New York City was the perfect (and somewhat obvious) place to read Wayne Hoffman’s new novel, Hard, which is about the crackdown on gay sex in various venues in NYC in the late 1990s. I finished reading the novel over the weekend. It’s a great read that raises lots of interesting questions about gay liberation and sexual politics without forgetting to entertain its readers.

Hard by Wayne HoffmanThe novel centers on Moe Pearlman, who is known for giving the best blow jobs in the city. He practices his skills in this activity every chance he gets: at sex parties, in the backrooms of bars, in adult theaters, and at home with the various men he’s met online. Moe is also a graduate student and a would-be journalist. In part, the novel focuses on the love lives of Moe and his two best friends, Gene and Aaron. Moe has long been attracted to a man he sees in a diner window. Gene, Moe’s ex-lover who also happens to be HIV+, moves to New York at the beginning of the novel; the closeness of their friendship causes friction in Gene’s new relationship with Dustin, who can’t seem to get over his jealousy of Moe. And Aaron discovers that his new love interest is moonlighting as a prostitute.

The novel is also about Moe’s antipathy for Frank DeSoto, a gay activist who is behind the mayor’s crusade to close down the gay sex venues. Frank believes that gay men must stop indulging in promiscuous sex due to the AIDS crisis; he therefore aligns himself with more conservative, anti-gay forces to try to force gay men into celibacy. If Hard has a villain, it’s Frank DeSoto.

But one of the best parts of Hoffman’s novel is that, while the novel clearly opposes Frank’s ideology and methods, it avoids simply demonizing him. Over the course of the book, we see why Frank has adopted his current views. We also see his faults and hypocrisies. I like that Moe is not simply right and Frank is not merely wrong. Indeed, Hoffman draws each of his characters as fully developed (albeit fictionalized) people. They have realistic problems, to which they generally find realistic answers, if they find answers at all.