Neons by Denis Belloc (Translated from the French by William Rodarmor)
(David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 103 pp., hardcover)
Far from being a depressing, sordid fictional account of the underside of gay life in 1960s Paris, Neons, by French novelist Denis Belloc, is a profane, often humorous novella, written in the first person present ("I go upstairs to the sixth-floor tenant's place with her, she cleans for him once a week.").
Reading very much like a diary, Neons has as its protagonist a wayward young man named Denis (the book appears to be autobiographical) who spends as much time as possible haunting the tearooms (public toilets) of Paris in search of quick, anonymous sexual encounters.
The johns, male hustlers, and transvestites who populate his world are very much like him: products of dysfunctional backgrounds; seekers of sex as a palliative, as a void-filler.
This fast-moving novel takes the reader on a hectic journey that follows Denis from the loss of his father in a fatal boxing match to the prison where he serves an eight-month sentence for a motorcycle theft to the streets of Paris where he works as a male hustler to a love affair with a Greek insurance salesman who takes him to Greece to meet his family.
Although Denis acts tough and streetwise, his naivete shows through. When Zits, a pimple-faced ex-prisonmate, suggests they team up to rob drunk johns, Denis asks, "What's a john?" and"What's a trick?" Zits's impatient response is, "Shit, are you dense, or what? John, trick, they're the same thing! It's a queer who pays to fuck."
Belloc's writing style is so spare, so cinematic, I could visualize the book as it might look on a movie screen, including English subtitles. In fact, I kept seeing the late Anne Ramsey, who played Danny DeVito's mother in Throw Mama From the Train, as the mother of Roger, a guy Denis meets on the street and moves in with. When she sees Denis the next morning, she screams, "Who's this guy, where'd he come from? You've been getting buggered all night long, right next to your mother."
Toward the end of Neons, Denis, who earlier exhibits artistic talent, shows up on the doorstep of Mademoiselle Chameron to study art under her tutelage in a studio he describes as "a total mess, with easels everywhere and on the wall, plaster busts and Mademoiselle's canvases." Denis later breaks up with the Greek and moves to"[a] little studio in a little street near a train station." The novel leaves the reader uncertain about Denis's future or his immediate plans. Has he decided to give up the tearooms and start life anew as an artist?
Although Neons covers the same terrain (the inhabitants of a gay subculture) as "Just Boys" by James T. Farrell and "Transit House" by Mark Ameen (both stories have been anthologized), it's not brutally violent as the former nor solely preoccupied with tearoom sex as the latter. In the middle ground, Belloc has constructed a memorable addition to the gay sexual outlaw tradition.
This article was originally published in NYQ magazine (February 9, 1992).