II. Chain of Fools
“For long stretches of time every day I kept my body inside my clothes, but sometimes it broke out and made a fool out of ‘me,’ the me I wanted to represent to the outside world,” Kevin Killian wrote in his story “Hot Lights.” This is one of the various Kevins that he presented his readership, like that song that Sondheim cut from the musical Company called “Multitudes of Amys.” (Except, you know, KK instead of “Amy.”) It makes me feel like that oversexed and frustrated bachelor singing: “Avenues of Kevins, I wonder what it means? I see them waiting for the lights and disappearing through revolving doors. Everywhere I look! Sentences of Kevins. Paragraphs of Kevins. Filling every book. I’ve gone to pieces. Every other word I speak is something Kevin says. Galaxies of Kevins dot the night sky. Boys pass and look at me with Kevin’s eyes. I’ve seen an audience of Kevins. Watch a cast of Kevins act in a play. Seems there are more of him every day. What can it mean?” And so forth. (Incidentally, the role of Bobby in Company was originally intended for Anthony Perkins.) “Hot Lights” is a story about a Kevin in the early 70s, a student as perpetually broke as he was high, “always on the make, trying to stay alive.” As real a Kevin as any other I could conjure, now that I can’t call him at home. This Kevin looked most like the one who did all his studies on the East Coast before permanently relocating to California. He got his bachelor’s at Fordham, keeping the weird Catholic thing going, then camped out at SUNY Stony Brook’s English department for his master’s as well as a stab at a PhD with an unfinished dissertation on child pornography. This kind-of-real, kind-of-pretend young Kevin traipsed around Midtown selling his blood. Kids like him: only valued for their fluids. When offered some fast cash to participate in a porn shoot , he’s naively unsure about what would be expected of him. Do those boys really put it in each other? Surely it’s just special effects, that old Hollywood magic? What ensues is a comedy of manners, with callow KK put through his paces in front of the cameras. He felt immortalized on celluloid: “I would always be a nineteen-year-old nitwit with a cock up my ass and a pot-induced glaze in my eyes.” He gangled around the bodies of other young men in the same position, the film whirring through the camera with its unforgiving lens like the eye of god. Kevin didn’t remember all the details about this episode, so maybe he invented them. He never saw the film loop that he acted in, or any of the pictures. They probably no longer exist. They barely existed to begin with. But what he made of the absence is important; the substitute becomes what’s missing. Kevin needed us, still needs us, to see him. You look at him and he turns real. “Birth of a hero. I became Kevin Killian. Did I make a mistake?”
“Half of the characters are above the legal age of consent and the other half are below. Kevin far from glorifies imbalanced power dynamics in relationships. He isn’t nostalgic for youth; he’s kind of horrified by it. This is still a world where if a boy makes the wrong mistakes he gets knifed to death.”
Another vision of Kevin arrives in the story “Rochester,” co-written by Tony Leuzzi, which is a portrait of the artist as an old fart, fictionally exiled to western New York (following “some unnamed indiscretion years ago”) where he teaches at a community college and sews his own clothes out of old rags. This Kevin’s a churl who will try to entice the boy who mows his lawn with homemade applesauce. A chain smoking and disheveled Henry Darger type whose uncouth demeanor suggests that none of us coastal elites would have been able to tolerate the real Darger had he survived into his fame. The kind of Kevin for whom the axiom “don’t meet your hero” was written. It turns out his pet, or roommate, or something is an overgrown chimpanzee named Chester who knows how to type and writes all the novels that are attributed to Killian. He explains, “Writing comes from the great beyond. Little by little, it comes to Chester. And then I get it, and I cross out some words and publish it as my own.” The writerly id as great ape, the