on 23 October 2006
A skilfully-crafted, intriguing insight into the ways in which a person may use another as a conduit, or interpreter, enabling them to interact with the outside world. In 'The Dream Life', the author's vehicle for this is the relationship between a 33 year old tutor Hollis (Holly) and his 14 year old pupil. The boy, Jed, is metaphorically abandoned into the care of his tutor by his disinterested mother. In due course, the pair run away together - or, as the authorities would blindly have it, Holly kidnaps Jed. The tale is narrated alternately by Holly and Jed, as the couple travel across America. The author's quietly assured talent in creating a highly individualised 'voice' for each character lends the novel a genuine feeling of authenticity.
It is apparent from the beginning that both Holly and Jed have a powerful need for the other - more so for the opportunity that the other can offer, than for any superficial lust or romance. Indeed, it is clearly this mutual interdependency that is the focus of the novel; the respective ages of the protagonists are, to a large extent, incidental. Thus, while each character undergoes an individual development, such as the vivid depiction of Jed's metamorphosis during his period of adolescence, it is the combination of their two personalities that creates the intensity and is afforded the emotional focus. Both Holly and Jed are highly intelligent - in the sense of the scope of their external perspective - but equally, both lack that degree of confidence in their self-awareness. Each therefore needs the other as a mirror in which they may gain an accurate image of themselves. Hence, for example, Jed recognises early on that Holly is "playing a part he wrote for himself in a play that he's directing", but also senses Holly's need for an audience, and takes youthful pleasure in fulfilling that role for his tutor.
Bo Huston plays with this complex, fascinating, symbiotic, relationship with such subtlety that the web is spun subconsciously; and all the while the pages turn, the dialogue flows, the temperature rises and the experiences grow more extreme. This is an inspiring, provoking, dark, and ultimately ruthless manifestation of parasitic need in the guise of love and desire. Highly recommended.
Two classic novels haunt this tale of the sexual and emotional relationship between a fourteen year old boy, Jed, and his 33 year old private tutor Holly: 'Death in Venice' which the author quotes from at least three times, and 'Lolita', the latter because of an older man's attraction to a pubescent child and the journey they take together across America. It can be seen as a contemporary riff on these two classics of forbidden desire, in that Bo Huston makes the relationship sexually explicit and then takes it further by making Holly Jed's pimp. The two speak in their own words in alternative first-person narratives, so Jed's viewpoint is clearly and directly given, and, if we are to believe him, he takes having sex with a variety of men, some of whom have eccentric tastes, confidently in his stride. He's being exploited here, but he's at least half aware of it; because they are mutually dependent on each other, he accepts the situation.
The story reminds me that novels are not moral tracts (as Oscar Wilde pointed out at his trial over a century ago), nor are they blueprints for action; their task is to explore the 'what ifs...?' of life. They also have unique opportunities to explore the emotional and psychological damage caused by following certain paths, such as underage sex and the experience of being a very young rent boy, and it's here that I think the author sidesteps the issue. He presents rather than analyses; though he does take a swipe at those who would condemn Holly's relationship with Jed, not altogether convincingly. It's an explosive subject and Huston handles it with more skill than sensitivity perhaps. As Jed tires of his life with Holly as a rent boy, he splits off, aged fifteen, to start a life of independence. We wonder what will become of him and what effect his year 'on the run' with Holly has had on him in the long-term.
This novel was reissued as a Stonewall Inn Edition, giving it something of the status of a gay classic. It's well-written, transgressive, quietly challenging, and tackles a subject that most gay authors would shy away from.