Would you be interested in reading a blow by blow account of my sex life? How quickly would you lose interest? Writing about sexual encounters in the first person is dangerous: too much info and the words and their credibility part ways. And too much info about as touchy a subject as one’s own sex life is reached quickly. But if not for an explosively interesting foray into the notion of sex tourism the world over and if not for its achingly beautiful prose, Brent Meersman’s latest publication 80 Gays Around the World would quickly slip into the forgettably tawdry and self-aggrandising. Instead it’s an important social document, which I predict will find its way from itchy titillating contexts to serious sociological fora.
He really means it when he proffers you eighty sexual encounters during his travels all over the world, and while some are really beautifully cast, with hairpin narrative bends involving love and death and camels and cows, others are excruciating in their dirtiness and you quickly tire of how eastern men reflect on the size of Meersman’s genitals.
But as you read – and this is not the kind of book you can get through in one sitting – you forgive him for the self-indulgences that make you want to close your eyes and your brain. The book embraces a sophisticated and insightful reflection on what it means to be homosexual in the contemporary world – from Bangkok to Mexico, China to New York, in terms of the punitive and biblical nature of how the different societies tick.
Meersman’s sheer skill in immersing himself in the seductive beauty of foreign landscapes and his exploratory manipulation of his words to embrace some of the planet’s most astounding sights, be they in the majesty of landscape, the grace of architecture or the vileness of urbanisation, is palpable. Not every chapter ends in the bed of a hotel room, or the toilet cubicle of a club and you are enabled in some of these finely crafted pieces to see the complex magnificence that Meersman encountered in his travels, over and above both beautiful and revolting specimens of the male gender.
And while you get to understand the history of Meersman’s fascination for the young male pelvic floor, you also experience under his pen a stripping away of the veneer of morality from the sex act. It’s a gesture which yields meaty perspectives on issues viewed unequivocally as the way things are. He explores attitudes to homosexuality from Soweto to Los Angeles with the unflinching curiosity of the journalist and the subjectivity of the participant.
Jumping across geographies and chronologies, if you consider the peeks into contemporary political history that Meersman offers us, through the miasma of his different sexual and romantic and cultural enquiries, the text as a whole doesn’t slip into gratuitous smut; rather, it holds its own as an unashamed anthropological foray into gay culture. Topped and tailed with remarkably fine essays on gay discrimination and India, respectively, the book is more like Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari than EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. And, with all its profanities considered, it is an intelligent work and a worthwhile project, by and large achieving what it promises, though it remains caught in a kind of a Moebius strip conundrum. It must be in the first person to do and say what it does, and yet that is its greatest downfall.
- 80 Gays Around the World by Brent Meersman is published by Missing Ink, Vlaeberg (2014).