By Adam Mars-Jones
128 pp. Fitzcarraldo Editions. £10.
I received this one in the mail as a part of my subscription with Fitzcarraldo Editions and, as it’s a relatively slim novel, 125 pages or so, I finished it in an evening.
This isn’t the type of book I’d typically read, and I suppose that’s one of the good things about a book subscription, you get exposed to books you wouldn’t typically read. Unfortunately though, this one just didn’t do it for me.
It’s difficult to summarize what “Box Hill” is essentially about. I can’t really say that it’s a love story, because it isn’t, really. Or at least not in my opinion. But that’s where things get a bit murky.
This is more or less about the gay scene in 1970s London. Or rather, the “gay biker community”, according to summaries I’ve found online. As a straight, non-biking man, I didn’t know much about this world, and I still don’t know much about it. But, again, that’s the great thing about books. They take us to places we might not otherwise go.
But I sort of wish I hadn’t gone on this trip.
Things start out in a hurry, and I think it’s only on the second page or so when our protagonist, Colin, stumbles — quite literally — across Ray, a leather-clad biker sprawled out on the grass of the titular park. Before Colin’s even managed to stand up, Ray solicits oral sex from him, and the next thing you know, the two are living together.
On thinking about it, I don’t think I’ve read anything else that features two gay lovers as the main characters, so I have to go to movies here. I really loved “Call Me By Your Name”, though I again haven’t read the book, but was not at all a fan of “Brokeback Mountain” as I didn’t think the story was all that good. My feeling is that folks in the media, as well as the “woke” Twitterati, bend over backwards praising stories that feature oft-marginalized characters not because the story is good, though in the case of “Call Me By Your Name” it certainly can be, but because they feature oft-marginalized characters.
That’s the only reason I can give for the fact that anyone might actually like this book. The relationship between Colin and Ray can’t be called anything other than disturbing and yet, from the reviews I’ve read, it’s billed as some sort of charming love story. I have a hard time understanding that, as nothing here would seem to resemble love, at least not to my mind.
As I mentioned, Colin moves in with Ray, and the two live together for four — or was it six? — years, but in that entire time, Ray never gives Colin a key, and Ray expects Colin to leave every morning at a certain time and not return before a certain time. There are a lot of other strange, yet unsaid, rules too. In one bizarre scene, Ray “takes Colin out” but does so like one would a dog, with the latter on a leash.
In short, Ray thoroughly dominates him and Colin is clearly meant to understand and accept that he is being dominated. The subtitle of this book is actually “a story of low self-esteem” but, oddly, I think we’re meant to come away from this thinking that Ray helped Colin to feel less insecure.
I’m aware that gay relationships can be a bit more, erm, nuanced than straight ones, but I just had a hard time relating this “love story” to anything genuinely loving. And yet, there it is. At the end, when a tragic event befalls Ray, we’re meant to feel terrible about it. But, instead, I couldn’t help thinking that the whole thing might actually be good, literally liberating. For Colin at least.
Or am I missing the point entirely?
Is it possible for a straight man to understand “gay” literature? As a civilized individual, I obviously believe consenting adults should be free to enter into whatever kind of relationship they want, and it should go without saying that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong. But are certain kinds of literature inaccessible to those not within a specific community? Is this just not for me?
Put “Box Hill” as being for the “gay biker community,” then.