Do queers ever grow old? Do their ideas stiffen and their sensibilities melt? Do they fret over finances and retirement accounts, the state of their kitchen plumbing during the winter frost? Do they find themselves on the edge of mosh pits afraid to risk entering lest they be thumped by the wilding crowd? Do they linger past their “use by” dates? Do they lose currency? Do they die ordinary, unimpressive gray deaths?
I struggle with the idea of naming the remarkable essays and fiction of Oakland-based writer and performance artist Brontez Purnell as queer. I suspect that identifying him with the cutting edge of gay culture will do nothing more than add another layer of unnecessary mystification to both Purnell and his oeuvre. Doing a quick online check, one finds that Purnell is a writer, a dancer, a member of a punk band, a resident of an East Bay warehouse, and a survivor. One might say, in fact, that Purnell is an example of queer perfection. Black, gay, HIV-positive, fey, poor, Southern, creative, cerebral, and outrageous, he exhibits all the key signs of queer anti-normativity while ostentatiously thumbing his nose at the humdrum married, child-raising, gay/lesbian/trans dyads whose scrubbed and sanitized images set the tone for so much within the LGBTQ movement.
The fact that Purnell resists this particular species of homonormativity in his essay collection, Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger, and his novel, Since I Laid My Burden Down, both published in 2017, is to be commended. The stories that Purnell tells of sex, drug use, punk performance, and domestic life in California and his native Alabama thrill any reader with a desire to be released from the dull and chafing constraints of (gay) respectability. At the same time, there is something familiar and expected in Purnell’s vibrant prose, something that gets close to the strain of submerged conservatism in much of so-called modern queer thought.
Near the end of Since I Laid My Burden Down, the novel’s protagonist, DeShawn, comes to an epiphany of sorts. After returning to Alabama to bury first an uncle, then his own father, DeShawn, a character closely modeled on Purnell himself, engineers one last tryst with a young lover he has taken during his Deep South sojourn. Looking at his naked, cum-spattered body in the mirror of a room at a Motel 6, he finds himself surprised by what he sees:
DeShawn looked in the mirror and all he saw was a man who had been absent from himself. It was a learned behavior. Years of encounters like these hadn’t left him hollow, but there was a feeling that his sexual self was, more often than not, on autopilot. Experience is the only teacher, really, and one can rack up an enormous bill along the way. DeShawn’s PhD in Whoreology cost him, and he would be paying for some time. He didn’t lament though—he held tight to the one thing his experiences had afforded him: wisdom. He gained self knowledge of both other people and himself. The kind he wouldn’t have access to had he been locked away in some boyfriend’s house or the confinement of celibacy. To DeShawn, this wisdom was worth its weight in gold.
What Purnell achieves here is an interestingly framed—if ultimately quite expected—act of splitting the differences. He examines his “whoreology” with candor and sobriety, coming to find that somehow his sexual practice caused him to be “absent from himself” even as it “afforded him wisdom,” a wisdom unachievable behind the locks of boyfriends’ houses.
DeShawn, fresh off the heels of interring both his father’s body and his father’s failed attempts at patriarchy, does not so much bemoan his previous behaviors as come to recognize them as contaminated, capable of splitting off some portion of his personality and forcing him into an arena of false consciousness and irreality. Immediately prior to this scene, DeShawn projects his anxiety onto his 16-year-old lover, thinking, “This young man doesn’t know himself very well.” The wisdom about which DeShawn muses can be understood as a thing that comes with age and much experience. It is, in fact, the widely held belief that large numbers of sexual partners and contacts cannot deliver one back to the self, but instead only delay that necessary journey.
While I frankly admire Purnell’s writing, I also think that the remarkably bold content of his work is not always met by that work’s form. Since I Laid My Burden Down is, in fact, a fairly traditional bildungsroman in which the main character, DeShawn, returns to his Alabama hometown in order to attend to the ghosts of his childhood, thereby developing into a more fully actualized adult.
Purnell’s genius is that he at once names and deflates one of the most common forms of queer pathology, the fear of aging.
This is not to say, however, that the work is hostile to the young. On the contrary, what seems more likely to me is that the aging and old “queer” is the figure who is most easily criticized, if not exactly reviled, in the novel’s logic. Purnell operates in an ideological and discursive environment in which the vibrancy of queer identity is associated with ideas of novelty, experimentation, lack of fixity, playfulness, and boisterousness that are not often associated with age. The young queer is a figure to be celebrated and admired. The old queer is most often framed, even in Purnell’s prose, as a character to be tolerated and pitied.
