By Bruce Benderson
Published October 2007
Reviewed February 6, 2008
Originally reviewed in: BookReview.com
There aren’t a lot of writers left who can hold the titles of bohemian and iconoclast, but Bruce Benderson is still one of them. Well-known for his novels “The Romanian” and “User,” Benderson lived through the darker days of Times Square when it was a home to pimps, drug dealers and hustlers, a rabble William S. Burroughs once called “hipster-bebop junkies.”
Benderson didn’t just write fiction about this world, he also wrote several scholarly essays and profiles which have been collected for the first time in the book “Sex and Isolation.” Together, they are history, literary and social review – a fascinating cross-section of a world most people wouldn’t dare to get to close to when it was around and will never have an opportunity to experience again.
Benderson’s essays are certainly not conservative: he makes no attempt to hide his distaste for the tourist-friendly version of Times Square, explicitly describes his online sexual encounters and speaks affectionately of random drug use and promiscuity. What makes them work so well is that he’s not pushing them out of rebellion, but nostalgia: it was this culture that helped him find out who he was.
In the bookending essays of the collection, Benderson’s attitude results in an elder’s cultural indictment. The title essay is a scathing analysis of how the information age changed sex, providing new freedom but stripping it of the self-discovery that made it so important to gay men of his generation. “Towards the New Degeneracy” builds on fifty years of counterculture through literary analysis of Norman Mailer and Max Nordau, arguing the loss of poverty and societal fringes stripped us of our most prosperous vein of art.
Benderson’s viewpoint is advanced by terrific writing skills, and he argues his case with both creativity and dexterity. In many ways, he’s a “new journalist” giving a first-person report on streetwalkers and AIDS – a Tom Wolfe for disillusioned social outcasts. A particularly delightful extended metaphor turns computer viruses from unsafe chat rooms into our generation’s STDs, and the essay “America’s New Networkers” is written as a rant against young ‘artists’ who think contacts are today’s only factor for success.
His emotional side is clear with the second section, “Men in My Life.” A collection of shorter profiles, these essays look at the epic figures of Benderson’s bohemian culture: Latin American literati, garish French nightclub owners, boxing hustlers and ambitious transsexuals. These essays are not only descriptive but vivid – the human face on Benderson’s fading culture, people who lived lives none could gracefully live today.
It’s Benderson’s care – for the people, for the world, for the experiences – that turns “Sex and Isolation” into something more than basic social study. This book is a eulogy for a lifestyle, equal parts mourning and celebration for what has passed. He is ambivalent on what will come next, but anyone who reads these essays will want to tap the energy he thrived on.