Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review, Notes about Michael V. Smith's My Body is Yours: A Memoir

About Michael V. Smith:
Multifaceted gay Canadian writer, performance artist, and activist Michael V. Smith has published two fine novels, Cumberland and Progress, and the poetry collections What You Can’t Have, Body of Text, (with David Ellingsen) and his stirring and newest collection, Bad Ideas.

Cover image copyright 2015,
Arsenal Pulp Press
In his memoir My Body Is Yours, Michael V. Smith reflects on his turbulent childhood, coming out early, falling in love early, but also about becoming a sex addict, and crusing for sex in parks, all from the perspective of his mid-forties. But his perspective makes the account no less painful, from stories of his alcoholic father being in and out of work regularly, to Smith trying to hide who he was in his hometown, and gentler moments.There are moments of grace such as his description of walking home at dawn after a night in Stanley Park, finding solace in early morning bird song. 

Smith starts his story with his youth in Cornwall, our shared hometown. He recounts his splintered childhood, coping with his parents being unhappily married, largely due to his alcoholic father. Sporadically employed, his dad was a seismic, shifting and unpredictable force in his family's life. Mike realized he was gay in his adolescence, startlingly early by standards of the 1980’s. He finds requited love. Smith eventually takes his beau to prom, where their two female dates act as the boys’ beards. These kids were way ahead of their time, clearly. After a four-year relationship with his high-school sweetheart, who eventually realizes she is trans, Smith travels to San Francisco. He is, in his own words, urged on by an older gay friend as though they are characters in a queer indie film. Later, Smith lives in Toronto, Vancouver, and Kelowna, all the while cruising men online, on camera, but mainly in public parks.

Mike and I know each other from our hometown days, going as far back as grade seven at Central Public School (it's gone now, torn down about five years ago for a new school to go up in the same spot). He is two years older than me, and so I was two grades younger and mostly unnoticed, which is understandable. However, I got to know him better after Smith published his first novel, Cumberland. 

A debut as startling in its power as it is painful, Cumberland is set in a small town of the same name, a fictionalized Cornwall, Ontario. One protagonist in Cumberland, Ernest, is a laid-off mill worker discovering his queer sexual identity. The other hero, Aaron, a young boy, endures bullying and his own sexual awakening. My debut horror novel Town & Train also occurs in a fictionalized Cornwall. My stand-in, Brandon, is also enduring hard economic times, just as Cumberland is described as a "failing industrial town". Our descriptions of the hometown of our youth are unsurprising, given that in the wake of the Free Trade Agreement, many factories, such as Courtalds and Nestle, closed down in Cornwall in the 1990's to move operations to countries with cheaper overhead costs. Mike and I, although young, saw these closures happening in our mill-and-hockey town and obviously have carried this observation forward into our work.
Cover image copyright 2002,
Cormorant Books.
Town & Train also includes closeted queer characters such as the gay Constable Ritchie O'Donnell. My main protagonist Constable David Forester struggles to realize his bisexual identity. Mike and I also use some similar settings, including the landmark of the Domtar paper mill, physical descriptions of local areas such as the east end business district of Montreal Road and downtown's main intersection of Pitt and Second. But perhaps most importantly, we also depict the local gay cruising area. 

Around the time Cumberland came out from Cormorant Books, I was hammering away at revisions of Town & Train each morning before racing off to a wine retail job. Mike encouraged me to finish it and find a publisher instead of, he said, leaving the manuscript to waste away in a drawer. Impressed by Cumberland at the time, I asked Mike if I could include a cameo of one or two of his Cumberland characters in Town & Train. He generously agreed. So, if you look, you will find a familiar fellow cruising for men in the park in Town & Train.

Reading My Body Is Yours, I am struck by the harrowing, dangerous, and threatening situations Smith placed himself in, beginning with alcohol abuse. When he quit drinking, Smith rechanneled his addiction energy into staying up all night, cruising parks for sex. The lure of sex, the danger of being hurt, or worse, and the adrenaline-charged high he got from navigating darkened Stanley Park all became all too enticing.

I’m familiar with this hunt, at night, with men giving each other oblique signals in the park, a perpetual and fascinating dance of attraction and chase. Smith is, too. 

