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Review: Queer authors are opening up new worlds, but this thriller falls short

On the Shelf

Bath Haus

By P.J. Vernon
Doubleday: 320 pages, $27

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After P.J. Vernon secured an offer to publish his first thriller, 2018’s Southern gothic “When You Find Me,” he sought an agent who would not only close that deal but take on a second novel, which he characterized before its publication as “‘Grindr thriller’ gay and hinging on toxic same-sex relationships.” Three years later, Vernon’s “Bath Haus” can be added to the growing list of #OwnVoices fiction, a hashtag originally attached to BIPOC young-adult novels that now encompasses literature from a wide array of marginalized or underrepresented groups.

The publishing industry has been acquiring more books by an exciting new generation of diverse authors. Yet the urge to lionize new voices and to celebrate open explorations of intimacy across gender and sexuality does not suddenly relegate criticism to the sidelines. In fact, these expansions heighten the responsibility of reviewers to evaluate such works fairly — on their own merits and in the context of those authors (in Vernon’s case Patricia Highsmith, Joseph Hansen, Michael Nava and others) who laid the groundwork for it.

A plethora of recent fiction from gay writers portrays characters in their full humanity. It also depicts sex in a way that neither panders to the lurid fascination (or ignorance) of a straight audience nor fades out like a Hays Code-era romance in deference to their prudishness.

Where does “Bath Haus” fit in? It’s easy to be seduced by its intense scenes in a bath house (too cutely) named Haus, in which 26-year old Oliver Park has arranged, through a gay app called MeetLockr, an assignation with an attractive Scandinavian. But Kristian, the man in question, has more than an anonymous hookup in mind.

Vernon does an excellent of job conveying Haus’ cheap lavender humidity. Oliver, a recovering addict, is intoxicated by it, right up until he realizes, “This man with the ocean-deep eyes. He’s killing me.” After slashing his assailant’s face in his escape, Oliver is left with the tricky task of explaining the clearly visible fingerprints around his neck to Nathan Klein, his longtime partner.

Before Oliver can get his story straight or reflect on why he is so aroused by his own objectification, a shift in point of view reveals that Nathan, a trauma surgeon at Walter Reed Medical Center, has his own quiet doubts about the solidity of his relationship with the younger man: “When do you call time of death on a marriage?” Snooping through Oliver’s phone for the cleverly hidden MeetLockr app and tracking his credit card purchases, Nathan knows more about Oliver’s clandestine activities than he’s letting on. But he puts on a brave face for his mother, Kathy, a retired shrink and “battle-ax in Alexander McQueen” who’s got the temerity to pitch new boyfriends to her son instead of advice on saving his relationship.

The initial chapters of “Bath Haus” signal that it’s going to be hard to root for many of these people. Flashbacks throughout the novel fill in Oliver’s troubled youth in Tyre, Ind., and although the litany of hard knocks helps to humanize him, it feels somewhat formulaic. And despite his noble profession, Nathan is even less sympathetic, his clinical decision-making a chilling insight into his character, not to mention his more sinister manipulations of the emotionally fragile Park — even if they are motivated (as we think) by love.

Oliver’s ever-widening net of lies and evasions raises Nathan’s suspicions as well as the attention of Rachel Henning, a no-nonsense D.C. detective who insists Oliver come clean to his partner. By the time Kristian finds a way to breach the couple’s expensive Georgetown home (provided courtesy of the Klein Family Foundation) and leave evidence of his lethal potential, and the couple’s beloved dog goes missing, the tension builds to unbearably claustrophobic levels.

To say more would rob readers of the “no, he didn’t” suspense that makes “Bath Haus” an unexpectedly twisted, heart-pounding cat-versus-mouse thriller. But as the novel’s central characters, friends and family ducked and dodged their messy truths, I couldn’t help but feel that what had really gone missing, repeatedly, were ample opportunities to deepen the story.

A subplot involving Nathan’s distress over a looming eviction in a neighborhood where he could easily buy another house begs for a writer like Highsmith, who had a knack for skewering the insecurities and rot of the petty bourgeoisie, while the implausible ease with which characters gain access to Schedule II narcotics seemed to skirt meatier issues of America’s prescription drug crisis. A glimpse into the life of Nathan’s best friend takes as a given the intersection of conservative politics with gay culture, which in the hands of more developed protagonists, such as Hansen’s David Brandstetter or Nava’s Henry Rios, could have been fodder for meaningful ironies.

But at the risk of sounding hopelessly old-school, most bothersome for me is why so many of these characters, most of them gay, are so relentlessly broken. The tropes Vernon serves up — the sugar baby, insecure older man, bitchy best friend — drown out their deeper humanity in service of the plot’s escalating peek-behind-the-curtain thrills. This shortcoming is most evident in the novel’s carefully engineered denouement, which veers between heart-in-your-mouth suspense and an unintended campiness that undercuts the gravity of the moment.

I’m delighted that Vernon has been able to publish widely a crime novel bearing his unique voice and style, to bring formerly stigmatized themes and corners of gay culture out of the shadows. How can I not be, when so much unsatisfactory straight fiction clogs the shelves already? But if Vernon had actually challenged the stereotypes he was working with and plumbed for truths beneath the easy clichés about gay culture, “Bath Haus” could have had an impact beyond its sensational details. Vernon’s characters, and readers, deserve better.

Woods is a book critic, editor and author of the Charlotte Justice series of crime novels.




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