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The boy who loved
too much

The boy who loved
too much


An interview with author Mack Friedman about his debut novel, Setting the Lawn on Fire, a powerful coming-of-age tale about adolescent queer desire

Mack Friedman's luminous and thrilling first novel, Setting the Lawn on Fire (University of Wisconsin Press/Terrace), tells the story of Ivan, a young gay Jewish boy from Milwaukee. In crisp poetic language the novel follows Ivan through the 1980s on his sexual and emotional odyssey from adolescence into early adulthood. His adventures take him to many places, from Wisconsin to Alaska, Philadelphia to Mexico, as well as through many rites of passage: gymnastics, a lonely stint in a salmon factory, art school, hustling. The concise lambent quality of Friedman's prose is as sensual as the evocative descriptions of Ivan's erotic obsessions and encounters.

Edmund White gave the novel a glowing review, and one can see Friedman's novel as brilliantly building on and reinvigorating the tradition White established in A Boy's Own Story: novels that map the dizzying, messy, exuberant terrain of growing up queer in a country where you have to learn along the way. Profoundly moving, Setting the Lawn on Fire manages that difficult balance of being both incredibly sexy and incredibly sorrowful. What perhaps thrilled me most about the novel is how beautifully it gets at the sublime mystery of queer desire. Of his many gifts, Friedman's eye for conjuring those boys who hook our hearts early on, and stay there, is perhaps his most impressive. The cumulative effect is profoundly moving: The reader remembers the ghosts of all those boys from the past as well as the ghost of the boy who was himself. The book will appeal both to readers who want to make sense of the past and to those in the tumultuous midst of where Ivan is. caught up with Friedman in Pittsburgh to ask him about the book.

I haven't read a novel in a long time that gets so beautifully, as yours does, at the mystery of adolescent queer desire, its strange magic, and how that follows us into adulthood. The novel dwells on and goes deeply into that mystery through the main character, Ivan. What is it about the space that draws you as a writer? How did you access that as a writer? A wise old leather daddy once told me something very funny and true: "Every first novel is a puberty novel," he said. And he twirled his handlebar mustache (silver, with a dash of nicotine gold), and told me about his latest Viagra weekend with an old flame and a new slave. And I'll bet the look in his eyes was the same one he had 60 years ago after he jerked off with his best friend for the first time. You could see this youthful vigor and amusement brimming just inside, excitable and heroic and proud. That's the space that draws me. But I'm also fascinated by the thin line between prostitution and love, honor and desecration, consent and abuse, youth and adulthood. How we grow up, why we get into rough situations, and how we get out of them. The confusion, the terror, and above all, the overwhelming desire, the resilience. I think that glittering broken-down alleyway of adolescence is every gay man's past, including my own. It was helpful to me as a writer to mine my own back alleys. When I was a kid I kept a meticulous journal of my jerk-off fantasies. I found it a few years ago cleaning stuff from my parents' house. This book is, in a sense, a compendium of my boyhood desires, filtered by 10 years of adulthood and a damn good editor named Raphael Kadushin.

One of the most exquisite aspects of the novel is Ivan finding erotic images of boys in medical textbooks. These boys hold a powerful sway over Ivan, a fascination that he later uses in his art when he goes to art school. Is that something you did as a boy? Where did you come up with the idea? I grew up just before the Internet. I didn't have all this information about sexuality that kids now have at their fingertips. Also, our video games pretty much sucked. But I liked to read, and I knew my way around a library. And one magical day, when I was 14, I found these pictures of nude guys in medical textbooks. It was a great surprise to me. I was small for my age and pessimistic about ever maturing, and so I was looking for scientific confirmation that I was hopelessly deformed. Instead, what do I find? Hot nude pics to take to the bathroom with me. Later I found lots of sociology books to help inform my budding sexuality. I've talked to a lot of people since then who learned about their sexuality in libraries, even had their first homosexual experiences in the library bathrooms--libraries really are notorious for tearoom sex. To me, there's something really sexy about hushed rooms, old books, and undone zippers; the contrast of muted study and intense passion (and even the way that study can become so passionate and thrilling). And librarians are so fucking sexy--prim, proper, intense, smart--and, very often queer. In any event, the chapter you cite is pretty authentic to my experiences, and I'm glad it reads that way for you.

