THE PALACE OF VARIETIES - James Lear



James Lear, you rogue. Stop underselling yourself. Pardon me, but his recent comments in The Independent On Sunday (March 2008) got me a little hot under the collar, my dears. “One disgruntled customer on Amazon described a James Lear novel as "smut with pretensions", and I think this is actually quite a good summary of the Lear method. It is unashamedly smut; let's face it, most readers like good sex scenes, whether they're dressed up in literary drag or not. The "pretensions" are the added extras: I try to provide a ripping yarn, some decent character development and a lot of good jokes. Humour is as essential to pornographic literature as yeast is to bread: without it, nothing is going to rise. Ideally, I would like to provide every reader with a packet of tissues, but as that's not possible I offer them high literary production values instead.”

...well written sex scenes. With jokes. Plus, in the case of Lear, fabulous cossies from Berman and Nathans and production values straight out of Gone With The Wind or one of those Merchant Ivory things.
I say hot under the collar simply because decent literary porn is so very hard (pardon the pun) to a) write b) get published and c) find on the shelf in your local Waterstones. And James does all three rather bloody well. And, he’s right. I think the key to good porn, gay, straight…whatever flavour, is providing well written sex scenes. With jokes. Plus, in the case of Lear, fabulous cossies from Berman and Nathans and production values straight out of Gone With The Wind or one of those Merchant Ivory things. The other trick is not to undersell your abilities to get the ingredients right. It is smut, James, but it’s good smut.

The Palace Of Varieties, now reissued by Cleis Press, was originally published by Zipper in 2003. It’s a delightful coming of age romp that follows the 18 year old Paul Lemoyne, initially an innocent about town, who has left home and made a bee-line for the heaving ‘metrolopis’. After a rather saucy encounter with two city gents in the loos at Waterloo Station, he’s given a lead to contact the owner of a down at heel theatre in the city. Once there, he ascends (or descends, if you’re that way inclined) the ladder to a life of prostitution and thievery.

Something the great Mr. Howerd would describe as capable of ‘hurling coconuts 25 feet!’.
Lear’s prose is economic but crafted enough to create precise pictures in the mind of both the debauchery and the setting in which it takes place. There’s a sequence where he first goes out on the game which is really rather wonderfully written. With his first catch, he’s taken by carriage to plush rooms and is seduced by Mr. Newsome, that ultimate fantasy of the ‘great dark man’ – a man sporting what would be tantamount to a sizeable blunt instrument. Something the great Mr. Howerd would describe as capable of ‘hurling coconuts 25 feet!’. It’s a florrid, tremulously overheated seduction where the drapes are pure silk and the shag pile is up to your armpits. Cut to the second night and Paul finds himself in a rough pub toilet, in cahoots with a prissy, constricted little man called Trevor who has a penchant for water sports. What’s great about this is the way that Lear manages to use his prose to enhance the sense of actually wallowing in pools of degradation whilst also making the action darkly erotic. It truly epitomises the notion of ‘filth’ with the sketched out images of that seedy pub pissoir, all wet floors and damp tiled walls.

He then meets up with the arch manipulator of the plot, Albert Abbott and things rapidly go off the rails for Paul from the moment he 'auditions' for the horrid man. He meets a painter who has a nice line in male pornography on the side...oh, 'but I'm telling you the plot, Michael!' Paul very much falls into the category of having only himself to blame for his journey into criminality. There’s something terribly attractive, and a bit naughty, about the convergence of gay sexuality and criminality and it may well be very non-PC to equate the two but give me Victim over Beautiful Thing most days of the week.

...and the sense of all of the events happening under the surface of the day to day world adds that extra piquancy
The other appeal here is that he’s also given us a gritty, atmospheric setting too. Paul works at a crumbling theatre that specialises in novelty acts, befriends the wonderful Vera (in the film in my mind this is Bette Bourne) who eggs him on to go exploring with the customers. I don’t believe that the central character is meant to be that attractive or appealing so I'm baffled at some comments that Paul is hard to like when, actually, I don't think you're supposed to like him. It’s one man’s journey into amoral depravity and how he manages to survive and partially be redeemed. A gay anti-hero isn’t necessarily something new but I’ve often found their remorseless inhumanity quite erotic in itself as they manipulate others sexually and then dispose of them rather too casually. However, it’s only satisfying if, in the end, the central character is redeemed in some way and recognises the error of his ways or gets his comeuppance (pardon the expression). I’ll leave you to find out what happens to Paul. And there are enough details on the periphery of the sexual action to just about give you a sense of the 1930s milieu that this takes place in, and the sense of all of the events happening under the surface of the day to day world adds that extra piquancy.

But just remember, as James himself has said (and I quote from the Independent again so I hope to God he did say this): ‘Erotic fiction has a purpose, and it's not a very highbrow one. James Lear's novels are designed specifically as aids to masturbation: two good orgasms per chapter for younger readers, one for the over forties. Each encounter gives the reader a variation on the theme, keeping the interest fresh. The plot exists to carry the reader from one orgasm to the next.’ If you approach the sexy and preposterous The Palace Of The Varieties with that in mind, I think you’ll be satisfied.

The Palace Of Varieties - James Lear (Cleis Press, 28th April 2008, ISBN: 157344314x)

Review of The Back Passage:HERE

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Comments
4 Responses to “THE PALACE OF VARIETIES - James Lear”
  1. Tumperkin says:

    I just googled this book cos I'm enjoying it so much (shades of Fanny Hill) and found your review.

    Adore the Frankie Howerd quote.

  2. FRANK says:

    Thanks, tumperkin.

    Glad you liked the review. I couldn't resist a quote from Frankie.

    More reviews shortly, including Lear's 'Hot Valley'. Stay tuned.

    F

  3. Sarah says:

    I loved this book, bloody funny and seriously good sex.

  4. FRANK says:

    Thanks Sarah.

    If you haven't read any of the other James Lear books then I highly recommend them. The same combination of wit, period settings and lots of utter filth.

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