The Atmospherics of Plague
(Xlibris Press, 2000)
From the opening scene of this short novel, everything is perfectly off-center by just one degree. Life seems fine: two men in love, steady jobs, a country home, and two cats named Toledo and Omaha. But seeping through the seams of this upper-middle-class gay domesticity is a dangerous unease, an awful specter that reveals only pieces of itself.
We get our first glimpse on page one. Steven and his beau, the unnamed narrator, encounter a boy in search of a stray black chicken near their country home. Nothing too strange about that nor about the kid’s loping gait as he ducks under some pines, “his shirt tail flapping, his head swinging loosely. Leaves scattering in the wake of his unlaced boots.” And then the kid’s eyes swallow our narrator “like a sinkhole.” Nothing too strange, but somehow unpleasant.
The Lynchian tale that unfolds from here contains just enough normalcy, just enough raunchy sex, and just enough twisted, hinted-at danger to keep the reader bothered and turning pages. There’s the kid with his piecing blue eyes; the black feathers found back in the city inside Toledo’s travel cage; the tall handsome doorman across the street who jerks off with two hands while standing between cars in the wee hours of the night, but the next day seems not to exist; drug-addled panic at a crowded and callous party for the swank and notable. On goes the narrative, spiraling upwards, to the seventh floor of an old university building where our protagonist/narrator fucks strange, silent men in the bathroom and reads cryptic, perhaps imagined, messages in the stall-side graffiti. But just when it’s getting really crazy we always return to the normal everyday of two life partners in love after many years trundling on in a sweet and wholesome fashion.
Sweaty-palmed, obsessed, and ever more insane, yet always under control, Wolfchild is gay noir in the age of AIDS. Desire and obsession are here shaped and haunted by a quiet horror: the soft wrecking ball of risk and plague. Thompson, a Ph.D. in American Studies, is both an informed and loving student of noir. The result is a crisp, quick style that leaves room for the reader to think, yet always stays clear and gives all the pieces. This device operates both at the level of dialogue and sentence structure, and at the level of plot. As the narrator’s compulsive anonymous sexual encounters escalate, so too do the seemingly supernatural perturbations of strange men with blue eyes stalking him and leading him through rainy urban streetscapes. Is our protagonist insane or is this a horror story?
The novel climaxes (in every sense of the word) with the narrator plunging all the way into his madness. Or, if you wish to be literal, into a secret realm of subterranean decay, loss, and sadism. From this abandon and descent, a resolution does emerge.