At Danceteria and Other Stories
by Philip Dean Walker
Squares & Rebels
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
Sometimes a writer can do something unique with the English language. Not so esoteric as to render it unrecognizable, but create something singular and still readable. Philip Dean Walker, in his first book, At Danceteria and Other Stories, does just that. He uses language in a fresh and novel way to tell stories that are rarified, yet compelling.
He brings back to life the world of high style and culture of the eighties in cities like New York, London, and San Francisco. But its high style meets the low brow in places like a New York S&M club and drag night in a London gay club. The high style is peopled by players such as Halston, Jackie Kennedy, and Princess Diana. It was a time when celebrity meant accomplishment in something like the arts, as with Keith Haring, who makes an appearance. It was long before the advent of today’s reality television—being famous still meant something.
It was also a time when all that was fashionable was being decimated by the ravages of AIDS. We see Rock Hudson in the legendary D.C. nightclub, Tracks, witnessing a frail young man on the dance floor with his IV pole as a partner. Hudson himself has started to noticeably drop weight to those around him, such as his friend Nancy Reagan, who he is visiting at the White House. Princess Diana is worried about her dear friend Freddie Mercury: “She didn’t ask him directly, but she’d definitely seen that before. The men she’d visited in hospital, their hands like dried corpses.” There’s a common theme here though. It was the early years and so often these characters, later taken by the disease, are still in denial. They’re too young, too successful, too handsome to be taken. They still feel immortal.
All the stories are incredible, but the most compelling is “The Boy Who Lived Next to the Boy Next Door.” In its earliest days in cities like New York, where it is set, this new disease seemed at times to only take the most exceptional-looking men of the era. Walker takes this idea and runs with it. Filling the vacuum created by HGF (hot gay flu), as it was initially called, are all the average-looking guys. Suddenly, they are the most desired and sought after whereas once they lived only on the margins.
Walker has truly captured the spirit of the early eighties here. He’s brought to life what was a glittering and magical time but also captured its pathos. It’s a view that can only be held or even appreciated in retrospect.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.