thing behind the man behind the thing, the Kevin we need underneath the Kevin we want. This is perhaps a knowingly parodic rendition of the kind of person some people assume must think up the kind of stories that Kevin wrote. A dark reflection of the Kevin that Kevin never was. But, then again, maybe that brand of rottenly honest Kevin is inside us all . . . somewhere. The real Kevin Killian had a great life but not a perfect one. He wasn’t the disappointed and obscure creep we meet in “Rochester,” but he never got hooked into the mainstream and armed with that attendant security. As Dodie Bellamy put it, “Kevin always felt marginal and didn’t believe that anybody would want to publish him. Whereas most writers try to climb upwards for success, Kevin’s approach was horizontal, one person at a time, never putting himself above anybody.” Perhaps Kevin’s modesty mutated sometimes into self-sabotage. He was a writer who loved too much and, in that way, feared rejection. During his life, he enjoyed a stellar reputation in the literary community and a somewhat cult following, but the frustrated publication history of his story “Spurt” (the content of which was discussed in Part I) demonstrates the instability that beleaguered his career. Meant to be part of a sequel memoir to 1990’s Bedrooms Have Windows, the piece first appeared in the erotic anthology Flesh and the Word 4 in 1997, before being reprinted in Simon & Schuster’s Best American Erotica 1999, then reappearing in Kevin’s 2001 erotic short story collection I Cry Like a Baby, which went out of print and caused Kevin to transfer several stories, including “Spurt” and “Hot Lights,” to his 2009 City Lights collection Impossible Princess, before finally being presented (again, with “Hot Lights”) as part of his memoirs with 2018’s Fascination. Established publishers weren’t interested in such uncomfortable and avant-garde material. The independent presses are where New Narrative writing thrived. Kevin excelled in the chapbook format, resulting in an array of collectable pamphlets. Bruce Boone and Robert Glück, like many before and since, started a press to champion their own work, but those precious undertakings were always susceptible to life’s vagaries and could collapse in a matter of years. So it has been with many publishers who supported Kevin’s writing. His first novel, Shy, was released in one edition by a tiny, long-defunct press. His final novel, Spreadeagle, took Kevin twenty years to finish. Alyson Books was a respected gay publisher for the duration. They announced Spreadeagle as "published" in 2010 but suddenly went out of business before printing the books, leaving the title dead in the water. The much smaller print-on-demand outfit Publication Studio gave the novel a new edition two years later but, despite being nominated for a Lambda Literary award, it never gained the exposure or traction that it deserves. Kevin experienced an uptick in attention following the success of award winner Impossible Princess. Ben Fama’s press Wonder gained stature by committing to put out Kevin’s latest poetry: Tweaky Village in 2014 and Tony Greene Era in 2017. Both were very popular with their print runs quickly depleted. Kenning Editions made a major contribution to the legacy of poets theater, first in 2010’s Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater 1945-1985, which Kevin co-edited, and then collecting ten of his own plays in a book released this year titled Stage Fright. Kevin and Dodie’s Writers Who Love Too Much was followed up by Fascination, his collected memoirs. He shared the 2009 American Book Award for Poetry with Peter Gizzi for their Jack Spicer collection. In 2017, UC Berkeley and Santa Cruz hosted a conference on the New Narrative movement and that same year Kevin was the subject of a two-day symposium at a university in Paris. His papers, with Dodie’s, were purchased by Yale. Kevin was ramping up into the golden years of audiences and institutions finally getting wise to his groove, of fetes and honoraria, reissues with a new introduction by so-and-so, laurels and recognition for lifetime achievement. All that is still happening, but he won’t be around to enjoy it.
