Growing up gay and glued to a television screen, I became aware at a fairly early age that popular culture tends to demonize homosexuality, and that film in particular has a long, upsetting history of equating queerness with monstrosity. Take for example the character of “Buffalo Bill,” the serial killer Clarice Starling hunts in The Silence of the Lambs. He’s a transsexual who was, at a critical point in his transition, deemed too disturbed for gender reassignment surgery. Instead of transitioning in a sane (or even a recognizable) way, he begins making himself a female skin suit, the scalp of which he dons in a famous scene that sees him staring at himself in a mirror, wearing a flowery robe and tucking his penis between his legs to create the illusion of being a female. His expression in this moment is triumphant. His head tilts back, his chest heaves. His image, though never explicitly referenced, haunts “Brace for Impact,” the first story in Brian Booker’s collection Are You Here For What I’m Here For?
The main character of “Brace for Impact,” a teenage boy named Eric, is watching Silence of the Lambs alone in his basement when his friend D. calls, inviting him out to a small party at a girl’s house, where D. will later lose his virginity. Eric is in the closet, has mono, and doesn’t want to get too friendly with the girl D. sets him up with. He spends much of the evening with an old woman in a wheelchair who treats him for warts. Staring down at the potato chunks she’s pressed against his skin, he thinks of them as infected, having contracted the virus that causes warts (and, with it, the “disease” of his sexual orientation, which society has framed as a kind of illness or, in Buffalo Bill’s case, a depraved and unfathomable evil). Near the end of the scene, the old woman tells Eric it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t believe—that potato will still cure him of warts. Time will free his body from mono and, perhaps, rid him of his need to be in the closet and his fondness for tight, clean Band-Aids. He’s not a monster, the story makes clear. In its final scene, Eric, alone in his basement again, thinks of Hannibal Lecter’s chilling words: “Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?” The thriller becomes less about monstrosity and more about desire: Clarice’s great ambition, Buffalo Bill’s need to reinvent himself as a woman, and, in this story, Eric’s thwarted desire for D.
In Booker’s short stories, our monstrous and innocuous desires become illnesses, illnesses beget fever and confusion, and in this altered state reality merges with dream, allowing us to believe, for instance, that we’ve been quarantined on a train, that we’ve bottled a tiny mermaid, or that our dreams (of giants and freckles and the sea) correspond to the lucky numbers listed neatly in a notebook. This notebook’s owner, a tramp named Jack, lives and later kills himself in a hotel where the narrator of “A Drowning Accident” hangs out on days he doesn’t go to school. There is no truant officer coming after this boy, no father telling him to stay in school, only Jack—the sad, strange man the young narrator meets when he walks around town as if in a dream. Like so many of Booker’s characters, the boy suffers from a mysterious illness, which separates him from other boys his age and forces him to spend several months in bed. He recuperates at home, sleeping for a long time; as he sleeps, the world as he knows it disappears, replaced by another, more perilous one, in which the mysterious epidemic spreads and he and his doctor joke about accidental death. Booker’s greatest strength as a writer is his ability to render surreal, dreamlike landscapes such as this in exacting detail, making them feel familiar in spite of their strangeness. Like the narrator of “A Drowning Accident,” we’ve all lain in bed, tended by a mother or another caregiver, and we’ve all surrendered at some point to our waking dreams.
This metaphorical and psychological landscape both grounds and unmoors Booker’s characters, lending them the curious quality of existing in a specific time and place (a sleepy little town that was once devastated by a tidal wave, a ski lodge where a man’s son might’ve gone missing, a car aiming for the desert) yet being unbound by the confines of the real world, free to explore regions of the psyche that many writers find difficult to access. In “Gumbo Limbo,” what starts out as a simple mermaid story turns into a fantastical exploration of what it means to be the outcast or the “other.” In “Love Trip,” what begins as a quiet, almost soothing fascination with an instructor leads to a failed erotic encounter in the deserts of California. In all Booker’s stories, the primary action takes place in that liminal window when characters are most vulnerable, open to a wide variety of pleasures and maladies, before either recovering from illness or closing off to the idea of being cured. Perhaps the most literal example of this is the title story, “Are You Here For What I’m Here For?” in which a couple travels to a place called the Sun Club on St. Rita, where a group of people suffering from various illnesses have come to convalesce. Though moved almost to tears at one point, Gina, who may or may not be dying, doesn’t find the experience particularly healing in the end. Booker appears uninterested in the melodrama of recovery.
There’s something to be admired in every story in the collection. Booker’s prose is elegant and inventive, never sacrificing clarity for the sake of strangeness or self-indulgent obfuscation. I found all his stories, with one exception, remarkably compelling, and though their surreal action washes over the pages like watercolors, each story leaves a clear and indelible image.
Another reviewer has argued that the story “Gumbo Limbo” doesn’t seem in keeping with the rest of the collection, in that it is, as I’ve mentioned, the most fantastical story, the one that diverges the most from Booker’s mix of realism and dreamlike magical realism. Thematically, however, “Gumbo Limbo” covers much of the same territory as the other stories, building on Booker’s examinations of disease, monstrosity, and isolation. Only “Here to Watch Over Me” falters, spending too much time on a delusion (that the main character’s son is merely missing) that Booker could’ve dispensed with in half the pages if he were so inclined. I much prefer the scene in “Gumbo Limbo” where Liam, a blind boy at the heart of the story, asks the mermaid he meets if it likes the rain. “‘No,’ said the creature.” From its perspective, rain is just “the shadow of a cloud.” From the reader’s perspective, the mermaid may or may not be a dead seahorse. This ambiguity fuels Booker’s work, and it’s what makes his short stories worth reading over and over again. Every time I open this book, I find something new.