Smith includes "Prayer for Promiscuity", a piece about cruising in Stanley Park in his new poetry collection, Bad Ideas (Nightwood Editions, 2017). The poem hits the reader in the crotch, but also in the heart. Here's an excerpt.

Across Lost Lagoon, the apartment
complexes rise, pixelated

a horizon lonellier than childhood.
If we'd been children together, perhaps
we could have saved each other.

In this way, Smith deftly juxtaposes childhood innocence with the hardened experience of a man looking for casual sex in the park.

Reading a friend's memoir is not for the faint of heart. For me, learning that Mike imperilled himself so much, and so often, through barebacking or other careless constant sex with strangers, sometimes with multiple strangers simultaneously, is jarring. The idea knocks me sideways. His obsession matured, blossomed, and he expanded his area of risk, including online chat rooms, webcams, and random hook-ups under the highway bridge outside of town, in strangers’ cars, or even, in one chilling instance, a failed rendez-vous in a mechanic’s garage where Smith was nearly locked in with a troubled and musclebound stranger.

Smith’s successful memoir is, at turns, heart-wrenching, funny, sad, dramatic, and heartbreakingly confessional. It does, however, possess a single hitch—the narrative thread often back-steps in chronology. In one instance, Smith describes living in Vancouver. The next, he recalls his escapades a few years earlier in Toronto. The reader hears about Smith discovering a queer community in Vancouver and then Smith travels back to his days in Toronto dressing up in drag and making a drunken sexual spectacle of himself at a nightclub. Then the reader learns of Smith’s days as Cookie La Whore, the drag persona he adopted to host soirees at the Dufferin. Here, he and writer Billeh Nickerson admirably shored up the disparate parts of the queer artistic community, from rock bands to artists of all stripes. There’s merit here; the story is writ large and dramatic, and justifiably so. In a sense, this is Smith's Torch Song Trilogy, and the story breaks your heart. The order, though, could have benefitted from refining.

Coincidentally, on my first trip to Vancouver back in 2000, a university friend insisted on taking me to the Dufferin, or the “Duff”. And I did not recognize Mike. However, I saw his drag show and quite liked it. I've always liked a good drag show, when done with aplomb and skill. Besides, Mike is a very pretty, lithe woman, and man.

My Body is Yours often reads like a John Rechy novel. Rechy was famous for City of Night, his 1963 debut novel about a hustler finding his way in the underground sexual life of the glittering big American cities in the 1950s. The novel was compared to Genet and Jack Kerouac. Unfortunately, his critics pegged Rechy as as a hustler who wrote a book instead of a writer who happened to be a hustler. Rechy wrote several more books after City of Night, a fact which his detractors seemed to have failed to notice. But I digress.

Cover Image Copyright 2017,
Nightwood Editions.
I feel the need to contextualize how Smith feels in his skin, since the memoir is about his body. While Smith had agonized over body issues, he is comfortable with himself now. Myself, I have come to terms with being bi, although much later than in my teens, rather in my twenties and thirties. So I sometimes see Smith as an accelerated version of myself. He, too, is a skinny-boy-turned-skinny-man from a small town. Of course, he was far skinner than me. He was, in fact, skinnier than anyone around him growing up, as he mentions in the memoir. This is an accurate, not self-effacing observation. As a result, some men in the park would feel Mike’s meagre bicep and then simply move on. 

Of course, we also have in common the fact that he’s a writer. And a lover of men. He is, of course, much farther along the Kinsey Scale, his needle pointed squarely at the men side. I’m more toward the middle.

But as Mike recalls, or fails to recall, how he had sex with multiple partners in one night or how he prowled the parks four nights a week, I remind myself—I’m not reading about John Rechy or Jack Kerouac or Norman Mailer sinking themselves into depravity. Rather, I'm reading about someone I know. Someone I quite adore. It breaks my heart to hear what Mike did to himself through his obsessive compulsive disorder behaviour and addictions. 

I do, though, find solace in the fact that he came through it all intact. The world would be far less good and fabulous without Mike in it, as a writer, a person and an influence. I just want to hug him and say I’m grateful he came through the fire of his addictions.

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