Originally published in New Zealand in 1991, and winning the 1992 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction, the Reed Fiction Award, and 1992 PEN (NZ) Best First Book in Prose Award, and published with substantial promotion in the United States in 1994, Dangerous Desires consists of three long stories (novellas) and five short stories by film-maker(Desperate Remedies) Peter Wells (1950-). As most collections of stories are, it is uneven, ranging from the banal and the familiar (three stories about the friend of man dying of AIDS) to original and unfamiliar, particularly in “Of Memory and Desire.”
As are all the other pieces, the major events in “Of Memory and Desire” take place in New Zealand, but the New Zealanders are minor players. The main characters are a short and plain Japanese woman, Sayo, who marries a tall and handsome Japanese man, Keiji. The couple marry in New Zealand and honeymoon amidst a Japanese group bus tour of New Zealand. The first half of “Of Memory and Desire” is more sexually graphic than any of the gay stories.
A cover blurb (from Los Angeles essayist/short story writer Bernard Cooper) invokes “the redemptive power of sex,” though I don’t see much redemption-and when it seems that it is going to come (particularly in the last story), it doesn’t. There is quite a lot of sex occurring in the eight stories, but when it is good, the relationships are brief, and sex is often shown as increasing loneliness rather than assuaging it. This is especially the case in “Encounter” which recalls a white boss’s young son molesting an adult Maori worker afraid to protest the unwanted advances (but finding ways to make the depredations unsatisfying for the boy).
There is some mutually satisfying gay sex in another of the long stories, “Bum to You, Chum,” although that story is primarily about finding out about a mother who the gay protagonist, Nick, knew as a fictive “aunt.” (That is, besides not knowing she was his mother, he did not even know “Aunty Tizz” was his grandmother’s daughter, which strains my credulity.) “Bum to You, Chum” has some surprises, which is more than I can say for the three Eric-Perrin stories. The other of the long stories, “One of THEM!” has a predictable end, though it has an interesting trajectory and provides a credibly poignant portrait of the friendship between two isolated adolescent males terrified of their dangerous desires (to borrow the book’s portentous, trite title).
The stories excel in showing the frustrations of gay men (and boys feeling homoerotic urges) in isolated, homophobic rural New Zealand. The shorter stories strike me as wispy; the longer ones are substantial in rich content, not just longer. I also think that Wells stints on catharsis, though there is a measure of it in the three longer stories (especially in “Of Memory and Desire”). Catharsis is particularly notably missing in “Dark and Light,” the short story placed last in the book and ending with yet another failure of connection and “Sweet Nothing” in which a trick that was not even consummated haunts the protagonist years later.
Even in those in which there is some catharsis, the stories end in sadness about missed opportunities for emotionally satisfying relationships. Although spiced up with explicit sex and complicated relationships, the book ultimately seems to be serving up a steady diet of something like mutton, varied by small servings of lamb, but not varying very much in the thick sauce of sadness in which everything is drenched. To borrow a formulation from Wells: the stories are “charged with the light negativity, or restrained depression, which passes for everyday life.”
BTW, “Of Memory and Desire” was made into a film (he title shorn of its preposition) in 1997 by Niki Caro.
This posting is another in my June gay-whatever world tour on AC.