Benderson chronicles Budapest trip, tryst with hot male sex worker
“The Romanian: Story of an Obsession,” by Bruce Benderson. (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006) 416 pages, $16.95.
Bruce Benderson’s writing career is all about chronicling his walks on the wild side an increasingly endangered landscape these days. His new memoir, “The Romanian,” is no exception. Whereas once he could hang out in Times Square with hustlers, junkies and other assorted children of the night, this self-styled “old-fashioned, pre-Stonewall homosexual” had to go to Eastern Europe to find “new worlds to mirror my loneliness and isolation.”
A chance writing assignment to cover the gay brothels and bathhouses of Budapest for an online magazine took Benderson to the capital of Hungary. In front of the Intercontinental Hotel, he encountered a 24-year-old
Romanian hustler named Romulus. Thus begins a torrid, wrenching, nine-month relationship between a “blatantly underclass hustler with sharp, cheap clothes and this pudgy, bourgeois American.”
While some might roll their eyes at the thought of one more book devoted to an impossible fantasy about a hustler, “The Romanian” manages to be much more than its apparent premise. Yes, it concerns the sexual relationship of two very disparate men a queer Jewish-American intellectual and his gay-for-pay object of desire but it also chronicles Benderson’s Byzantine feelings about the relationship.
Additionally, the book serves as an improbable yet engrossing travelogue of Romania and its more notable historic personages, as well as a codeine-fueled meditation on love and the messed-up things people do while in love (and to sustain that feeling).
Enchanted by this slim, chain-smoking man, Benderson engineers things so that he can spend more and more time in Romulus’ native Romania, a resource-rich land conquered many times over the centuries, the place where East meets West and concrete Communist architecture abuts decaying grandeur. Packs of wild dogs roam the streets, nearly everyone is ready to “put one over” on a seemingly naive American tourist, and homosexuality, at the time of Benderson’s stay, is still a crime. (The nation rescinded its sodomy law in 2002 as a condition of joining the European Union.)
Through a jaundiced eye, Benderson makes this ravaged country and its hard-done-by people come to vivid, ragged life, like the denizens of a fevered bad dream.
Somewhat egotistically, he draws parallels in his relationship with Romulus to that of the forbidden romance between Carol II (Romania’s last king) and Lupescu, a Jewish commoner. Although history has branded her an opportunistic gold-digger, Lupescu has a special place in Benderson’s heart. He also finds similarities in Carol II’s near-oedipal relationship with his British-born mother, Queen Marie, to Benderson’s difficult relationship with his own 96-year-old mother, who still manages to criticize and domineer despite her increasingly frail health.
Although “The Romanian” is forthright in its bleakness and unsparing in its fascination with such grim details as mildewed walls, rooms filled with cigarette smoke and the televised din of soccer games, the book has occasional flashes of humor and charm. In one absurd moment, Benderson agrees to translate Celine Dion’s syrupy memoirs in three weeks’ time to finance his stay in Romania. Meanwhile, a tour of the country’s rural areas evokes some awe-inspiring moments of pastoral beauty.
Anyone who’s ever nursed an obsession, or done things that he or she later regretted while pursuing an obsession, will read “The Romanian” with many rueful nods of recognition. Benderson achieves the difficult task of remaining sympathetic while exhibiting dreadful behavior and even worse judgment. His lacerating self-awareness, especially as his relationship with Romulus sours, is a wonder to behold.
However, if nothing else, his experiences have been ultimately rewarding. The original French publication of this book won the 2004 Prix de Flore making him its first American recipient. Romulus may remain an enigma, an undeserving beneficiary of Benderson’s largesse, but as the author reflects with sardonic relish: “History follows a trail of sputtering desire, often calling upon the delusions of lovers to generate the sparks.,” he writes. “If it weren’t for us, the world would suffer from a dismal lack of stories.”
MAYA AT UTA
In honor of Black History Month, one of the greatest voices of African-American culture visits North Texas. Maya Angelou, pictured, author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” visits to The University of Texas at Arlington on Saturday.
“An Evening with Maya Angelou,” Texas Hall, 701 W. Nedderman Dr. Feb. 25, at 8 p.m. $12-$53. 817-272-2963 or www.uta.edu/excel
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, February 24, 2006.