Bruce Benderson’s prize-winning memoir takes a scathing look at erotic obsession
Writer Bruce Benderson is an intellectual dandy devoted to danger, drugs, thugs, and sexual excess. He’s half Jean Genet, half Joan Crawford, and he tries out different points of view like Crawford modeled Adrian couture. Scornful of bourgeois complacency, he writes from the point of view of an outsider who is aware of his privileges yet still longs for the instability and vitality he observes in the lower and criminal classes.
His books “Pretending to Say No” and “User” detailed the seedy glory of old Times Square, and his new book, “The Romanian,” tells the tale of his passion for a street hustler in Romania named Romulus. Benderson goes back and forth between his affair with Romulus and his own dying mother in the States, making serpentine connections between his situation and the Oedipal power plays between the fabled Queen Marie of Romania and her playboy son Carol.
“I had trouble finding an agent or editor for the book because most Americans know very little about Romania, and the historical material seemed obscure,” said Benderson. “The French, on the other hand, were very familiar with Romanian history, because they share a continent with that country.”
Benderson was dedicated to idealizing and understanding Romulus right from the beginning. “By the first morning, in fact, I was sitting on the edge of the bed, scribbling ideas, sentences, and images, as he slept,” Benderson confided. “It was kind of a double-edged love at first sight. I knew I was going to be madly in love with him, and I knew I wanted to write a book about it as early as four hours after we met.”
In Romulus, Benderson finds a smorgasbord of erotic stimulation. At one point, Benderson won’t let Romulus pull the plug on his bath water because he wants to bathe in it himself. In one of the book’s most memorable moments, Romulus comes back from fucking his girlfriend, and before Benderson goes down on him he implores, “Always bring me your cock when it smells of pussy.” When Benderson is worrying about Romanian’s then-draconian laws against homosexuality, Romulus silences him by asking, “Don’t you know sex is dangerous?” You can see why Romulus ensorcelled Benderson—he’s honest, charming and, on his own terms, honorable.
In the book, Benderson mentions his “vampiric empathy.” He is completely unsparing in his portrait of himself and tempers his more outlandish thoughts with a scrupulously entertaining investigation of his own mixed motives. “A lot of readers think that I portrayed myself in an unflattering light,” Benderson said, “but to me I was behaving the way anyone who has a romantic obsession behaves. I wanted to show the learning process, how I went from blind romantic love to a clearer understanding of Romulus and myself, so I had to bare all.”
Benderson himself dabbled in hustling at a young age, and he has clear thoughts about the world’s oldest profession. “I did experiment with prostitution myself between the ages of 18 and 21,” said Benderson. “At the time, I found it thrilling because it was a way to validate my looks. Nowadays, hustling is mostly Internet-based, and the human element is all but gone. But in the past, it was a situation where anything could happen.”
Benderson railed against the repressive political correctness of the early ‘90s, especially concerning the rigidity of modern queer identity, and his thoughts on gay love have often been provocative. “I’m convinced that homosexuality presents an intriguing puzzle,” Benderson said. “In heterosexual love, the differences are built right in because of the difference in gender and sexual tension is guaranteed. In homosexuality you have to use various ways to generate that sexual tension, since you both have male bodies.”
His fatal passion for Romulus has made him into something of a philosopher. “Love is hoping to get what you lack,” Benderson said. “I think that the most exciting homosexual pairings occur when there is great social and/or physical difference between the two partners.”
Benderson also sees the amusing side of gay desire. He describes in the book how old men stare at Romulus in a bathhouse, and he observes, “I do believe that when one sex desires its own, there’s always a touch of envy.” Yet he also quotes the sculptor Brancusi, who said, “Beauty is absolute equity.” Benderson yearns for ideal love, but he’s held in thrall by the itchy desire of the men staring at his lover at the bathhouse.
In “The Romanian,” Benderson describes himself as a “cultural leftover,” and he pines for the days when homosexuality automatically conferred a glamorous outlaw status. “I’m nostalgic for some of the old ways of being gay,” Benderson said. “The identification with other marginals, the looser way of defining gay identity, the opportunity to define yourself as very different. A lot of that has been lost as gays have gained social acceptance. Homosexual culture has become too narcissistic and too concerned with being gay.”
A few years ago, Benderson was contacted by a wounded boy calling himself J.T. Leroy. Touched by his story and moved by his writing, Benderson was instrumental in getting Leroy published, and he is still reeling over the recent revelations that outed Leroy as a fake persona created by a middle-aged musician named Laura Albert. “I was deeply hurt by that fraud,” Benderson confessed. “When Laura pretended to be this poor abused boy, I gave my heart. I was the one who helped edit all those books and the one who gave the manuscripts to Joel Rose, which eventually led to their publication.”
What Benderson still can’t figure out is the personal side of their relationship. “The most astounding feature of all this,” said Benderson, “were the manipulations of me that had no practical benefit. I spent years ‘mothering’ J.T. and worrying about him. Laura played with my emotions mercilessly, even when there was no commercial purpose at hand. Then why? To torture me? To practice the character on me? I really don’t know.”
All through the book, Benderson pays the bills by translating Celine Dion’s sugary autobiography, which nearly drives him to the bughouse. Yet the success of his book has him thinking semi-positive thoughts of his one-time nemesis.
“Although I can’t stand her voice when she sings in English,” Benderson said, “some of her work in French isn’t bad at all.” It’s this kind of judicious and sensitive discrimination that makes “The Romanian” a page-turning, Luchino Visconti-style inquiry into the fast-decaying pleasures of sensuality, the exquisite pain of perversity, and the enlargement of life by the friction of desire.