Many times, while reading Kevin’s fiction, I become amazed at one of his bold stylistic flourishes and feel the text asking me, like the devil to the girl at the end of The Witch, “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” Sure, you’re not supposed to do that in a novel, but wouldn’t it be fun to just say “Fuck it,” and try anyway? Flight of fancy as artistic practice, Kevin’s work flaunts its decadent impulses. Only the dark secret is that the reader, sampling delight, must sacrifice something dear for the kind of permission on offer. An early story titled “Desiree,” uncollected but published as a chapbook in 1986, reads as straightforward historical erotica, set in Kevin’s childhood home of Smithtown, Long Island. The place is named after one Richard Smith, who legend has it conned a Native American community out of their land. In reward for good deeds, Smith was promised all the acreage that he could travel in one day on a bull. He chose a tame bull and rode it on the longest day of the summer, thus winning bigger than anticipated. That’s why there’s a big statue of a bull in Smithtown. “Desiree” is about two naughty schoolboys who get into trouble spying on adult liaisons through a peephole. Clearly touched by de Sade, it’s a straightforward yarn that wouldn’t feel out of place in a dirty magazine of the era. When one of the lads catches the chambermaid fingering herself, he is confused to hear her moaning for Kevin. Kevin Killian was the name of the previous master of the house, but he died and she’s horny for his ghost! The abrupt cameo is metatextual in an inviting rather than alienating fashion, as if KK ducked into the story to winkingly remind you who’s pulling the strings. But because he sidled up and nudged you, you’re implicated in the lascivious narrative. “Desiree” introduced audiences to the author’s lifelong obsession with spanking and bondage, as punishment mingles with pleasure when a child discovers the allure of the rod. The story is like finding your grandmother’s love letters tucked away in a dusty hatbox in the attic only to realize they’re pornographic. Unfortunately, this little gem is so rare that I had to read it on microfiche at the research library. His early fiction first found traction with publishers of highbrow smut. His short story collections are unique for how they cannibalize each other and feature excerpts from larger projects that would reappear in different forms. Much of his memoirs ended up in his collections first, partly explaining the preponderance of Kevins in his genre-bending stories, written as memory but first presented as fiction and only later as autobiography. Little Men was published in 1996 and contains an excerpt from Spreadeagle along with a bunch of material that either ended up in Fascination or Impossible Princess. The case is similar with his follow-up collection, 2001’s I Cry Like a Baby. Kevin frequently co-authored stories—with the likes of Stephen Beachy, Dodie Bellamy, Lawrence Braithwaite, Marcus Ewert, Glen Helfand, Bo Huston, Derek McCormack, Simon Sheppard, Matias Viegener, and Thom Wolf—often putting them in his own books with the eventual plan to publish a whole collection of collaborations titled Duets. The story “Just for One Day,” co-written by D. Travers Scott, opens with: “‘Kevin Killian, my hero,’ I wrote in San Francisco. If I—Sam D’Allesandro—couldn’t be a hero myself I could, at least, shine the heroic spotlight on Kevin. That light would bounce back onto me, diffused and soft as that splashed from a photographer’s umbrella.” I would love to see a Collected Stories, which would be the best way to bring everything back into print without too much overlap.
Kevin’s debut novel, Shy, was started in ’74 and published in ’89; it’s a slow-burning tale concerning a handful of horny and listless teens scattered about the suburbs of Long Island and driven by desires only half understood. Self-insertion was a trope he picked up early on and this novel does feature a young, alcoholic writer named Kevin Killian, although equal focus is given to his other characters. There’s Harry Van, a piquant, illiterate foster kid always looking for sex trouble, his “girlfriend” Paula, a mature-for-her-age Bowie fanatic, and Gunter Fielder, the mysterious stranger with a fabricated identity who comes to town to work for a Catholic suicide prevention hotline. Everyone becomes obsessed with him because he’s an enigmatic asshole. Shy reminds me of Michael Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, with its lumpy confidence and uncultivated ambition. Its lassitudinous, disaffected hangout narrative almost prefigured the rude and bold film work of Larry Clark, Harmony Korine, or even Bruce LaBruce. If you want to stretch it, Kevin is the Carraway to Gunter’s Gatsby. Harry and Paula are more out of Oliver Twist via some Ackeresque disruption. Shy bears the charms and flair of young writing without gratuitous mess. The focus on baroque teenage emotionality is soupy and plotless, sure. These kids are always taking it out on each other—sexually, physically, or emotionally. It paints life on Long Island as a grim and gothic affair populated by weirdoes: perverted and brutish youngsters, dissatisfied housewives, an eccentric elderly millionaire who throws hardcore sex parties in his mansion, and his creepy butler. The parents, if present, are spiteful and confused. The kids are impulsive and hormonal. There’s more torpor than tension, as the stakes seem dependent on the disorganized whims of children. A sense of sexual independence is granted to those who today we’d more likely infantilize as victims. At any rate, half of the characters are above the legal age of consent and the other half are below. Kevin far from glorifies imbalanced power dynamics in relationships. He isn’t nostalgic for youth; he’s kind of horrified by it. This is still a world where if a boy makes the wrong mistakes he gets knifed to death, like Kevin’s murdered friend who he is trying to memorialize in prose: a raunchy dumbass who went home with the wrong guy one night. After much obsession, Paula finally bags Gunter but immediately starts to irk him so he moodily dumps her. Harry desperately wants to be kidnapped by Gunter, who finally caves in and does it, perhaps more out of frustration than lust. Kevin, the author living upstairs, lies down on the floor and listens in on their tortured dealings with his ear to a water glass. He wants in on the action as well. Of cute little fifteen- or sixteen-year-old Harry, Kevin drools, “I wanted him to eat my candy and peanuts till the end of Time.” When Gunter inevitably rejects the kid in a fit of self-loathing, Harry runs upstairs into Kevin’s arms and hides out in his bedroom. Not that it engenders much conflict. Instead of bubbling toward an inevitable climax, the culmination of this story is abrupt and bathetic. It left me pristinely unsettled, realizing that of course the conclusion would be as grumpy and ambivalent as the characters themselves.
