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Man about Town
Mark Merlis
London: Fourth Estate, 2003.
£10.99, 360 pages, ISBN 0007150822.

Joanne Hall
The University of Nottingham

Mark Merlis looks like an approachable and sympathetic academic, the kind that alumni will remember fondly as the one they felt a kinship with/had a crush on. He is, in fact, a novelist, a health policy consultant of twenty-five years standing, and a man with his own website. On this website, Merlis characterises his third novel (following American Studies, 1996 and An Arrow’s Flight, 1998) thus: “a lot of […] congressional stuff, a complicated interracial romance, and a sort of detective story” ( To delve into this detective story/romance in more detail, one would have to note that its “complicated” subject matter does not begin and end with Merlis’s exploration of an interracial romance. The text is concerned with aging, death, waste and regret, yet succeeds in undercutting these sentiments with incidents of ambivalence, comfort and privilege. Joel Lingeman—a middle-aged, borderline-alcoholic, non-partisan health policy adviser to Congress—finds that his cosy routine-dictated world disintegrates with the break-up of his fifteen-year relationship. The disintegration (and questionability) of Joel’s life’s familiar infrastructures is further compounded by the necessity of having to work on an Amendment suggested by Senator Harris which aims to withdraw Medicare from AIDS sufferers—it is not disguised that the targets are homosexuals. As his political life becomes progressively more personal, he finds himself unable to cope with the cutthroat world of dating ‘n’ mating, and retreats into the past to a treasured memory of a model in a swimsuit ad. This image touched him so deeply and profoundly that he embarks upon a quest to find—as Joel christens him—the Santa Fe boy. While he struggles to make sense of his past he also struggles to rewrite his (previously predictable) future within the ever shifting boundaries of his burgeoning interracial relationship with Michael.

As with many aspects of this novel, the title, Man about Town, is multifaceted. It is the name of the magazine within which (in May of 1964) a fourteen-year-old Joel Lingman first beheld the Santa Fe boy, it is an ironic nod to Joel’s decidedly un-man about town single dateless status, and it also holds further clues to Joel’s situation: in the world of quick and snappy Capital Hill abbreviations (HMO, OLA, LA etc) the title finds itself shortened to M.A.T. (as in door, as in Joel is a). However, as the novel progresses Merlis determines to peel back many of Joel’s illusions: Senators cannot be trained to ‘care,’ ‘liberals’ will compromise their principles to get the job done, even the Santa Fe boy (by now the Santa Fe granddad) reveals his stomach is no longer perfect but is scarred by Vietnam. Furthermore, Merlis progressively morphs Joel from a character who breaks into a cold sweat at the thought of leaving a meeting early to one who, while not happily, will, when the necessary factors are in place, guiltily abscond to focus more on his personal than his political life. Joel is—admittedly rather unwillingly—transformed from a man about whom the narrator ruefully notes (with a hint of waste and regret): “[B]eing gay had taken up his whole life. He had devoted the whole of his youth to it, had studied it year after year […] There hadn’t been time for anything else.” (56)

To one who, in sheer horror that the Amendment he worked on will be passed into law, naively (and somewhat bravely) defends a notion of American solidarity through Medicare, and succeeds in ‘outing’ himself to senators and staffers who were not aware of his sexuality.

The novel is an entertaining and jaunty read, it is witty, intelligent and in possession of a snappy narrative voice that—without being so slavishly sycophantic to Joel that it fails to expose his flaws and foibles—at times so closely resembles his own that it merges with him. Indeed, the novel has an airbrushed appearance of sleek originality which cleverly conceals the, sometimes, trite conclusions reached: life is a compromise in which we all whore ourselves out, political leaders are more concerned with one-upmanship and popularity than policies to benefit the people they supposedly represent and serve… In the Capital Hill world created and satirised by Merlis, Life is cheap (in a slightly sinister way) and, fittingly, so are the many un-sinister, light-hearted puns that litter the text: the local gay pickup joint goes by the name Zippers, the manager of a model agency, Chambers Sexton, acknowledges that occasionally boys “found the road to stardom ran through [his] bedroom” (281), Michael takes Joel, his new white overweight lover, to a restaurant called El Elefante Blanco, and let us not forget Joel’s pursuit of that elusively fey prey, the Santa Fe boy. This punning stretches as far as (brace yourself for one that manages to embrace both subterfuge and postcard humour) the fairytale motif that Merlis subtly and successfully weaves throughout the text.

