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Imprints Literary Supplement

This is Not Your Father's Homer

Mark Merlis Separates the Gods From the Boys

Chad Martin

Imprints Literary Supplement 1999

Our Favorite Things Writing about books for a living means reviewing new releases, covering publishing-house hijinks, an...

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By Karl Woelz | Posted 10/13/1999

An Arrow's Flight, by Mark Merlis, St. Martin's Press, 376 pages, $13.95Truth be told, I never found Greek mythology all that interesting. I will admit to a certain fondness for those thigh-flexing epics of a bygone era—toothsome Steve Reeves as Jason or Hercules, trouncing special-effects Cyclopes with butch abandon. But these poorly dubbed Italianate spectacles were mere bastardizations: bizarre, nearly incomprehensible conflations of Greek and Roman myth with a couple of B-movie plot devices tossed in for good measure. And it's not like I was watching them for their veracity to the original texts anyway.

But even the myriad, well-tanned charms of Steve Reeves couldn't spark much of an interest in "real" Greek mythology. All those meddlesome gods and demigods, feckless toga-clad mortals, and randy pseudo-beasts scampering hither and yon, wreaking havoc at every turn. It all seemed such melodramatic folderol, since the spoiled layabouts of Mount Olympus knew how everything would turn out before it even started. Who had time for nymphs and sylphs and lesser orders of hemidemigods when there were fictional landscapes to explore which didn't seem so—well, despite the rapes and decapitations and disembowelings and various permutations of incest—so Calvinist?

Thus, I wasn't all a-tingle when I heard about An Arrow's Flight, Baltimore native Mark Merlis' second novel, an updated "story of the Trojan War and Pyrrhus, the son of fallen Achilles, now working as a go-go boy and hustler in the big city." Though I'd enjoyed Merlis' first novel, American Studies—the moving, funny and oddly sexy story of an aging queen forced to consider the past half century of gay life in America after a violent encounter with a hustler lands him in the hospital—I wasn't so sure about this second venture. It sounded like a surefire recipe for disaster (on a mock-epic scale), one of those Saturday Night Live sketches that works for the first five minutes and then implodes under the weight of its own presumed cleverness.

Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. Merlis' Arrow is a stunningly joyous grafting of classical antiquity's Golden Age of Heroes onto the possibly less sublime (though no less heroic) Golden Age of Disco. It's a novel of tremendous exuberance, wisdom, and compassion, told at breathtaking speed by a writer at the height of his imaginative powers.

"Start with the boy, Pyrrhus," Merlis' engagingly chatty narrator begins. "Clambering onto the bar at the Escapade, swaying lazily with the music as he unbuttoned his shirt . . . his standard ensemble, the white oxford button-down and the pressed, snug khaki trousers. . . . For someone whose job description consisted of the single word undresses, he was uncompromising about the crease in his trousers and the starch in his shirts."

Within the novel's first few sentences, Merlis is already at work breaking down the barriers that may inhibit us from buying into his daring fictional conceit. The "alien" Pyrrhus is made "familiar" through his Gap wardrobe—transformed into the All-American Boy of yesteryear. A few pages later, Merlis describes the famed Achilles' peacetime physique as a "great martial body expected to be used, just as the missiles in the silos were designed to fly, no matter how often their creators protested that they intended nothing of the kind."

The plot is reasonably simple: Once Achilles meets his maker on the plains of Troy, the oracles have prophesied that his son Pyrrhus will arrive to roust King Priam and claim victory for the Greeks. Of course, the Greeks must first find Pyrrhus—whom his grandmother (the goddess Thetis) has hidden in the city in hopes of flouting his preordained destiny to vanquish Troy—and then arm him with the bow of one Philoctetes, who was abandoned on the island of Lemnos by Odysseus (now commander of the Greek army) on the journey to Troy a decade earlier.

The oracles, of course, have made no mention of the fact that Achilles' son will be a gay prostitute with neither experience of battle nor interest in following in his father's footsteps. When Pyrrhus is tracked down by Achilles's devoted manservant, Phoenix, a dapper, sharp-tongued eunuch now doing the bidding of Odysseus, the young man wants nothing to do with the Greeks or their oracles. But the waiter-cum-stripper-cum-hustler is, after all, "in the business of complying," and it's not like being a whore "had [anything] to do with who he really was," he tells himself—though who or what he might truly be remains a mystery.

