Sent to Budapest to do a magazine story about brothels, Bruce Benderson, a middle-aged, overweight, queer Jewish East Villager, wanders down to the Corso, a strip along the Danube. There he meets Romulus, a 24-year-old Romanian hustler whose angular body and profound cynicism immediately attract him. So begins this memoir, which as first published in French and won the Prix de Flore, a prize for promising authors with originality, modernity and youthfulness. (Benderson, the first American to receive this prize, will be 60 this year, so perhaps one's definition of youthfulness is subjective.)
Benderson punctuates the account of his own one-sided love story with historical Romanian romances, weaving together personal experience with what is essentially his selective reading of Romanian history. In many chapters Benderson alternates between these two trains of thought by the paragraph, as if in the throes of his obsession he is searching the past for a parallel or a rationalization. Though these liaisons, including King Carol II's scandalous affair with Elena Lupescu, are an interesting way to pace and structure the book, they inevitably take a backseat to the central plot.
After returning to Manhattan after wooing the young European, Benderson begins dreaming up ways to continue the tryst with Romulus. Over multiple trips to Hungary and Romania, interrupted by some work in Paris and visits to his mom in New York, Benderson's affair with Romulus does take on some characteristics of a typical, long-term relationship. While the two are living together in Bucharest for a few months, Benderson supports them by translating Céline Dion's autobiography; Romulus takes a daily break from his routine of lying in bed, watching soccer matches and chain-smoking to prepare a hot lunch.
Yet Benderson's relationship fantasy, to a reader, has obvious holes: Romulus, who considers himself straight, always has a "girl" waiting in the wings, and—oh yeah—he's doing it for the money. Meanwhile, Benderson's habit of popping all the opiates he can get his paws on becomes more difficult to ignore, as his train of thought gives way to states of paranoid delirium which, oddly, he seems to enjoy.
What keep the memoir from sliding into a purely repulsive account of a man who has given up on meaningful relationships in favor of delusion and addiction to painkillers are Benderson's moments of clarity. Early on in the book, he defines arousal: "an unconscious sense of discrepancy, a feeling of imbalance." When describing the rhythms of caressing he develops with Romulus and his fierce urge to believe, he writes, "Because he doesn't complain, I've decided we're in paradise." He describes his self-destruction with a frankness that lends universality: "I was in that place I'd visited hundreds of times when drink, depression and a lack of context synthesized a certain suavity."
The urge to compare Benderson's writing to that of William Burroughs is as irresistible as it is obvious (Benderson himself discusses the oft-made comparison in an essay called "Is There a Gay Male Fiction?"). In his willingness to plainly admit to bad behavior, his writing is also reminiscent of Michael Crichton's in Travels.
At moments it seems that Benderson is just waiting for Romulus to do something so callous that he will be able to walk away. His repeated failure to do so becomes increasingly frustrating for the reader. Yet Benderson's addiction to pursuing Romulus may be simply a more desperate version of a common dynamic: a co-dependent relationship. There are many turnoffs: The Romanian often feels like the narcissistic ramble of a truly pitiable man who is intelligent enough to recognize the craziness of his behavior but too weak to stop. (Early on, he comments that Romulus is "no one"—"a person with no identity moving illegally and aimlessly from country to country. A vacuum sucking my lost life forward.") Yet Benderson's vivid writing, which shows up not only in the nearly clinical analyses of his own turmoil but also in precise descriptions of even peripheral characters, holds it together. If a reader is able to put up with Benderson's incorrigible behavior, this is a very well-written account of a painful, gripping love story.
Bruce Benderson will be reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 22. Free.