novel, many will touch; more will move on.

Like that cover, Duncan provides his stories in three sections, called "negatives," presented in reverse order. For all its surface and latent sensationalism, Duncan's story is quite ordinary by present-day standards.

An Nebraska-born trans male known to others by the nickname Ponyboy moves to Paris for no more pressing reason than that, like Dorothy's Oz, it's not the Great Plains anymore. In Paris, he lives with his girlfriend, Baby. They're poets, but this isn't "La Boheme." Almost heroically, they consume piles of powder and rivers of booze between "readings."

When Baby gets a job in Berlin, Ponyboy follows. Things get worse. More men enter the picture. He hits bottom spectacularly, Berlin being one of those places, like Bangkok, where people famously go with that single goal. Then it's back to the Midwest, Iowa this time, for some overdue if promising recovery. Phoenix rises from the ashes.

Of all the things "Ponyboy" is, it's at heart an addiction story —parable, really— with a standard, predictable arc that lingers over the "drunkalogue" because it's so much better copy.

Author Eliot Duncan  

Addiction and its discontents
The problem with addiction stories is that they are, like addiction itself, fundamentally boring, if only for all the repetition. The addict and a segment of his audience stay entertained, but people outside the blast radius have either heard it all before or don't want to sit for the repeats.

There's an appropriately drunken quality to the prose of the first two sections (negatives three and two, respectively): the darting in and out of time; the broken sentences; the skewed time frames; confusing changes of speaker within paragraphs from which quotation marks have been banished. Any narrative gain is offset by the superficiality of the elements and the skirting of the psychological issues.

The prose sobers up with the return to Iowa. Like many newly sober people, Ponyboy can't shut up, but there's banality and something dangerously close to preaching just beneath the surface. The writing feels imitative, if not always of exactly what. The novel has too indistinct an authorial voice to accommodate the voices of its other characters.

Kinky prose
When Duncan is not bending the words to his will (there's a fair amount of bending, mostly over, in this novel), some inviting prose floats in. Of a gray Berlin morning:

"We sat in Tempelhof and the sun ate away at our hangovers."
"I reminded myself not to compare our articulations of masculinity."

With a dash of Silicon-ese:
"Toni steps down the hill. My/their skirt, unzippered on their hips, falls thoughtfully. The reach to hold onto it, pleats in the wind. Their bare legs uninstall gender."

There's a welcome lack of cliché in Duncan's sex writing, some of his most focused. That noted, the very gender fluidity that's at the heart of this story yields a number of startling couplings, and all too often it's not clear who's zooming who. Even at its most lurid, there's a sense that the story "needs pictures" to be believed.

Like a character out of Alban Berg's "Lulu," the unnamed photographer occasions strong feelings (in this reader as well as Ponyboy), but no sooner has he captured our attention than the language drains away.

"I do feel his depth," Ponyboy observes, "it's a sensation that spreads through every limb, like a tension that releases intravenously into nonhuman calm."
The word "intravenously" —at first such an intruder in the sentence— does posit a world of drugs (if not Ponyboy's staples), but sensation dissolved into sensationalism.

Getting drunk with Gabriel over a song blasting in a bar, Ponyboy's "blood chimes in the syncopated notes of my heart. Some deep part of me falls to my stomach in a colossal note. A vibrational sureness pulses in the cock-crux of me."

Where the tall corn grows
The overwriting is chronic and intrusive. It even takes the form of quotations or invocations from the likes of Nietzsche and Freud, who haunt the paragraphs. It sometimes resorts to orthographical special effects to do what words can't or for the moment won't. There's some pasted-in "art."

The subject matter is deliberately disturbing, but it's the autofiction that's creepy. Duncan is an alum of the legendary Iowa Writers' Project, about which we've read a lot over the years, since it has not only hatched fine writers but also has served as the setting of recent gay novels.

What feels derivative about "Ponyboy" is the way it shadows the major gay novel of the Iowans. On the surface, there's the expat stories. Then, its three sections mirror those of "What Belongs to You," with similar diversions into the ruminations on the sins of the father. Front and center, there's the candor about sex and the raw depictions of it, which have come to feel de rigueur in a certain strand of gay literary fiction.

Not unlike Garth Greenwell's, Duncan's sex scenes are more about exchange and degradation than they are about physical couplings, but where Greenwell makes art of those scenes, Duncan provides only the weaker tea of porn. I'm not impervious to the charms of smut, but in "Ponyboy" it's seldom clear what lies beneath the characters' physical contortions and the shame they elicit. For all the performative raunch on display, there's scant meaning.

I'm continually on the lookout for trans fiction that doesn't just relate how hard it is to be trans but what it's like to be trans. The two are fatally blurred in "Ponyboy."
In a time of book bans, there's some cause for celebration that such a book can get published at all. But for a deeper look into the means and mysteries of transgender lives, Susan Faludi's "In the Darkroom" remains the gold standard.

'Ponyboy' by Eliot Duncan. 232 pp., $16.95

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