The oracles have also failed to mention that Philoctetes is gay. In order to fulfill his martial destiny, Pyrrhus must now use his "heroic" body to seduce the ailing soldier, banished to Lemnos after a snake bite left him mysteriously diseased and anathema to the rest of the crew, who suspect he's being punished by the gods. In his life before the war, Philoctetes was openly, famously gay—like so many others—and these men "were the heroes, the very Eronauts, of love." Such men, liberated from the strictures of life outside the city, "were lawless in the manner of heroes," Merlis' narrator tells us. "They sailed west without a chart . . beneath night skies with unnamed constellations. They plummeted off the edge or found safe harbors that they claimed for all of us. They did it for everyone who had come before them . . . for everyone who came after. . . . No one will ever go that way again . . . because we will never own our bodies again, as they did."

This linking of the gay sexual revolutionaries of the late 1970s to the hypermasculine heroes of classical antiquity is perhaps the most audacious of Merlis' metaphors—more chutzpah-filled, certainly than his AIDS or gays-in-the-military metaphors—this . It's this kind of brazenness that makes Merlis such a tremendously smart, engaging writer. If you're going to take on Homer, The Iliad, and the Western Canon, you take them head on, as Merlis does here, with wit and assurance and a commitment to testing the boundaries until you've pushed so far beyond them that you've entered a whole new, miraculous domain.

While the Homeric narrative is preoccupied with the question of realizing one's preordained destiny, the would-be heroes of An Arrow's Flight are shadowed instead by the destiny of manhood. "It's not too late for you to be a man," Heracles tells Philoctetes in his youth, a phrase Odysseus repeats, to Pyrrhus, near the novel's close. But what does this mean? Though Pyrrhus, his city roommate, Leucon, and Philoctetes are all products of straight, masculinist culture, they feel completely alien to it. Straight men, Philoctetes considers, "must have come out of the womb knowing they wouldn't break. Maybe that's the difference between real boys and sissies." Argonaut or Eronaut, Merlis asks, what makes a man?

This is the question to which Merlis returns, again and again, both in An Arrow's Flight and American Studies; the question that energizes his writing—intellectually, artistically—and makes his work so breath-taking. A former researcher at the Library of Congress, Merlis' knowledge of history (be it classical antiquity or McCarthy-era America) is vast, but he never uses his erudition to thumb his nose at the reader. He balances his knowledge and his cleverness with a compassion that both sharpens and broadens his ironic vision. The "ambitious" subject of American Studies may in fact be, as poet/critic Brad Gooch suggests, "the civil war between gay men and straight men in America," but straight men—for as many knocks as they might take in his prose—are never the flat, one-dimensional Enemy for Merlis.

They can't be—for the fictional worlds of Mark Merlis are thoroughly, joyously, hilariously, three-dimensional explorations of the ways in which we construct, and then deconstruct, our notions of masculinity. What better way to dissect our concept of masculinity, of heroism—of the sanctity and profanity of the male body itself—than to drop a guileless young man who takes it up the ass for money (gasp!) into the very bowels of the War Machine, surrounded by fearless warriors afraid to drop the soap in the shower as they steam their way towards the ultimate test of manhood on the killing fields of Troy? "I just want to be whatever kind of animal I am," says the ostensibly straight sailor, Nereus, as he ponders a career, a life, beyond the military. It's this kind of ironic juxtapositioning that Merlis navigates so admirably, so tellingly, and so humorously, deeply aware of both the culpability and the humanity of his targets, be they straight, gay, or somewhere in between.

What confers manhood? Who assumes it? How do we occupy it? How do we escape it? Is sex—or gender or orientation—destiny? These are the questions Merlis poses, and answers, with his inimitable grace and daring. Remember, his narrator reminds us, that "Prophecies are not about accidents, or random caprices of the gods. They are about what you will do, in defiance of everything you thought you knew about yourself."

Bull's-eye.

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