Understanding this helps make sense of the fact that in the end I prefer Purnell’s collection of essays, Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger, to Since I Laid My Burden Down. Published by the Feminist Press in an ugly paperback edition with a “Parental Advisory, Explicit Content” warning prominently displayed on the cover, the collection is rattling, obnoxious, uncouth, and unsettled.
It is also nearly impossible to put down. Purnell’s combination of self-effacement and biting/bombastic critique makes him relentlessly fascinating and charming. More importantly, however, the digressive collection, which covers Purnell’s sex and romantic life, his training as a writer, his performance, his family, his HIV status, and his partying, does not easily conform to the developmental model (wild queer to somewhat less wild and at least partially self-actualized gay adult) demanded by the bildungsroman. Instead, embedded in Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger is a bold critique of just this “grow up and get married” version of LGBTQ ideology.
In response to his gay uncle’s pressuring him to settle down and find a husband, Purnell responds:
I didn’t have the heart to tell my uncle that I planned a future of gaining weight like my idol Aretha Franklin, owning twelve cats, and paying for sex with my disability checks. I’d be free to decide without some dude telling me what to do. Be it gym teacher, cop, or boyfriend, all authority figures bug the hell out of me. I wanted to be free of all the dumbness. FREE DUMB. Freedom.
Purnell’s genius here is that he at once names and deflates one of the most common forms of queer pathology, the fear of aging. Or, to put the matter more plainly still, growing into the (fat, disabled, animal) body of an elder, without also committing to the policing and sequestration of sexuality, and without disallowing the breaching of boundaries that would have prostitutes coming into contact with one’s disability checks, is a reality for which the older queer is readily, if not rightly, punished by his community.
There are a fair number of somewhat pathetic and frankly creepy images of older gay men in both of Purnell’s works. My point, however, is not to charge Purnell with ageism. Instead I would say simply that the daring writer’s pairing of youthfulness and a certain outsider status is ultimately a dangerous gambit. The author, Brontez Purnell, ought to be extremely careful that he does not become trapped by a stale and brittle version of the character he has created, Brontez Purnell.
The same ideas about age, art, experimentation, maturation, and respectability that Purnell plays with in his literature will very likely have a significant impact on his own life and career. Indeed, I find myself in the midst of an awkward fretfulness about Purnell’s readiness for self-revelation. His candor and frank insight into the complexities of his personality are at once provocative and refreshing.
I really am a lot sometimes. I’m often drunk, naked, crying, blacked out, disoriented, confused, walking the streets of strange cities in my underwear sparking up conversations with homeless people, waking up with my hands in the pants of roadies, sucking dick in the tour van (after I was asked not to), etc.
These are images I had not tasted on the page before. They speak to me both as a writer and as something like a queer. At the same time, I am a bit unnerved by the echoes of Purnell’s visceral self-depiction that one hears outside his pages. Raw, outrageous, audacious, foul-mouthed, and fucked-up are all terms that critics and admirers have applied to his work.
To be fair, this type of hyped response can and should be flattering to any writer. At the same time, I wonder if Purnell is being approached not so much as an artist but as a resource. The language that surrounds him puts me in mind of my tendency to cringe when I hear academics invoking the lives of queer youth of color, exotic beings who seem never to make it into the rooms in which the matter of their complex subjectivities are discussed. This feeling was made even more explicit when I realized that the nude, tattooed torso that graces the cover of Since I Laid My Burden Down was none other than that of Purnell himself.
My grousing here has to do with the simple fact that Purnell is a fine and talented writer, one who I hope is at the very beginning of a long, productive, and memorable career. At the same time, I suspect that the celebration of his self-revelation is itself caught up in a model of maturation in which it is expected that the youthful Brontez will either “grow out of it” or simply cease to exist. It would be impossible for me to ask for a writer of his talent and promise to be more circumspect or coy. I would, however, warn him to commit himself even more fully to the mastery—and deformation—of form and craft.
If the character Brontez is to survive, then he must grow beyond the bounds of his author’s lived reality. He must survive on his own as the gifted writer Brontez Purnell learns the difficult craft of remaining “free of all the dumbness,” even while the skin dries, the hair grays, and the eyes dull, but—hopefully—the soul continues to laugh.