A reader of Milk might wish that Darcy Steinke had spent more time on her story of a former monk, a gay priest, and an abandoned mother, but one can’t help sharing the pleasure of her gift for language. In one scene, she describes her anti-heroine, Mary, a lonely and frustrated new mother, trying to pray on the subway, but the sights, smells, and sounds interrupt: “Over her head was a placard poem about how numbers repeated rapaciously into infinity, how apples never lie, how the body is at best a transitory vehicle. A few seats down, a pale man wearing an aviator’s cap began to cough, his hack like syrup at a rapid boil.”
Firecrackers like these—used to great effect in Milk’s half-dozen or so hot sex scenes—carry you through the novel, even when the story is a letdown. In separate sections, Steinke follows her three characters through icy, claustrophobic New York: Mary, a horny new mom, is neglected by her horny hipster husband, who spends most of his time chasing ass outside of the home. She meets John, a former monk who left the cloister because he was so damn horny and lonely, and leaves her husband for him. She gets spiritual counsel from Walter, a gay, horny, and, yes, lonely Episcopal priest, who seems to be in no position to offer advice about God and love.
The most compelling portrait of the three is that of Walter. He has responsibilities toward an ailing flock: He begs old ladies for money and provides mostly sound spiritual counsel to half-crazy Mary and to a delectable Latino teenage boy. But he is also haunted by a dead lover, by a past sex scandal with a young man in another parish, by the sour mixture of his religion and his homosexual desires, and by his compulsion to cruise at a gay bar. Without overplaying it, Steinke effectively portrays Walker as someone who deceives himself to deal with the dissonance. That’s not a dick in his mouth, he tells himself; it’s merely “the thing against the other thing.”
You get all of this about Walter in a section only 50 pages long, and in such vivid prose that you could hope that it would go on for another 100 pages. But the sketches of Mary are inconsistent, if vivid. By the time we reach John’s section, the last of the book, Steinke has run out of steam—there is little description to fill out a character who joined a monastery after his pregnant wife was killed in a car accident, what could have been rich material.
And Milk’s religious theme seems superficial—something that a hip, self-aware, and talented writer has merely tried to exploit for all of its creepiness and contradiction. But Steinke doesn’t really understand the spiritual battleground on which she places her characters, or at least she doesn’t offer any new insight on the guilt and confusion that can happen when God, lust, and love collide.