A debut essay collection charts a man’s development from closeted Christian kid to liberated sex writer.
There was nothing about Cheves’ early life that hinted at his future career as the sex columnist for Out magazine. The adopted son of Evangelical Christian parents, the author was raised in rural, conservative Georgia. “They knew nothing about the woman who birthed me,” he writes of his parents, “except that she was described in the adoption papers as a dancer, a 1992 code word for prostitute, or so I’ve always believed.” His parents worked in Zambia as medical missionaries, where the young Cheves saw the ravages of AIDS firsthand. Back home in Georgia, he learned that gay sexuality was sinful according to the teachings of his Baptist congregation, and his father insisted that the author’s sexuality was the work of evil spirits. At college, Cheves was diagnosed as HIV-positive, only a couple of years after entering the gay dating scene for the first time. After initial panic and depression, the author came to accept his diagnosis and see himself within the continuum of HIV-positive artists and activists. With this collection, Cheves recounts his struggles to come to terms with himself as a young man caught between the rigid intolerance of his childhood and the exciting but sometimes dangerous world of adult sex. He learned how to date with his diagnosis, discovered his numerous—and often wild—kinks, and explored his ever evolving relationship with God. From the barns of rural Georgia to the sex dungeons of San Francisco, the newsrooms of Los Angeles, and the pride parades of Atlanta, the author tracks his own development through a series of lovers, relocations, hardships, and experiments. Easy answers are rare and difficult to come by, but Cheves’ life never ceases to offer test cases in the many different ways to find the limits of pleasure and pain.
The author’s prose style seems to hold nothing back, mixing stark admissions with arresting gallows humor: “My first Christmas as an HIV-positive man was rough. I was suicidal, and to make things worse, I worked at a restaurant. I attended the host desk; I was a host in so many ways. Whenever an unhappy guest complained about their table or the atmosphere, I was tempted to say, ‘You’re the reason I won’t be alive tomorrow, and I want you to live with that.’ ” Cheves excels at portraying sex and place, but more than anything he is a perceptive and shrewd writer about people. He approaches the characters who populate these pages with a generous helping of empathy, which makes the sometimes-extreme behavior he describes feel unexpectedly accessible. Although there are moments when the writing feels slightly self-indulgent—the author includes in full a poem he wrote as a college student—he makes up for it by consistently delivering poignant insights and shocking moments of beauty. While perhaps not for the most squeamish readers, the book presents an unapologetic vitality that will linger long after the covers are closed.
A searing coming-of-age account about sexual extremes.