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Works of Radical Imagination

Works of Radical Imagination

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blog — July 10

Excerpt: I Can Give You Anything But Love


To celebrate the paperback release of Gary Indiana's memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, we are proud to share an excerpt from the book, a sexy, literary, unabashedly wicked, and revealing montage of excursions into his life and work. In this excerpt, Gary takes us to his commune-hopping period in late-60s San Francisco, introducing us to an incredible cast of characters — his lovers, their lovers, his friends, their friends, their roommates, his roommates, etc — who set out, together, to create a porn movie called The Straight Banana.

Things to remember better: Ferd Eggan entered my life in San Francisco in 1969. I had dropped out of Berkeley. I had what today are called sexual identity issues that made it impossible to focus in any degree-winning manner on philosophy and English literature, my purported areas of study. I had drifted away from classes and moved out of student housing, crashing at various communes around the Berkeley campus. One was a Trotskyite commune. Another housed a study group of Frankfurt School scholars with guest lectures by Herbert Marcuse and also raised money for the Tupamaros. Another went in for encounter sessions and scream therapy. My final Berkeley commune was devoted to growing peyote cacti and magic mushrooms. I met Ferd on a film set. He was helming a new wrinkle in the developing canon of narrative porn cinema from his own co-authored script, The Straight Banana (“exhibitionist flashes nymphomaniac, fucking ensues!”—a meet-cute picture). I was “sexually involved” by that time—not on camera—with one of the stars of The Straight Banana, a tall, bisexual Nebraskan refugee often billed as Mr. Johnny Raw, or plain Johnny Raw, whose penis was a minor celebrity in the Bay Area.

Johnny Raw, aka Leonard Jones of Omaha, lived in the Marina district. I never socialized with him. I hardly knew him. I didn’t care about him. His self-involvement was hermetic and vaguely reptilian. Johnny Raw referred to the creeps who bought tickets to jerk off watching his films as “the fans,” and believed he was an actual movie star. He was boastful, stupid, pathetically narcissistic, and sad, but such a deluded asshole it was impossible to feel sorry for him. I liked how he looked, he liked how I looked looking at him, that was literally all we shared. Whenever we stumbled over each other that summer, both in half-drunk stupors, in the same bar, at the same midnight hour, we rushed robotically to the Marina in a cab, and got it on—without passing Go, without collecting two hundred dollars, without spending a minute longer in each other’s company afterward than I needed to put my clothes on.

I never took my clothes off, actually. Johnny Raw usually pulled his dick and balls out of his fly or lowered his pants to his ankles. Gay youth today may find it incomprehensible, but “having sex” with Johnny Raw ten or fifteen times that summer didn’t involve Johnny Raw fucking me, or me fucking Johnny Raw. I was unusually innocent for my age — and, it’s the truth, unusually pretty and sought after at nineteen. I admit that by my present lights, I’d have to agree with former President Clinton that he “did not have sex with that woman.” By today’s standards, I had been around too long to hook up with men and then do nothing besides service them with a blowjob. But that’s as far as I’d ever gone. Regardless of a precocious history of fellatio with other boys since the seventh grade, I had no concept of anal sex. I wasn’t aware of it as something many people did. A true son of 1950s backwoods New Hampshire, I thought sodomy was an arcane, specialized perversion, like bestiality. Believed, in fact, that a rectum capable of accommodating even an average penis was such an aberration of nature that only rare, anally deformed individuals even attempted it. “Fucking,” in my mind, meant male-on-female vaginal penetration.

For a while post-Berkeley, I lived in the attic of a hippie commune with no special theme going on, in a leased house on Seventeenth Street. By coincidence, a tenant below was Johnny Raw’s costar in The Straight Banana. Grinda Pupic, a licensed practical nurse whose legal name was Bonnie Solomon, secured the attic for me when I moved across the bay, as a favor to a Berkeley friend of a friend.

A relentlessly sultry, ebulliently secular Jew, Bonnie’s sang-froid enabled her to resume her side of an argument about local zoning laws between takes, while the bone-hard penis of a costar remained planted in her lady parts. Among friends and coworkers she exuded a generally misleading maternal solicitude. At the Nocturnal Dream Shows in North Beach, Bonnie sang with the Nickelettes, a hallucinatory, feminist auxiliary of the Cockettes. We occasionally had sex. I wasn’t a frontal virgin. Bonnie was awfully nice and surprisingly tough.

I tagged along on a location shoot in the Sausalito hills, riding shotgun in a pickup driven by a hippie sound engineer, a roguishly bearded ex-Mouseketeer with a doomed aura named Brando Batty. (According to the state of California, that really was his real name. He once showed me his driver’s license.) By nightfall I had a temp job, as emergency gaffer and continuity girl on The Straight Banana shoot. My thing with the eponymous Straight Banana (we just referred to him as Banana, really) quickly lapsed, in the easy manner of the day, into a different thing with Ferd, who already had a male squeeze and a more involved relationship with an older woman named Carol. 

