Sally Field Can Play the Transsexual: or I Was Cursed by Polly Holliday
by Leslie L. Smith
A PressLess Book
Reviewed by Sally Hessney
In Sally Field Can Play the Transsexual, main character David Mathews’s memories are so ephemeral he deploys a mnemonic device to hold onto them. He plays back memories in his mind’s eye as scenes from Hollywood movies or episodic television shows, recasting the people in his life as actors. This device allows him to catalog memories for easy retrieval as if they were movie reels in canisters on an “imaginary shelf.” Without this device, he would only be able to remember the bare facts about his life.
David is a prostitute who lives in New York City. For reasons he cannot fully explain, he always sees himself as Sally Field, the spunky actress from Norma Rae and Murphy’s Romance. He replays his memories of running away from home—hitching rides in big rigs and giving blowjobs to truck drivers—as scenes from Smokey and the Bandit. When he returns home to Arkansas, he meets a compassionate transsexual nurse who personifies Sally Field’s down-to-earth warmth and wisdom, and he realizes that the mnemonic device he uses as a crutch is constricting his life.
David is a strong, athletic, and single-minded swimmer, but, as a man, he is drifting through life. When the book opens, he is dividing his time between a beach house in the Hamptons and an apartment in Manhattan. He is still turning tricks while living off of a trust set up for him by a friend, Robert Jeffers, who died of AIDS in the mid-1990s. He has begun having bareback sex with strangers for fun and money. He has it with one-night stands and with clients who are willing to pay more for condom-less sex. He doesn’t want to know his HIV status but assumes he is positive. He wears condoms with men who report themselves as negative but doesn’t wear them with men who report themselves as positive.
Ironically, David came of age in the early 1990s and was indoctrinated into a belief system that precluded unprotected sex. In 1992, David’s friend, benefactor, and mentor, Robert, interviewed him and other rent boys for a magazine article about safe sex. All of the interviewees, including David, are quoted as saying “that no amount of money” could entice them into having unsafe sex. Now, David confesses he finds bareback sex to be extremely pleasurable and engages in it as a way to truly connect—skin-to-skin—with other men. It is at this juncture that Robert’s ghost shows up to confront him about his risky behavior, to guide him through a family calamity in small-town Arkansas, and to help him recover the memories he has suppressed for most of his life.
Author Leslie L. Smith draws a parallel between David’s forgetfulness and the amnesia that has beset the gay community in regards to the AIDS crisis. No doubt, there is a gulf between the anger and activism of yesteryear and the apathy of today. But times have changed. David tells Robert, “Yours was the last funeral your friends attended.” Young gay men are coming of age during a time when HIV is an increasingly manageable disease through drug compliance. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) are effective HIV-prevention tools. And bareback sex is a growing trend—albeit a controversial one—among men who have sex with other men. It is only after David’s memories come flooding back that he can come to grips with the changes that have taken place since Robert’s death without feeling paralyzed by heartache, shame, guilt, and fear, and finds his voice as an ardent and eloquent activist who is capable of envisioning a strategy for ending HIV and AIDS in his lifetime.
For more about Leslie L. Smith, including the author’s insightful blog posts, visit: www.sallynovel.com.
Sally Hessney is a program assistant at a nonprofit organization, where one of the educational missions is to educate teenagers about the dangers of binge drinking, prescription drug abuse, distracted driving, STDs, and other consequential issues.