I’ve read all of Liam Living’s books with central gay characters. There is much that is familiar about this latest work: the closely-observed narrative that focuses on a distinctly British cultural microcosm (in this case the early 1990s and the world of DJ’s, clubbers, and ecstasy). However, this is Livings’ most sophisticated and carefully wrought book yet. It is very much the voice of a young writer of the 21st century – but it has the same kind of punch that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and the Damned,” published in 1922, had for me. This is a wonderful, moving, heart-wrenching book.
Tom and Paul are in their early twenties, and they both love the club scene in and around the vast metropolis of London. In key ways they are very alike – but in others are rather different boys. Tom is middle class, maybe even working class, who lives in Brockley in southeast London. Paul grew up in the most elegant part of Chiswick, on the far western side of the city, near Lord Burlington’s celebrated neo-Palladian villa. Neither boy seems to have much ambition beyond getting involved in the club scene as DJs, and even that is something Tom gives to Paul soon after they meet. The book is the narrative of their success and their failure.
It was very difficult for me to read about this world of drugs and dancing for hours and hours to what, in my mind, is idiotic, mind-numbing music. I didn’t love disco all that much in the 1975-85 period when I was in my twenties, and I drank very moderately. I regretted the few times I lost control. Still do. Oh, we danced, and we smoked, but we were always home by one a.m., and always together. The club scene, then and now, has always seemed pointless to me, even destructive.
I note my own harsh opinion because Livings is extremely careful, and remarkably successful, in approaching this world without judgment or condemnation. Right to the end – and this surprised me – he never questions the life-affirming aspect of the club scene for many of its participants, including Tom and Paul. It is all about balance, about holding up real life and real goals so as not to let them get lost in a fantasy of narcotics and pounding music.
Okay, then. I bought it. I believed. I bow to Liam Livings for pushing my attitudes around. Which brings me to parents. Tom’s mum is possibly the greatest literary character ever written. Middle-aged and always frugal, she loves her boy with a terrifying candor that made me laugh out loud. Paul’s parents, on the other hand, are hands-off, throwing money at everything in the assumption that it will solve all their problems. (They rather remind me of Johnny and Moira Rose in the US television series “Schitt’s Creek.”) The thing is, as awful as they seem a lot of the time, they also love their son. A lot. I was horrified to realize that, as a parent, I had a bit of Paul’s parents in me, and not only Tom’s.
I think of Livings as a peer, but in fact he could be my son. Tom and Paul’s story made me think about my own life, and it’s hard to resist a writer who can provoke such introspection as he builds a story. And he does build this story, block by block, tightening the screws until you’re almost screaming with silent despair at the slow-motion car wreck taking place before your eyes.
So much contemporary gay romance is just crap. This is tougher and better than most of it. I like an easy romance as well as the next guy, but books like this stick with me forever.