Kevin worked on his second novel from 1986 to ’96 and Hard Candy Books published it the following year. Arctic Summer is a soap opera of abusive love, arranged marriage, family dysfunction, and social ruin. Hard Candy seems to have been an imprint of Masquerade Books, which specialized in material “expressly for the connoisseur of erotic arts.” Most notably, they put out editions of Samuel R. Delany’s pornographic novels The Mad Man and Equinox (previously published as Tides of Lust). Compared to the urolagnia, coprophilia, bestiality, and other hardcore paraphilic practices that populate Delany’s fiction, Arctic Summer practically reads like J.D. Salinger. That’s not a dig, either; Kevin’s prose in this novel is succinct and disciplined, maintaining an uncontrived midcentury refinement as a matter of stylistic choice appropriate to the year in which it is set, 1952. Much of Arctic Summer would not feel terribly out of place in the pages of the New Yorker, which you can’t say about many of Kevin’s stories. (Okay, there is some piss drinking, but I’ll get to that.) The action begins at a Long Island boarding school. Our narrator is Liam Rielly, a rich homosexual youth with a permanently distant father, known as the Diamond King, whose material provisions are as limitless as his absence. Liam is chummy with Diane Andersen, the breezy debutante living down the hall of his daddy’s Manhattan highrise. (Undaunted Diane bears a striking attitudinal resemblance to Shy’s plucky Paula.) But Liam’s best friend is of another social class: Tommy Calhoun, the troublesome, sleepwalking son of the building’s malicious alcoholic doorman Omar. They’ve been inseparable from the cradle, although Tommy doesn’t know the whole story. Liam is secretly having a head-over-heels affair with the significantly older Ralph Isham, described as a celebrated American poet and recurring in the background of the later novel Spreadeagle. Central to the action is George Dorset, a seedy photographer in his late twenties who goes after school-age boys with his camera. Diane indulges in her own flings, with young and old, which results in a scandalous pregnancy that she blames on Tommy when she knows full well it wasn’t him. This is more or less the “inciting incident,” although it occurs about halfway through the story, which otherwise is devoted to atmosphere and characterization. Another dramatic twist with baleful consequences is that Ralph Isham breaks things off with Liam after falling so hard for George Dorset that he leaves his wife and publically comes out as gay. This only bolsters Isham’s reputation as a man of letters but it devastates Liam, who channels his immature jealousy into a costly yet fruitless revenge plot.