She wasn’t much older, chronologically, but her weariness suggested she’d survived the Titanic and much else of cosmic historical significance. Older than a thousand years, still bitter over some deal gone terribly south in ancient Babylon, Carol sat stiffly in Brando Batty’s truck all afternoon, penciling irritable remarks on the script she’d co-written, or flipping through Variety. I sensed a crazy attraction to Ferd, but became completely spellbound by Carol. She had the vibe of somebody who’d lived the nightmare in a big, expensive way. Short, wiry limbed, her glossy auburn hair poodled in a perky cut, she seemed implacable enough to launch a military coup in South America.

Sporadically emerging from her four-wheel bunker during lulls in the filming, she’d march directly up to Ferd to give him notes before talking to anyone else. She blinked theatrically at the sun; slid her sunglasses down from their nest in her hair; aimed a studied yawn in our general direction; lit a Marlboro with a silver lighter; smoothed her throat with the fingers she’d covered the yawn with. Each movement set off baffling signals, her private-looking little actions both seductive and off-putting, a selfishly generous display: as she studied her effect on people, Carol also telegraphed her utter indifference to whatever effect that was. I instinctively sensed she would shove me or anybody else out of a lifeboat if she thought they added too much weight. But I often dismissed as paranoid intuitions that were as obvious as giant letters on a billboard. Ferd was as easy-going as Carol was brittle. He japed, mugged, giggled, flirted, bantered with everyone while setting up shots, giving actors notes, squinting into the Arriflex viewfinder. His infectious looseness visibly stiffened when Carol asserted her presence. Their gravity together engraved a “serious” grown-up circle around them. The pornographic circus it excluded looked embarrassingly silly and juvenile, suddenly.

. . .

To say I fell in love with Ferd the day I met him wouldn’t be completely wrong, but sounds schmaltzy if I consider how little feeling I had for Johnny Raw from the jump, aside from a fascination with the body part that made him famous. In less than an hour around Ferd, Johnny evaporated from my consciousness.

Ferd was the first male I ever felt attracted to who was smarter than me, intellect never having been conspicuous in the few men I had “dated” before. Decades later, after his looks went, his charisma continued to make him beautiful, in a wasted, Egon Schiele way. I’ve thought about Ferd over much of my life, and find him full of contradictions, but this is what seems constant: his intellectual finesse; his formidable conviction that his sense of reality trumped all others’; a decency of heart often wildly at odds with situations I found him in, as well as with the first two qualities I mentioned.

None of this was entirely apparent when I met him, when he lived with Carol. I quickly got tangled up with both of them, cast in confusing roles as an understudy to Ferd’s boyfriend, Chip (who I never knew beyond hello good-bye), and as a way-ward urchin Ferd and Carol adopted. They collected people like pollen sticking to their clothes: runaways, burnouts, lost souls of all sorts. Carol acted as a vulpine den mother to a shifting cast of acolytes and hangers-on.

She reigned over the upper floors of a five-story Victorian on Broderick Street that exuded lifeless desuetude. Charles, the owner, retired from some clandestine profession, occupied in perpetuity a wing chair facing the fireplace in a musty floor-through salon on the ground floor. He passed his days draining tall cans of Rainier Ale while staring at a TV that was seldom actually on, stacking ale cans in green pyramids that almost brushed the high ceiling. Exactly where in that somnolent house Charles kept the box of earth where he slept, I never knew. His alleged college roommate, Steve, a more tangible, slightly corpulent man of sixty-two, was given to “sporty” plaid shirts, fishing pants with many pockets, and muted red loafers. Steve inhabited a room in the basement. Charles was a man of no words. Steve had a certain voluble joie de vivre. In a pinch, one might call him jolly. He wasn’t really.

In the fullness of time I became a tenant. I was given a claustrophobic child-size room on the third floor containing a canopied bed, a framed charcoal drawing of Leopold Stokowski, and a ceiling bulb. But not yet.

From I Can Give You Anything But Love by Gary Indiana, published in paperback (2024) by Seven Stories Press.

GARY INDIANA is a novelist and critic who has chronicled the despair and hysteria of America in the late twentieth century. From Horse Crazy (1989), a tale of feverish love set against the backdrop of downtown New York amid the AIDS epidemic, to Do Everything in the Dark (2003), "a desolate frieze of New York's aging bohemians" (n+1), Indiana's novels mix horror and bathos, grim social commentary with passages of tenderest, frailest desire. With 1997's Resentment: A Comedy, Indiana began his true crime trilogy, following up with Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story (1999) and Depraved Indifference (2002). Together, the three novels show the most vicious crimes in our nation's history to be only American pathologies personified. In 2015, Indiana published his acclaimed anti-memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love and later the novel Gone Tomorrow. Called one of "the most brilliant critics writing in America today" by the London Review of Books, "the punk poet and pillar of lower-Manhattan society" by Jamaica Kincaid, and "one of the most important chroniclers of the modern psyche" by the Guardian, Gary Indiana remains both inimitable and impossible to pin down.

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