Neil Bartlett, Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall (Dutton, 1991 [orig. Serpent's Tail, 1990])

I don't remember when I first read Neil Bartlett's Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall. It was probably sometime in the 1990s, but at this point I've read it several times, most recently after seeing John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus. The echoes between the two were too strong to ignore. Like Shortbus, Ready To Catch Him is about sex as a bridge between people. It's also about those rituals and ceremonies we create to enable and reinforce those connections, although in the novel those rituals are an undisguised part of the story, while in the film they are more of a subtext. And, like the film, this novel is centered on a Place, one of those Places that is itself a bridge, called simply The Bar.

However, in spite of the many echoes back and forth, the two are in fundamental respects very different. Most important, I think, is that Bartlett is reaching toward myth-building, while Mitchell's film of necessity remains firmly grounded in a version of our reality. And, while the film is evenhanded in portraying both gays and straights as equivalent in the earthy reality of their foible-laden humanity, Ready To Catch Him is about men: men as icons, metaphors, symbols of a group separate and distinct, and perhaps even more human because of that.

The story is a simple one, a romance set in a time not too far past, in a place not too far away, London, probably, perhaps in the 1970s. A boy meets an older man, they fall in love, and after trials and tribulations, they live happily ever after. Bartlett, however, has abstracted these identities. The boy is simply Boy, the older man (the only major character who has a name, which is duly reported then promptly forgotten) is The Older Man, or just O. The owner of The Bar (which has had so many names that any name becomes irrelevant) is Madame, who changes her name during the course of the story to Mother, to denote her new role in the proceedings. She is also the engineer of what the narrator (who, although strongly delineated remains resolutely nameless) refers to as "The Great Romance of Our Times."

The importance of these labels can't be overstated. As the narrator says of Boy, "But do go back and amend my description of Boy so that he is, some way, if you see what I mean, your type. Make him fit the bill; imagine for him the attributes that you require." That's what an archetype is, after all, and all of these characters, no matter how quirky and individual they become (and they do), maintain that universality of meaning.

The metaphor is theater -- movies, television, the stage, even popular music (and if you don't think there's an element of theater in a popular song, ask any female impersonator) -- all that transforms the tacky, the tawdry and the garish into something magical, more real than reality, bigger than life. The narrator characterizes himself and the other "bit players" as the chorus, and for good reason. As in classical tragedy, they are the necessary onstage audience, observing, sometimes participating, and commenting on the action, and all in this case subsumed into the narrator.

There is sex, not graphic in this case, but very much there, and essential to the story, sometimes angry, sometimes brutal, sometimes tender and delicate, but always a necessary means of communication, especially when you factor in the idea of men as the inarticulate sex. As the narrator points out, "Talking is not how they found out about each other."

The story, with all its rituals, is tied inextricably with Boy's education. He learns how to be a man among men, how to be strong and caring, how to be a lover. In its particulars, there is a parallel with Shortbus in that it all revolves around finding your possibilities, realizing your resources. (And it's more than a little ironic that in traditional Anglo-American culture, boys learn to be men from their mothers, by being told what not to be. Boy's education is distinctly different.)

There is an undercurrent of fear in this book, as well, but it's external; there are periodic comments about men being assaulted, usually with knives, until one group of would-be attackers picks O and Boy as their target. That is the climax of the political message of the book (and it is, indeed, a political book), the forceful denial of anyone's right or ability to do such a thing.

Those threads, the education of Boy and the denial of fear, come together after the major crisis, when Father, who is not Boy's real father but the collective history of gay men, dies in Boy's arms, after Boy has made himself a source of strength and solidity in the home he shares with O. And, after the emotional residue of that experience is dealt with, Boy and O go out for an evening on the town, walking through the city holding hands, dancing together in public, not asking permission, not accepting their freedom as a gift, but taking it as their due.

There are, as I noted, many parts of the book and film that resonate against each other, but two points of correspondence are nicely encapsulated by Bartlett's narrator. He says about The Bar, "You could live just how you wanted there, according to certain rules. But the point was, they were our own rules." Indeed, that is the whole point of the club, Shortbus.

And the second is what I think the characters in both works are searching for: beauty without shame.

[Robert M. Tilendis]