Sex, hypocrisy, solitude, loss, the punitive affinities that swallow the self—these are Gary Indiana’s themes, jingling through his books like money in Balzac. But rumbling beneath the malice is a melancholy yearning, a mind groping vulnerably for a human link.
“Affection is the mortal illness of lonely people,” declares the narrator of Horse Crazy, whose own loneliness will froth into a mania by the novel’s end. A writer in his thirties, he’s just been named the art critic for a magazine he dislikes. “A new year had begun with ominously good fortune,” pushing him deeper into the New York culture industry, a feudal world ruled by bloated personae and venal logic. The post is prestigious; he greets it with dread. Chained to his column, he will now be a minor celebrity and a downtown figure, “an object of envy, malice, and all the other base emotions that drive the majority of people at all times in every conceivable place and circumstance.” Risible, then, that he wants to be loved.
And Horse Crazy is, by the laxest possible definition, a book about love—about a psyche smashed by what it can’t help but want. The narrator—I’ll call him “the critic”—is infatuated with a younger man, a twenty-seven-year-old artist named Gregory Burgess. But their courtship is pricked by a wincing imbalance. The critic is “established,” and Gregory is not. Gregory is a former heroin addict who makes rent by waiting tables at a passé restaurant, an arrangement he sees as a kind of cosmic abuse. Philippe, his boss, is an erratic French freak who deals cocaine, terrorizes his staff, keeps a gun behind the counter, and has lascivious designs on Gregory (the burden, of course, of his sexual appeal).
Gregory resents the job. He also resents the critic. His column, fame, and chicly accomplished milieu make him the whimpering target of Gregory’s punishments: the lying, cheating, screamed recriminations, and preposterous threats for which he is instantly forgiven, liberated from morality by his lovely face. And Gregory is lovely. He glitters with a mind-shattering sexiness, which he cannily exploits as he sails through the world.
His lies swirl into delusion. His compulsive manipulations grow more reckless and cruel. He might be using the critic to boost himself a bit higher in the art-world pecking order—or maybe just likes his sexual power. Either way, he’s mean, demanding, stroppy, petty: a bundle of malevolent reflexes and bullying tics. “I had always wanted someone to take control of my body and soul, rule my life, fill my consciousness to the exclusion of everyone else,” the critic admits. “And at last someone had, a full-blown psychopath.” So we’re shoved into the cage of the critic’s sexual need.
But Gregory has renounced sex. The restaurant drains his vitality, so he can’t possibly “give you what you want.” Not to mention that his ex-girlfriend Gloria was apparently a vindictive nymphomaniac, an addled banshee whose savage appetite demoted him to the status of mere object—a theme he’s started to probe in his art. Gregory spends his days ripping pages from porn magazines, extracting pictures of limbs and genitals for his “technically sophisticated” collages, which mount a critique, he says, of sex. Or rather, the gleaming fantasy of sex—sex made vulgar and slick by commodity culture. “Something of the zeal with which reformed sinners make themselves odious sparkled across Gregory’s photographs.” So his celibacy is enshrined as a virtue in a world devoured by AIDS.
When Horse Crazy was first published in 1989, William Burroughs invoked Genet—“fascinating to every man, no matter what his sexual tastes”—Peter Wollen reached for Breton—“a Nadja for New York”—but only the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, perhaps chastened by decades of militancy, thought to allude to Dante: “There’s a circle of hell called the Lower East Side of New York where boys and girls love too much and die too soon. Horse Crazy is one writer’s guided tour.”
It was also Indiana’s first novel. For three years, he’d been the art critic for the Village Voice—a job that placed him in the blast radius of the Lower East Side art scene, the garish bloom of galleries and “spaces” whose existence hinged on the very financial interests then dismantling the neighborhood. Trapped within this microcosm, Indiana sought to censure and expose it, cackling at its follies and chastising its buffoons. He was a canary, a Cassandra—the grimacing superego of a lurid age.
New York in the eighties. The phrase brims with myths—about art and finance, AIDS and real estate, right-wing Schadenfreude and a jagged avant-garde. In Horse Crazy, the critic’s ravings and sorrows are flecked with little musings, swiveling panoramas of a desolate decade. Bohemia is dying, rents are rising, and even the luftmenschen of downtown are gripped by a generalized neurosis and a twitching self-interest—a feeling enforced by a lethal disease. Horse Crazy traces the imprint of AIDS on the consciousness: its terror and humiliations, how it hardens the heart.
And mangles language. Indiana is among the best living prose stylists in English, lushly sensitive to phrasing, timing, patterns, sounds. Paul, a former lover, falls sick, “and so this body whose secret parts were my main pleasure in life for longer than anyone else’s transforms itself into a fount of contagion.” And Indiana summons the vocabulary of the disease with acrid brilliance: the word pneumocystis is dumped into an otherwise elegant paragraph, and the “fatal sarcomas, pneumonias, and neuropathies” that feast on his friends comprise a kind of brittle clinical slang.
AIDS, in Horse Crazy, is an assault on intimacy, a kind of hyperbole for how hard it is to connect. But it’s also history—history coming into crashing contact with human life, human weakness. AIDS draws and patrols the line between people; it crumbles the body and poisons love. And the disease becomes a cynical alibi for Gregory’s refusal of the critic: “The only safe sex, he says, is if one person jerks off at one end of a room and someone else jerks off at the other, both trying to hit the same spot in the middle of the floor.” This has a chilling, malicious logic. Whole stretches of the novel consist of crazed thoughts and desperate calculations, as Indiana’s characters stare down the barrel of the epidemic. So the psyche lunges for totems and explanations, the kind of magical thinking that needs reasons, signs, clichés:
It wouldn’t be strange to get it and then to decide as Perkins did that this one particular person gave it to you, one out of ten or fifty or a hundred, maybe because that person made you feel something special, had done wonderful things in bed or gotten you to trust him physically and mentally as no one else ever had … You would naturally connect your most vivid memory of pleasure to infection and death because the others weren’t remotely worth getting sick from, just pale skimpy traces of sex crossed with thin trickles of “bodily fluids,” if the two things had to be linked, better for a cherished memory of sex to connect with transmission of the microbe.
To open your life is to threaten it—to die, in effect, for love:
In any case, if you had sex now it was a matter of deciding, even if you took elaborate precautions, whether the degree of risk involved (and who could calculate that?) was “worth it,” whether your need for that kind of experience with another person outweighed, in a sense, your desire for survival.
“Who,” Roland Barthes asks in 1977, “will write the history of tears?” Indiana has written the history of blood, skin, sputum, semen—and of art, lust, money, and fear. We are living now in a fearful time. And Gary Indiana is still writing books.
Tobi Haslett’s writing has appeared in n+1, The New Yorker, Artforum, and elsewhere.
Excerpted from the new edition of Horse Crazy, by Gary Indiana, published by Seven Stories Press this month.