Most of the novel takes place on the isle of Manhattan, which is chock full of Gershwinesque glamor and Burroughsian depravity in equal measure. Kevin takes his protagonist much farther than Holden Caulfield ever ventured to prove that below the pseudo-aristocratic surface of polite society mull sleazy impulses and abrasive camp. When Tommy is ousted in disgrace from his father’s basement dwelling, Liam’s there to repair what he can with his wealth. Out of loyalty and propriety he rents his old chum a furnished room on the Lower East Side and arranges to wed Diane to save her from the ignominy of single parenthood. Unfortunately, an older businessman, who claims to be the real father of the unborn, decides to leave his marriage and appeals to Liam to release his new wife to him, as a matter of honor so he can raise his child. Liam, meanwhile, is stewing in resentment over losing Ralph to the coolheaded photographer. While Ralph is completely besotted with his new beau, George is ambivalent and dismissive. Fortunately Ralph likes a guy who says no . . . a lot. He sets George up with new digs and pays him twenty dollars a night to sleep in his bed. Liam hires a private detective to stalk George, but his nemesis is sly enough to catch on and confront the teenager. Liam, in his unearned privilege, believes himself a smooth operator, and it is that self-assurance that proves his undoing. George promises to relinquish Ralph if Liam is able to offer up Tommy for sexual exploitation. Of course that was a trick, but after Liam arranges everything only to have the rug pulled out from under him, he and George are drawn ever closer in the sick way that enemies lust for each other. Complicit in the rape of an innocent, the two become intimate as George seduces Liam by swallowing his urine. Tommy is left deeply disturbed by his best friend’s betrayal. “Every time he thought of his violation, his stomach bulged and bucked, like a rodeo rider.” George fully corrupts Liam, disciplining him into a suggestible sex puppet. Old Ralph Isham is soon forgotten. The only thing driving these erotic schemes is base impulse, the nihilistic predation in which George revels. Everything seems to be barreling toward a dramatic crescendo. The first three quarters of the novel is leisurely, but in the final act I couldn’t put it down. With the cunning of a Shakespearean villain, George sets about inveigling Tommy into seeing things his way: all the boy’s woes, even the sexual assault that George himself committed, were the fault of the spoiled brat Liam. George goes further to destroy the lives of all those around him. To Tommy’s disgruntled father he mails photographs of Tommy being raped. To Diane’s mother he mails photographs of Liam’s secret sex life. The story’s culmination sees Tommy stabbing his father to death in the lobby of the highrise. Liam’s mysterious father shows up just long enough to suffer a stroke and die. Diane’s child is born but she reveals to Liam that their daughter is really his sister. She had been having an affair with the Diamond King. Liam is now friendless and besmirched, with no daddy around to protect him. Diane sensibly decides to leave him for the businessman. These are the melancholy travails of confused people making bad decisions. The novel takes its name from an unfinished manuscript by E.M. Forster, which the Guardian has called “a puzzle.” An arctic summer is, literally, a period of sustained light, or as Ralph Isham surmises, a season “long enough for a man to discover his own purpose in the world.” Everything that Liam relies on disintegrates and he is left to fend for himself, a scary proposition for a boy whose personality was financial. His eyes are finally open wide enough to understand that he has no purpose. Out of Kevin’s trio of underappreciated novels, this is his best.
“Sssshh now, and let’s enter a world where strong, nerdy losers play boys’ butts like bongos.” That could be the opening line of many of Kevin’s texts, but it’s dialogue from one of the eclectic characters that populate the novel Spreadeagle, which has gained halfway mythic status because it took over twenty years for the author to finish and it remains hard to find thus horrifically under-read. It’s Kevin’s own special ambrosial take on the “AIDS novel.” Much less moralizing and didactic than Larry Kramer, nowhere near as Proustian or sentimental as Edmund White, but way more acerbic and disturbed than Armistead Maupin. The language and landscape of HIV/AIDS changed drastically between pre-cocktail 1990, when Kevin started writing the book, and 2010, when it was first published, and then went on to paradigm shift even further in the following years, with PrEP becoming a thing in 2012 and the ensuing refocus on treatment as prevention, biomedical prophylaxis, and viral suppression/undetectability. As John Karr wrote for the Bay Area Reporter, “Spreadeagle is really two novels in one. Killian first wrote what is now the second half of the book [during] those dark days when everyone was writing AIDS books. Killian didn’t think his was very good, and is relieved that the passage of time allowed him to scrap most of it. Part One, written more recently, presents