by PJ Vernon
Our husband’s brother Best friend of our wife. Our waiter, our doctor, our gardener. Maybe even that zucchini of the garden. restricted. We know the rules. We don’t even think about it. OK, let’s think about it a little bit.
Maybe we’re thinking about transgressive sex right now.
I often wondered about my sex rules when I read PJ Vernon’s second novel, “Bath Haus,” a smart, steamy thriller with major questions about control and shame. As the pages flew, my mind shifted away from the tribulations of its protagonist, Oliver Park, to the cultures in which such stories thrive. It’s right there in the title: “Haus.” Why does Germany have a reputation for both honesty and sex dungeons? What about civilized Japan, the fetish mecca – or the purist yet ungrateful United States? How have we made such a strong connection between hot, tough and wrong?
“Bath Haus” opens with Oliver, red-faced and palms clingy, sitting in the parking lot of a gay sauna in Washington, D.C. His cautious partner, Nathan, is out of town, and Oliver on the nerve to cheat. doing work. He is tired of living by Nathan’s rules. He wants to be bad.
Minutes after Oliver crosses the threshold, he is faced with something worse than he had bargained for. Christian, a chiseled stranger with a Scandinavian accent, invites Oliver to a private room. The two are starting to really enjoy each other’s company when Christiane wraps her hand around Oliver’s neck and refuses to leave. Oliver survives Christian’s attack, but bruises on his neck mark him like a red letter.
Did Oliver dare to confess to Nathan? No – he weaves a web of lies to protect himself from a partner he loves and fears. Then Christiane reappears, threatening to expose Oliver, and goes so far as to trap Nathan’s contractor and his cocker spaniel. Christiane always seems to be one step ahead of Oliver, who becomes increasingly desperate to save his relationship and his life.
Vernon tells much of the story in Oliver’s voice, and herein lies the novel’s strength: a sinister narrator who staggers between defying rules that oppress his desires and what he thinks he can’t have. To hate myself He developed his habits of cheating and self-loathing during his locked youth in the Rust Belt, where he and his first love sat apart in the movies. Then Nathan whispers her to a townhouse in Georgetown, only to find her raising her like an unreliable boy’s toy. We begin to understand why Oliver is so ashamed of what he wants and who he is.
Not all characters get such a fine portrayal. Kristian, the undisputed Norwegian sex worker, is the convenient villain equivalent of “Basic Instinct”‘s gay psychopath Roxy. As their conspiracies progressed to their inevitable conclusion, my mind turned to the questions I had begun with. Did Oliver break the rules because he wanted sauna sex? Or did he go to the sauna because he wanted to break the rules?
“The discovery of one’s sexual preference should not be a trauma. It is a trauma because it is such a traumatized society.” James Baldwin told The Village Voice in 1984. He described his vision of a more tolerant future – a “New Jerusalem” – in which no one had to hide or defend their priorities. If sex were subject to less regulation, scrutiny and judgment, perhaps we would all find crime a little less annoying. Will Oliver still be running for secret encounters? This is not for me to say. But I expect that “New Jerusalem” has a lot of saunas.