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.

I also like that, while Hard has a political agenda (as all good works of literature do), it’s not a particularly melodramatic or obviously issue-driven novel. For example, Gene is HIV+ and is trying out a series of meds intended to reduce the amount of the virus in his bloodstream to undetectable levels, but the novel is not an AIDS novel. Hoffman’s treatment of Gene’s HIV, to borrow the cliche, furthers the plot rather than becomes the plot. Likewise, this novel isn’t about coming out angst or queer self-loathing. To a degree, it’s simply about this group of characters and their lives in NYC.

I should also say something about the novel’s sexual content. As its name suggests, Hard is clearly meant to be sexy, and it succeeds. A lot of recent gay novels are fairly sexually explicit, and Hard is by no means as explicit as many of its contemporaries, but I think Hoffman uses his sex scenes better than some of the other novels I’ve read recently. I never felt that I was reading a scene that was merely or solely meant to arouse the reader; rather, I felt that Hoffman was telling a story first and, if that story arouses his readers, then that’s a pleasureable bonus that he wouldn’t be ashamed to be proud of.

And finally, as I wrote in a previous post, Hard seems like a response to Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel Faggots (and perhaps to his larger rhetoric and subsequent works too). As such a response, I think this novel really works. Where Kramer’s very explicit representations of all kinds of sexual activities are meant to distance (if not repel) the reader from them, to make us pause and question why these “men” are engaging in such acts, Hoffman’s representations of sex, his characters, and their lives are first and foremost about being relatively well adjusted gay men. We know why his characters perform the acts they enjoy — in fact, at the end of each of the five sections one of the major characters has a short interlude describing exactly what makes him hard. While I may be making this sound more hokey than it is, I really like this foundational affirmation of his characters’ gayness.

I’ve been looking for a recent gay novel to include in my GLBT lit course, one that moves beyond the AIDS lit genre of the 1980s and 1990s, something that feels like it has something to say to young GLBT people in the new century. I think I’ve found it in Hard; it’s sexy, political, relevant, funny, and entertaining. I look forward to sharing it with my students. I think it will make an interesting addition to the syllabus, which will also likely include Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, Katherine Forrest’s Curious Wine, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Rebecca Brown’s The Last Time I Saw You as the major texts.