EROTICA by Brian Centrone

I’m going to be honest up front here. Books about sex are not really my thing. By that, I don’t mean that I don’t like it when sex and sexuality figure significantly in a story. They’re pretty major aspects of the human experience, after all. However, my interest tends to wane when there is little else going on. If you look at some previous reviews of mine, you’ll see that I’m not really into sex personally.  I even went on a rant of a review, defending Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  My thesis was that the book’s current critical neglect is due to the fact that Wilder was not an author concerned primarily with sexuality, and that this fact confused and irritated the sex-addled literary establishment.  I confess to being rather grouchy in that piece (it was a bad few weeks), but I still stand by much of it.  Therefore, you can imagine that a book titled Erotica would not be my cup of tea, and I avoided reading it for a while, despite my friendship with the author.  That was a mistake.  This is a stellar collection.

Readers should know that this is a book of gay, male erotica.  As a gay man, I suppose I am part of the target audience.  Despite this, I would argue Erotica is worth anyone’s time.  Centrone’s introduction, “Oops, I Didn’t Know I Couldn’t Write About Sex,” is worth it even if you have zero interest in erotica, gay or straight.  It is a magnificent essay, one of the best defenses of writing within a certain “genre” that I have ever read.  When I started writing this review, I wanted to include one quote from the introduction, but it’s awfully tough to pick just one part.  I’ll go with this, but be aware it was a painful choice: “There is more than one way to tell a story, and there is more than one type of story to tell.  If that story happens to get you off while reading it, well, then, good.”  I’ve been arguing, in conversation and writing, for years that the type of story should matter less than whether or not it’s a good story, worth telling.  In my humble opinion, Centrone has the last word on that subject.

By now, many readers are probably wondering if I’m going to talk at all about the stories (by which they mean the sex) or just babble about the intro.  Fair enough.  You don’t open a book of erotic stories primarily for the preface.  Since I don’t know much erotica, it would be wrong of me to claim it is better than your average erotic writing.  However, I’d bet good money that it is.  Remember, I’m not drawn to this type of writing and I could rarely put the book down.  Favorite pieces would have to include “Mates,” a bittersweet student reminiscence with masterful, sometimes heartbreaking dialogue.  I also loved the almost dreamlike mystery of “Boracay,” which contains some of the most sensuous writing in the book.  Perhaps even better is the quirky comic uplift of “Chubstr,” which will bring a smile to the face of anyone who has ever tried to navigate online dating and hookups.  Erotica is also a finely designed book, with a beautiful cover, frontispiece, and great artwork throughout by four artists.  I particularly admired the cartoons of Terry Blas, but all the art is top-notch.

The book does have its flaws.  “Getting What He Wants” is a bit of a by the numbers jock wet dream, albeit a very pleasant one indeed.  However, my chief complaint is more of a nitpick than a criticism.  By far my favorite story is “Lost.”  This piece will challenge what most readers expect of erotica by being a genuine period drama, set inside a tantalizing frame device.  One of the few erotic works I had read previously was Anais Nin’s novel Collages.  “Lost” more than matches Nin’s glittery off-kilter prose and puzzle box atmosphere, while adding humor and a touch of sadness which are all Centrone’s own.  So what’s my problem?  I felt the historical moments were just slightly short of period details.  One or two additions might have ramped up the deliriously wonderful fantasy.  That being said, these are minor issues with a story I found brimming with great characterizations, truly alluring sex, and a really arresting style that make it a full-blown masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the prejudices Centrone tries to dispel in his introduction are still strong.  Most readers who don’t take erotica seriously probably won’t read this.  Straight readers will think they have nothing to gain from a bunch of stories concerning gay sex.  Both assumptions are dead wrong, stupidly wrong, but likely to be prevalent.  Maybe, just maybe, my little review has intrigued a couple of reluctant readers.  If so, take it from me: read Erotica.  It might not make you love gay erotica in general, but this book and these stories are worth the attention of anyone who appreciates a well-told story with something real to say.

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