The real meat of the text (aside from the many meals consumed by Joel) lays in Merlis’s exploration of time. To the aging Joel, the Senators he sees around Capitol Hill resemble the high school Jocks he experienced crushes on, but does this mean that time is moving forward, backward or simply looping back on itself to form repetitive circles? The novel’s opening line certainly creates a feeling of déjà vu and routine: “It was almost six o’clock, so Joel Lingeman wanted a drink” (1). Presumably, after a few drinks Joel will toddle home, this will be followed by a bite to eat with his lover, Sam, and finally off to bed, and then to work… A forward moving circularity then. This circular domestic arrangement co-exists with the ticking time bomb of the Harris-Amendment—a cruelly mocking parody of the H.I.V. to AIDS time bomb—which hinges on the question when will the Amendment come into effect, who will get health care and who won’t? However, Merlis is also concerned with other types of time: dead time and frozen time. Dead time—which is embodied by Joel and Sam’s relationship—is the type of time that begs the question: does time still move when you’re dead, or is it still in a way that is comparable to the silent noise made by a tree that falls when nobody is around to hear. The cobwebs of dead time are brushed away by a kiss of gratitude (or should that be gratuity) that Joel ‘purchases’ (he helped out a broke guy) for $40 in Zippers. After the kiss, Joel finds that “Time had started again” (32). Joel’s momentary exuberance at being part of the ticking (and tricking) world does not stop his desire to be frozen in a moment. He covets both the actuality of the Santa Fe boy’s picture, and the fantasy of lying next to the Santa Fe boy the exact moment before touching. The search for the Santa Fe boy becomes both progressive and regressive: Joel searches for the past in order to embrace the future. Merlis demonstrates that the myriad types of time co-exist, and struggle for dominance, within one life.

In keeping with the multifaceted nature of much of Merlis’s text, the detective story has threefold significance. Joel employs a detective who is reluctant—to the point of negligence—to assist him with his quest, and so Joel takes on much of the work himself. This ploy allows Merlis to keep Joel on the Hill, and, therefore, to continue his satire of the political machine (this is no road novel) while still allowing Joel, and the reader, to personally visit the significant players in the Santa Fe photo drama. However, two secondary detective stories are being played out right on the Hill itself: firstly, after discovering that the Harris-Amendment has major financial backing through the shadowy organisation Citizens For Personal Responsibility Joel progresses past a merely analytical apathy-tinged interest in the Amendment to genuine distress and a desire to find out who is funding/pushing for it and why. Secondly, Joel suspects that his hot new lover—who he daily tells himself he is lucky even looked at him—is re-homing the occasional $20 from his wallet. As an analytical man he is forced to turn the spotlight on himself and shamefully question his preconceived notions of race and identity. This soul searching takes place while taking tentative steps towards raising the issue of the missing $20 with Michael and—from the fear of losing this new relationship—giant leaps away from it.

Merlis’s handling of race, and his African American characters, has a deceptively simple gleam, and so would be easy to call problematic. It is probably a good dose of social realism to suggest that a homeless man, a guy working out in the park, two taxi drivers and Michael (who works in a department store) are the only non-white characters a man in Joel’s position, inhabiting his very small world, would encounter for any significant length of time, and, this being the case, why would a guy in Joel’s position with Joel’s life get to know the homeless man and the taxi drivers? Michael, however, is another story (and, perhaps, that is part of the problem: he does not appear to play a rounded role in this one). The text is seemingly content to merely explore Joel’s prejudices—he refers to the guy on the park as a “prepotent creature,” (217) and to Michael as a “live brown creature,” (252)—rather than to explore Michael a little more fully. However, every aspect of the text is focused through Joel and, therefore, remains true to itself in a way that Joel’s job does not allow him to do. All that is required of the reader is the ability to do a little picking and digging and Michael soon comes to life, if somewhat ambiguously. In a novel that explores the psychology of Joel, the greyest aspect of the relationship between the two concerns Michael’s interiority:

What was Michael thinking? Nothing. Joel felt Michael’s heart beating, heard his breathing, and imagined that he was thinking nothing at all. Because Joel was a racist, because he could not attribute to Michael any human depth, just dismissed him as some sort of splendid, thoughtless animal? No, past this: because Michael was so entirely other that Joel could not see inside the way he usually saw inside people, by attributing to them his own interior life. (292)

Immediately after these ruminations Michael uses the word “think” in a sentence that does not indicate a complicated thought process, just a casual observation; he tells Joel: “I don’t think you’ve taken a breath in the last five minutes” (292). Upon being pressed by Joel to explain his thoughts he replies: “[I think] Only that I’m having a good time. Just that I’m happy. Or, nothing really, I don’t think anything” (321).

By pandering to his lover’s fantasies and prejudices in this way, Michael is able to be physically with Joel but mentally separate, aloof, unobtainable. Yet, this subversion of a white male’s expectations and stereotypes has become something of a literary cliché itself, and, in this sense, Merlis is saying nothing new. In an instance of circularity, reminiscent of his use of time, the most interesting aspect of Merlis’s depiction of race relations is watching Joel bumble through his encounters and attempting to stumble through his prejudices and routines towards understanding. Indeed, by portraying Joel moving towards greater and wider understanding in all areas of his life, this pithy and fun novel (which I’ll remember fondly) seems to suggest that that is all any of us can do.

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