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100 Boyfriends

July 17, 2021

I read Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends after hearing an interview with him on a podcast I listen to. From the conversation, I got the impression the book had a lot to do with the aesthetics of our era of decadence and hedonism. In other words, it sounded right up my alley.

It’s a rather short book–177 smallish pages. That makes it a breezy read, easy to take in and enjoy without getting to that part in some books when you begin to rely on resolve rather than pleasure to push through to the end. It consists of barely-connected chapters with narrators as the main characters, many of whom must be different people to make the timelines and characters add up. The through line mainly consists of the dual themes of an abundance of plentiful sex and a dearth of commitment or intimacy, but also of the narrators’ revealed inner thoughts overflowing with wit and apt descriptions of a dynamic emotional inner life. The characters Purnell speaks through make charming guides through the ups and downs of their experiences.

As I said, there is quite a lot of sex, most of it casual. On the face of things a hyper gay-man sort of energy prominently comes through. There’s a lot of sex to be had for those willing to go out and get it (and who are perhaps not too strict with their requirements in a partner). And yet, as I also said, the feeling that comes through the pages more than any other is loneliness. We might say that 100 Boyfriends holds up a mirror to our short-term-focused society in that sex has taken the place of intimacy. (Except that if the reports are to be believed, people in real life are having less sex too these days. Somehow we find ourselves in the worst of both worlds.)

But that’s the thing about sex. However much of it we’re having, it’s something most of us would like to have more of, in principle. In our minds “more sex” of course means “more good sex.” Purnell makes the terrific case that, as with everything else, there are diminishing returns even to sex. Reading 100 Boyfriends is a strong argument that we can hedonistically adapt even to tremendous amounts of sex with ever-rotating lovers and lose some of the thrill in even that. At some point, having more sex means having marginal sex and, if pursued even further, sex we regret. Purnell describes secret sex with a coworker’s husband that makes one narrator call himself “a horrible person.” There is the time one of them is asked to leave because his companion’s actual boyfriend is returning home unexpectedly. There is another who is rejected by a hippie who just can’t give up his life of following jam bands on tour, with the casual yet funny line: “I can’t follow you back to Babylon. . . . It’s like Jerry said, man–short time to be here, and a long time to be gone.”

The men whose perspectives we’re given are mostly bottoms, which in a mostly past time might have been called the more “feminine” role. I don’t bring up the comparison to impugn or too-broadly label women (or bottoms), but instead to highlight in the protagonists a burden also commonly attributed to women: that they can find that they generously accommodate themselves to the wishes of their men without receiving in return the emotional appreciation they hope for. It’s a constant shadow that hangs over the book’s characters. In the very first vignette, for instance, one of them fantasizes about an injured man he’s just been with potentially becoming his boyfriend. He quickly realizes that’s not realistic, but that doesn’t stop him from saying, and perhaps even partly meaning, “I’ll come back whenever you want me to.”

The thematic culmination is a passage that describes those who achieve their conquests. “Polite lies are how men conquer, saying empty things while psychically cutting their opponent’s throat through unseen actions.” This is the one part in the book that struck me enough that I underlined and dogeared it. This is the lament of the seduced, not of the vanquished in open battle. But the final result is death just the same. Where there are men/tops who get all the sex they want, those they get it from can feel they’ve been murdered, in a sense. Though the book is particularly about gay men, it echoes into society at large. As casual sex becomes easier for many straight men, some willingly participating women increasingly consider themselves victims of this figurative throat cutting at the end of it.

I may be getting old and crochety, but I consider this a rather sad way for the book to end. I find it, at heart, if not quite a morality tale, at least a cautionary one. If a life of promiscuity is what you want, or if it’s all you have available, Purnell shows us that the reality of that life may well have significant drawbacks. In that, it’s not so different from most lives. There does in fact exist too much of a good thing.

From → Books

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