He Lands in Palm Springs
by John Shekleton
Mo Keijuk Press
Reviewed by Raymond Luczak
Considering the book’s premise of Father Joe Tierney, a defrocked Catholic priest living with HIV, trying to set up a new life in a gay-friendly town, John Shekleton’s He Lands in Palm Springs is a surprisingly breezy read. You have Father Edward Brockton, an HIV-positive Episcopalian priest who has the hots for Joe and decides to go on a “vacation” in Palm Springs. Joe has the hots for Oscar Del Rio, a sweet but savvy hustler with a heart of gold, which strikes me as a cliché similar to female prostitutes featured in films made by straight men. And Oscar has the hots for both Joe and Edward. How will this romantic entanglement resolve itself, especially when you have Cy, a gay resort owner who initially goes gaga for Joe, his brand-new employee, now plotting to keep him away from Oscar while Joe, Edward, and Oscar plan to set up a new center for homeless LGBTQ youth? Not only that, you have Kenny, Joe’s ex-boyfriend who had apparently given HIV to Joe, now living two hours away with his new boyfriend….
For all practical purposes, Joe is perfect. Good-looking. Appealing. No major character flaw. This makes him as the book’s main character rather dull. In fact, if he initially has an issue with Oscar’s profession as a hustler, he doesn’t wrestle too long with the usual spiritual dilemma of selling one’s body for sex. What? Isn’t Joe still a recovering Catholic? It is fantastic, however, that Oscar doesn’t seem fazed by having sex with HIV-positive men. (All the main HIV-positive characters have sex without guilt or shame, which is wonderful.)
Shekleton’s prose is pedestrian with occasional glimmers of concise description and rhythm, as in, “But love, love with intimacy, could be elusive in the age of HIV. Especially if you were HIV and aging, with time and disease whittling away at the elements of attraction.” (This book is a sequel to Father Tierney Stumbles. Apparently Joe comes out as gay and learns that he is HIV-positive.)
Despite its steady pace, the book suffers from a serious flaw. When incorporating an HIV diagnosis or the effects of AIDS in a work of fiction, it is absolutely vital to denote clearly the era in which HIV in the story takes place. For instance, the medical stakes were much higher if the story took place in the 1980s to the mid-1990s; being HIV-positive and dealing with AIDS in those days was basically a death sentence. Then protease inhibitors appeared in the mid-1990s, which transformed the once-fatal HIV diagnosis into a daily regimen of drugs designed to combat the effects of HIV itself. Then in 2012, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) was approved by the FDA. That reduced the risk of acquiring HIV quite drastically for those who are HIV-negative, which has been the case ever since. When writing about HIV in fiction, particularly in the developed world, you have these three distinct eras to draw from.
As a reader of contemporary fiction, I always assume the story is taking place right now or in the immediate past unless told otherwise. I did not know that the story was to have happened in the mid-2000s; the author revealed this key fact in the book’s afterword. Had I known of this early on, I’d have felt a lot more concern for Oscar. I had assumed that as a savvy hustler, he would be automatically on PrEP, a necessary (and considerate) requirement for his profession; this would’ve explained why Oscar had never expressed worry about acquiring HIV from his clients. (It is not said whether Oscar is HIV-positive, but given that both Joe and Edward’s positive serostatuses were explored largely in the book’s first half, I would assume that Oscar is HIV-negative.) The story also does not address whether Oscar has been responsible enough to take not only the HIV test but also a battery of STI tests on a regular basis to ensure that he did not transmit any STI to his clients. It is interesting to note that neither Joe or Edward express concern about the other STIs that Oscar might bring home. (PrEP does not prevent transmission of other STIs, which is why condomless sex remains a risky proposition.) There’s also the high cost of PrEP medications. Does Oscar have the insurance to help pay for those meds? Again, the book does not say. Perhaps such details should not matter in a romance novel. Yet when it comes to exploring any medical condition in fiction, accuracy and clarity are paramount, especially when HIV (or disability, for that matter), unfortunately, still carries stigma.
Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of over twenty books. His latest titles include Compassion, Michigan (Modern History Press), Flannelwood (Red Hen Press), Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman (Squares & Rebels), and the forthcoming Once Upon a Twin (Gallaudet University Press). Previously the editor of the queer fiction journals Jonathan and Callisto, he is currently the editor of Mollyhouse. A ten-time Pushcart Prize nominee, he lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Visit his website at: raymondluczak.com.