Neil Bartlett,
Ready to Catch Him
Should He Fall

(Serpent's Tail, 1990;
Dutton, 1991)

Neil Bartlett's Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall is extraordinarily hard to describe. In its basics, it is a romance -- a love story of modern times, set in a universe at once mundane and fantastic. It is also fable, fantasy, allegory, history and myth.

Bartlett has created this book, as so many gay men create their lives, from bits and pieces welded together by a sense of what it should be. As he himself says in a final note, the novel includes fragments and reworkings of Oscar Wilde, Baron Corvo, E.M. Forster, Jean Genet, song lyrics and screenplays, the lives of divas, a century of gay history and culture filtered through his own vision of contemporary gay life. In his hands, it has become something real and potent, with a depth that might seem surprising, given the bare bones of the story: it is a romance between the Boy, young, beautiful, with a voracious appetite for experience, and O, the Older Man, mature, also beautiful, beset by his own demons and looking, perhaps, for redemption, or maybe only an anchor. The facilitator -- more, the engineer of this alliance -- is Madame, also known as Mother, the owner of The Bar, where Boy and O meet and court. The story is told by an anonymous and omniscient narrator whom I christen in my own mind the Auntie, and who is by turns wise, acerbic, giddy and very, very real.

The metaphor is the movies, and the characters begin as stereotypes that move rapidly into the realm of archetype as well as symbol while maintaining their own uniqueness as people. The Boy appears at 19, a young man looking for something. For him, the search is quite literal: he walks the city looking for something, looking for a place he belongs. He knows what he wants, but he doesn't yet know where to find it. In this, he is like every young gay man who leaves home and comes to the big city, having left his history behind him. O is another archetype: in his 40s, he has a history, one known in any detail, it seems, only to Mother; his question is whether he has a future. And they are, of course, both beautiful.

What the book actually describes is the lives of gay men in England and the U.S. at a certain point in history, a turning point. The life in The Bar (even the locations are archetypal) is punctuated periodically by reports of assaults on men, usually but not always involving knives. There is a large measure of anger here, perhaps best exemplified by Boy's exclamation at Father's funeral (he is not Boy's father, he is really Boy's history, and in that way that characters shift roles, he is a communal history, the limbo that gay men lived in once upon a time, and many still do): "O held onto him, but Boy said, don't try to stop me from crying. Boy said, I am not crying because he's dead. I am crying for the life he led. And it isn't my fault and it wasn't his fault but I wish there was somebody to blame, if he wasn't to blame then who was to blame, who was it, oh I want to hurt them, I want to hurt them, I want to hurt them."

One aspect of Bartlett's book that is more than a little admirable is his ability to cast what many would think of as tawdry into the realm of myth. He is himself a dramatist, and perhaps that really is one of the best metaphors for the lives of gay men in a world that is at its best barely tolerant: it all becomes a stage show, the sequins and feathers, the exaggerated makeup, all glow under the lights with the force of heightened reality, life edited and dressed up to become bigger and more real than it is.

Ready to Catch Him predates, to a large extent, the "we're just like everyone else" political mantra espoused by The Movement in recent years, which itself strikes me as a have-your-cake-and-eat-it philosophy. Once upon a time, the idea was that we should all be treasured for our differences that make life something besides a round-the-clock 9 to 5. In many respects, the book is about gay liberation, but Bartlett has done it in such a way as remove it from the realm of the overtly political completely, although there is no escaping the highly political subtext. The hidden life of The Bar, the anger, the assaults, the life of Father, all resolve themselves in the final triumph of Boy and O, who ultimately are not granted the right to be treated like everyone else -- they just take it, as their due.

This is an exceptionally good book, one that offers a hard look at the lives of men, a film history alternating between lush Technicolor and grainy black-and-white, complete with a soundtrack of the popular music of the day. A story told with a kind of raw, campy grace, at once highly entertaining and deeply moving, it makes its way without hesitation into the realm of mythology: it has that weight of truth to it. Definitely two thumbs up.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 15 January 2005

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