When asked who he writes for in a recent interview, Brontez Purnell provided as good an answer as I’ve heard in years: “Ghosts” he said. And then, elaborating on his answer: “A bunch of disruptive faggots.”
In his latest offering—100 Boyfriends—the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The narrator’s boyfriends are the book’s ghosts and its ghosts are his boyfriends. While racking my brain for some new genre under which this book might fall, the best I could come up with is graveyard of intimacies.
100 Boyfriends is a lively graveyard, though. And the conventions of the book review may be too stuffy to do full credit to this book’s formless predilections. Not quite a novel and not quite a short story collection, its voice is similar to Purnell’s voice in interviews: surprising, irreverent, and at times simply hilarious—the same buzzwords I have no doubt will surface in most reviews of his work and for good reason.
Ostensibly a series of vignettes, 100 Boyfriends catalogs the sexual exploits of the unnamed Black, gay men that comprise its central characters. There are affairs with hairdressers, firefighters, coworkers, white guys with dreadlocks, and even, as one narrator puts it, “Trench Coat Mafia dick.” It is an exhaustive list of boyfriends and Purnell is smart to blur the lines between whether his book orbits around one unnamed man or many unnamed men. Hazily outlined and sometimes lacking specific markers, his narrator(s) make(s) for the literary equivalent of a Grindr account without a profile picture. Reading what a character says, you can’t help but wonder if you’ve already met them.
Whether the book centers around many characters or one, it ultimately makes little difference. Vignette after vignette, they partake in an all-too-familiar cycle. There is sex and there is loneliness. There is self-destruction and there is the resolve not to make the same mistakes again. As he puts it toward the end of one vignette: “I was not hurt, distressed, or even bothered, only filled with a weird feeling that was somewhere between a premonition and déjà vu, like this was a day that had happened many times before and would also, one day, repeat itself.”
Purnell is at his best when he indulges in this sense of déjà vu‚ when he allows his characters to make the same repeated decisions. In another writer’s hands it might verge on the exhausting, but he punctuates his meandering, repetitive plot (or lack thereof) with details so hilarious and closely observed, each vignette feels inventive. After a while, these stories strike the reader as familiar but the boyfriends themselves are unmistakable. One rubs an “obscene amount of Old Spice deodorant under his armpits.” Another is “5’6, demonically aerobicized.” There is a boyfriend who is “so fucking over” gravity. There is a boyfriend who rubs hemorrhoid cream under his eyelids. These boyfriends are ghosts but they are certainly not ethereal. Purnell’s writing is visceral and unornamented, rejecting any half-baked lyricism that is too common in contemporary fiction.
In fact, few contemporary writers have the guts to write like Purnell. It’s one of the foremost joys in reading 100 Boyfriends. I am hesitant to use the term “queer fiction” as an umbrella term, when it can mean so many different things to so many people, but as it becomes an increasingly marketable shelf in bookstores, Purnell’s irreverent voice and meandering structure points to new possibilities for queer writers and readers. It shouldn’t be lost on readers that while Purnell’s writing is funny, it is also startlingly intimate. He articulates the experiences of Black, queer, and HIV-positive characters, and draws them with a complexity they are too often deprived of in mainstream outlets: “‘I’ve never wanted to be a star in the sky,’” boyfriend 99.5—the dreamer—says in one of the book’s most memorable passages. “‘They all die anyway and I’m too vain for death. I’m ether, or whatever you call it. That negative blank space the stars float around in.’”
100 Boyfriends is a book that privileges acts of sex and intimacy that resist white-hetero social norms, but in these moments, it also privileges an intimacy shared between a narrator and a reader. It demands a reader who acts more like a partner. Someone who is willing to listen closely. And while Purnell’s writing is fun, like any affair, it isn’t always easily decipherable. When his narrator is confronted with the idea that “everybody is left with the ghost of somebody else,” he “[stops] to ponder this. If this is true, then there have to be one hundred ghosts in this room already and that’s just the baggage I’m carrying.… I imagine one hundred ghosts in the room (and one hundred only—I don’t give a fuck about his ghosts). There are too many men here and it doesn’t feel like a sexy gang bang. No, this feels like something that’s a lot more fucking annoying.”
As he does for most of the book, Purnell keeps sentimentality at arm’s length. He forgoes easy endings. These ghosts and the past intimacies they signal may be annoying for Purnell’s narrator, but the constant churning of bodies and voices in this text is a delight for the rest of us.
By Brontez Purnell
MCD X Fsg Originals
Published February 2, 2021
Garrett Biggs's most recent fiction appears in Black Warrior Review and The Offing, among other publications. He is managing editor of The Adroit Journal, and an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. More of his work can be found at garrettbiggs.net or on twitter (@GarrettBiggs).