One of Ivan's many rites of passage on the road to becoming a man is hustling. Your previous book was a nonfiction work, Strapped for Cash: A History of American Hustler Culture. Why did you take this theme into a fictionalized form? What is it about hustling that draws you as a writer? I've worked with so many hustlers who had so much to say and whose experiences were rarely given true voice. I really wanted to show how sex work can often feel so rich and varied and weird, and I think fiction is better than nonfiction for examining conflicting emotions. Sex work is disgusting, and at the same time it's exhilarating. People degrade you, then treat you as an the space of 15 seconds. How do you draw the line between business and pleasure, business and pain? You're turned off completely, you hate the way this trick smells, but it's pretty hot that he's on his knees, paying to watch you masturbate. The next guy says he'll give you $200 bucks to fuck him long and hard, but when you get there he gives you $300 just to talk. Because he's just so lonely ever since his daughter went to college and his wife took a job where she's gone half the time. What does a young kid think when most of his clients are married men? I guess those are the spaces I like to tap into, where social strictures break down and human nature is laid bare. Speaking for Ivan, the book's protagonist, I think he's too much of an exhibitionist to let their rings bother him that much.

Family perhaps plays as crucial a role in this novel as sexuality--particularly the early loss of Ivan's mother. Can you talk about that?I think I mixed up the children's book genre with the puberty book genre and killed off the parents. Reading too much Roald Dahl again. Maybe it was easier for me to make Ivan as rootless as possible so that my own life (and my own sweet, wonderful parents) wouldn't get too mixed up in this book. Ivan's rootless wandering is also a metaphor in a way for gay America, which I think is still a bit lost and more than a little Oedipal--just look at the otherwise inexplicable love of Judy Garland. As a culture we're still trying hard to find our way through inhospitable environs. More simply, though, when you write fiction you have to let your characters go off and do things, and Ivan's mother went off and died, and Ivan began a quest to find a proper resting place for her ashes, and I couldn't really alter their course.

Would you consider this novel a coming-out novel, or perhaps more of a coming-of-age novel? That's an interesting question, because I don't know if Ivan actually comes out, or even comes of age. I really think this is either a puberty novel, like Portnoy's Complaint, or a sexual initiation novel, like Story of O.

How did you come to writing? How long did it take you to write the novel? I've written since I was a kid. I love language and word play. To me it's like dreaming, a subconscious way to express and dissolve sorrow, beauty, heartache, desire; all that extra emotional energy that humans suffer through. There's no rational reason for it whatsoever. Trust me on this, you make less per hour than a sweatshop worker, and people look at you awfully funny around here when you tell them what you do. Your ass and the chair become one, and you go blind from staring at computer screens all night long, so I don't recommend it. It's a nasty but very addictive habit, like smoking. This book took about 10 years for the material to accumulate and ferment, but I guess only about two or three years to actually get it squeezed and bottled.

Tell me about some of your literary influences.I love filthy and beautiful writers like Henry Miller, Jean Cocteau (especially Le Livre Blanc), Vladimir Nabokov, and Roland Barthes. Anne Carson is tremendous. Genet. I'm a great fan of Bruce Benderson, whose latest book, The Romanian, is gorgeous. I like John Rechy, Kathy Acker, Poppy Z. Brite, William S. Burroughs, John Giorno, and James Baldwin. Photojournalists like Amos Badertscher and Larry Clark, who was once asked whether his work was gay and famously responded, "It's about puberty, man." And certain authors of medical textbooks who shall go unnamed.

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