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THE REAL THING
By WILLIAM CARNEY (Masquerade Books; 1968/95)

I’ve always found it odd that so much “adults-only” fiction tends to be insufferably juvenile. For an adults-only novel that actually lives up to its billing check out THE REAL THING by the late William Carney, an elegantly crafted account of revenge and psychosis among gay leathermen. Carney’s account has been dubbed an example of “gay erotica,” although that’s far from accurate, as the novel’s true lure is intellectual.

     THE REAL THING’S most obvious template is LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, with which it shares an epistolary format. This is to say that it’s related entirely in the form of letters, written by an experienced letherman instructing his nephew in “The Way.” The letters, distinguished by unerringly refined and erudite prose with an underlay of near-spiritual devotion, go into great detail about the lifestyle and behavior of adherents to The Way, which involves bondage and torture of every conceivable stripe. Thus we’re given a fascinating portrayal of a shadowy subculture with its own bewildering variety of codes, rituals and hierarchies. How accurate all this is I have no idea, but the novel’s depiction of this cloistered world is downright science fiction-ish in its fecund detail.

     The religious subtext, I might add, is quite overt: a screed about the proper uses of chains and whips explicitly references the Crucifixion, and the narrator isn’t above using Biblically-inspired language in lines like “The flaccid masochist…is an abomination in the eyes of a sadist.” In this manner the novel also recalls C.S. Lewis’ Christian classic THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, sharing with that similarly formatted novel--told in the form of letters by a Hell-spawned demon--an underlying conviction that the narrator’s pontifications shouldn’t be trusted.

     There’s a highly involved narrative here that gradually comes into focus amid all the hectoring. Early on we learn that the narrator was involved in the death of the brother of his pupil. The latter is upset about the matter, something the narrator well knows. Unfortunately he doesn’t consider the possible implications of that fact, and as the narrator sternly instructs his nephew in how to properly subdue an underling it’s clear that just such a dynamic is indeed taking place, although the roles of master and slave aren’t nearly as clear-cut as the narrator likes to believe.

     The narrator’s smug preconceptions are further upset in the final pages, in which the S&M play-acting he so enthusiastically advocates becomes horrifyingly real. There are further dark surprises in store here, in an impressively thoughtful and analytical yet also extremely sharp and shocking account. 

     

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