a tumult of San Francisco characters, and skewers their foibles and sex lives. There are uncountable couplings.” The current edition runs 600 pages, but if you order a copy through the publisher you’ll realize that it’s no sprawling doorstop. If published in a standard trim size it would run barely over 200 pages, so its two equal halves are both novella-length. Publication Studio’s print-on-demand model means that they lack distribution and their amazing catalog of titles is largely unavailable in stores. For a novel with the commercial potential of Spreadeagle, this is a major hindrance to its reputation, accessibility, and longevity. I’m told that Publication Studio has since addressed its quality assurance problems, but my copy of Spreadeagle from 2012 literally fell apart in my hands as I read it. The first half of the story is Kevin’s bizarro-world Tales of the City sent through the New Narrative wringer, with an Altmanesque cast of miscreants and well-heeled homos, à la Answered Prayers in its willingness to burn bridges with barely concealed parodies of living media personalities. But this is no simple roman a clef. It’s scatterbrained and messy, light on incident but full of characterful banter and weird dilemmas, and features an overarching plot that only crystallizes in the book’s final throes. Things hinge around a San Francisco power couple who live in a five-story painted lady and provide a hilarious indictment of gay wealth in a quaint city being hypergentrified by the tech industry. There’s Danny Isham (bastard son of the poet Ralph Isham), a middle-aged gay writer of middlebrow gay fiction: the cloying Rick and Dick series of books that, much to his chagrin, are constantly mistaken for Maupin’s Tales. His younger trophy husband is a ditzy guy named Kit who apes a meaningful life through his nominal fundraising position for an AIDS charity. It’s clear that the only reason he has the job is his husband’s influence and the only reason he keeps it is his husband’s money. When they’re not forking over fistfuls for AIDS, they try adopting a Black girl out of the foster care system; when the bottom falls out of that cruel experiment they move on to an art student houseboy named Eric Avery who moonlights as a porn actor for a studio called Extreme Remedies. Avery and Kit are both friends with Sam D’Allesandro, a desperate man who rarely leaves his pad on Minna Street, being a fictional extension of the New Narrative writer of the same name who died of AIDS at 31 in 1988. In Spreadeagle’s reality, Sam lives on but just barely. The reader finds him in bad health, beset with facial wasting, and experiencing AIDS symptoms. The details of his medical history are not explicated, but somehow he’s not getting treatment, or the healthcare system is failing him, and he seeks out a suspicious “natural” alternative being shilled by a company called Extreme Remedies, operated by the shifty brother of the porn director running a studio by the same name. Danny’s estranged father Ralph also has AIDS and is similarly ravaged. Neither of them makes it to the end of Part One.
Bringing Sam D’Allesandro back from the dead was an intimate magic trick. He can never be fully recovered. But the desire to ventriloquize through him is as preservationist as it is traumatized. He remains enigmatic and pale even in fantasy. And sadly disappointed, a bittersweet cipher who hangs out on the fringes until he dies. But was he really killed by a virus, or something even more sinister? Spreadeagle is about outliers. About people whose evil deeds seem almost cartoonish until you meet them, become ensorcelled, and reap the consequences. Gary Radley is a methed-up Mephistopheles who has a pit of need where his conscience should be. Kevin made meth addiction seem like a one-way ticket to nothingness, with only the drama of your disintegration to prove you still exist. Gary hijacks the story in Part Two, which is titled “Silver Springs” (after the gorgeous Fleetwood Mac song), and narrated by a lonely gay autograph forger named Geoffrey Crane who lives in the fictional rural butthole of Gavit, CA. Geoff was actually narrating the entire novel from the start, which he did disclose earlier in passing. Geoff is a real small-town queen who says shit like, “camp covers all situations. It’s like God’s grace; but you hafta believe!” His narration occasionally lapses into Sondheim lyrics. The reader might remember that this happened before in Part One. What seemed like the internal monologue of Danny Isham turned out in retrospect to be overwritten by Geoff Crane. When Danny gets a new idea for a book, he smells the opportunity “like Tony in West Side Story—it’s right around a bush—only just out of reach—down the block, on a beach, maybe tonight…” The juxtaposition between posh San Francisco and bleak Gavit is jarring and at first it seems like an entirely new story is beginning, creating an unrelated diptych, but the connections are slowly revealed as the stakes intensify and Geoff embarks on a hardboiled, meth-fueled descent into chaos. His problems begin when he meets Gary Radley, the murderously entrepreneurial redneck who lives in a trailer with the skin of one of