This novel begins with a rather disorientating sequence where a car hits an animal and the driver flees. Is this really happening? Is it a nightmare? A story the narrator is composing? This ambiguity sets the tone for a novel that is quite dream-like following the affair between a forty-something Englishman named Paul staying in a hotel in Chicago and a barely-legal boxer/waiter named Adrian. After hooking up it becomes clear the two have been circling around each other for a short time. Told entirely from Paul’s perspective it is difficult to know Adrian’s real motives for entering into the relationship. After observing rent boys from a distance and giving Adrian cash after their encounters Paul thinks he’s probably only staying with him for his money. The two set on a road-trip journey as Adrian wants to drive all the way to Brazil. The growing intensity of their intimacy reaches levels which skirt dangerously around love. Written in a blunt yet enigmatic style “Bruiser” follows two lost souls seeking to find a new understanding.
At first I was sceptical about the main thrust of this story. It seemed more like an erotic fantasy than a likely scenario that a hot sporty teen would take up so readily with a reserved man in his forties. There are lots of descriptions lavishing attention to Adrian’s gym-trained body and his sexual forthrightness. However, it does seem plausible that a drifter boy with no real future might seize an opportunity to hook up with a lonely man with cash to spare in order to escape and indulge in his whimsical desire to travel. Adrian is someone actively seeking out to be toughened by life. As part of his boxing training he stands defenceless while his teacher gives him a severe beating in order to harden him for the ring as well as what could be considered the outpouring of a frustrated sexual desire. Coy, mischievous and prone to fits of sullen brooding, Adrian is someone who hasn’t had the kind of support in life to allow him to embrace the responsibilities of being an adult.
The excruciating tension which builds up over the various obstacles the pair encounter is found in the ambiguity of what Paul and Adrian really mean to each other. The loose nature of their partnership means that at any time one could abandon the other leaving them bereft. When Paul receives his savings from England Adrian asks in a frightening way “Is this all?” When Adrian becomes scared that a former partner of his might be HIV+ and Paul stops having sex with him its possible the boy might be abandoned. This is a relationship which runs through with feverish intensity as the pair come together so suddenly and set out together with no clear commitments or plans other than to make it to South America. It very much reminded me of the 90s queer film ‘The Living End’ about a couple who set out on the road together feeling like they have nothing to lose so seek to burn themselves out living life to the full.
There is an intense claustrophobia to much of this book as a lot of it takes place in random hotel rooms where the pair have no one but each other. Rather than go into intimate details about the tumultuous feelings being experienced by both men the author conveys their emotions through small actions and subtle shifts in the way they relate to each other. This makes their relationship feel very alive and true especially as their masculine pride often masks what they really desire. We only get snippets out of Paul’s history and why he’s left his life in England to drift around America. Likewise, the history Adrian relates about his life is often contradicted later on making the truth about his situation mysterious. But when part of the truth about his past finally does emerge it's devestating. What is clear is the ontological crisis each man must be feeling. They desperately cling to each other as if they are on the run – even though no one is chasing after them. This is what really drew me into the story and what made me so fearful about where their tale would end.
Richard House is a curious writer who can at times feel too bewildering, but surprises when delivering strikingly original perspectives and occasionally devastatingly powerful lines. Since this is the first book by House that I’ve read I’d be very interested to now read his book “Uninvited” and his more ambitious Booker-longlisted tome “The Kills.”