his victims nailed up over his bed. This is the kind of backwards swamp that gay men flee at soonest chance, but there is one other homosexual in town, an elderly spank-happy pervert named Ethan Allen. And Geoff already hooked up with him years ago. Since Gary is the type of guy who says he’s not gay but fucks anything that moves, he’s the closest thing Geoff has ever had to a boyfriend. “He smelled like a mixture of hair tonic and sewage and velvet,” Geoff swoons. But Gary is mixed up in some awful shit. He claims to be part of the Witness Protection Program and makes money convincing sick gay men that Western medicine doesn’t work and the only solution for HIV infection is some snake oil he claims to be from Hawaii called Kona Spray. He’s also a meth addict whose paranoia repeatedly drives him to kill those around him. Geoff tries to cope with his involvement in Gary’s sordid doings. It helps that Gary gets him hooked on crystal. That sure resets Geoff’s priorities. “You know the two sentences most often spoken in American films? One is ‘I can explain everything,’ and the other is ‘Try to get some sleep.’ Watch every Hollywood film ever made, you’ll hear these phrases repeated so often you’ll grow convinced that America’s a place where a) everything can be and must be explained, all the time, and b) we’re overexcited, we need a rest.” I can explain everything. Gary is enigmatic and rotten to the core, a marvelous villain brought expertly to life. He implicates Geoff in an escalating series of criminal decisions. His brother Adam shows up at some point, with his pornstar twink Avery in tow, whom they pimp out to old man Ethan Allen for a couple spank sessions before Gary shoots the boy in the head because he knows too much. Well, he had discovered that Gary had strangled Sam D’Allesandro to death. Maybe he also got his hands on Ralph Isham, whose death had been attributed to AIDS. Geoff is too high to be alarmed by any of this. He sells his house for drugs, then his car. “You’re not a lover till one day you look around and you don’t have any money. Everything is gone. You don’t even remember where. That’s when you know you’re in love.” His brother Jim is a cop, so Gary knows that guy has got to go. Can’t have the law sniffing around their vile schemes. He pressures Geoff to shoot his own brother. The narrator has some serious choices to make. By the end, all the connections among the tortured cast of characters in Gavit and San Francisco are pulled taut into a cat’s cradle of delectably balanced conflict. “I had lost ‘me’ to meth,” Geoff bemoans, parroting an ad campaign that papered the gay districts of major cities around that time. I won’t spoil the ending, but Kevin wrapped everything up with a bow, so neatly it’s hard to remember how disparate all Spreadeagle’s wild elements seemed as they swirled around before coalescing.
Spreadeagle repeats and reflects themes, characters, and ideas from Kevin’s shared fictive universe. The archetype (young, dumb, and full of cum) embodied by the cocky Harry Van in Shy, for instance, returns in the person of Eric Avery. Shy’s Gunter Fielder develops into the even worse George Dorset of Arctic Summer, who gets reincarnated as Gary Radley, a scoundrel just as narcissistic while still more manipulative and dangerous. The catty narrator role occupied by the lightly fictionalized version of Kevin Killian in Shy finds his compliment in Geoffrey Crane’s wry “voiceover,” and in the slightly more restrained tone of Liam from Arctic Summer. Kevin’s favorite narrative perspective was past-tense first-person omniscient, an uncommon choice that he stuck to in all three novels. The narrator isn’t necessarily the main character but he somehow knows exactly what others are thinking, feeling, and doing in other rooms or distant townships. He can understand and articulate concepts that are above him as a character in the story. It’s a crafty manipulation that brings the New Narrative edge to these sexily creepy potboilers. What a crying shame that his novels are so hard to come by. Shy and Arctic Summer are obscure enough that there’s a whole generation of readers waiting to discover them. As Dennis Cooper has proclaimed, “Kevin Killian is the greatest unsung genius in contemporary American literature.” With his ardent fan base, and considering the sheer quality of his corpus, you would think everyone would be singing, constantly singing to the rafters about this guy. “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company!”
This is far from over, dear reader. Watch out for part three! That’s where I further examine Kevin’s relationship to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and how he channeled his survivor’s guilt into a deft and chilling interpretation of the film work of horror maestro Dario Argento in the stunning poetry collection Argento Series. His four books of verse take others as their muses as well, including pop singer Kylie Minogue and a parade of gay cult icons including George Kuchar, Tony Greene, and James Bidgood. In addition I will take you by the hand through the playful and campy world of poets theater, queerly reimagined by Kevin as an instrument for community building.