Former drag queen tries his hand at fiction, with fabulous results
"Candy Everybody Wants," by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. (Harper Perennial, May, 2008) 288 pp., $13.95. paper.
When his memoir "I Am Not Myself These Days" became one of the best-selling (and best reviewed) books of 2006, Josh Kilmer-Purcell was at something of a loss. Just how, exactly, does one trump the exploits of one’s boozy drag queen persona, and break the curse of the dreaded sophomore slump?
"Perhaps worse than simply writing a second book, I’ve also committed the sin of switching genres," he intones with mock horror in his afterword. "’Candy Everybody Wants’ is my first stab at long-term fiction, and it’s quite possibly a mortal wound."
Fortunately for Kilmer-Purcell, his fiction debut is a hilarious exception to this sad-but-true literary truism. Perhaps because the time he spent in drag as Aquadisiac is so far-removed from most everyone’s concept of reality, he transitions from non-fiction to fiction with remarkable ease, retaining his acid wit, flair for the improbable and ability to endow characters with formidable doses of Ã©lan and spunk.
Fifteen-year-old Jayson Blocher lives and breathes TV. Picture, if you can, a flamboyantly queer Mike Teavee from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." He’d give just about anything to be on the other side of the television screen, but living in Oconomowoc, Wisc., the closest he gets to his dream is by writing, directing and starring in videotaped episodes of "Dallasty!" a hybrid of his two favorite night-time soaps which he plans to mail to Lorimar Productions.
Jayson is surrounded by as wacky a supporting cast as any sitcom star could hope for: family and friends who could’ve escaped from the script of a later John Waters movie. There’s Toni, his unflappable, eccentric artist of a mother, "half Italian, half Russian, half black Irish, and all business"; Willie, his lovable, developmentally disabled younger brother; Franck, his mother’s latest lover — a hugely butch lesbian; and best friends/next-door neighbors Trey and Tara Wernermeier, who "looked like protagonists from a Disney movie, but behaved like After School Specials."
After one too many run-ins with the law and the Bible-thumping Mrs. Wernermeier, Jayson finds himself on a red-eye to Manhattan where he’ll meet the father he never knew he had: Oscar "Harley" Harlande, a Rip Taylor-esque actor who runs an escort service of Broadway chorus boys from his elegantly appointed townhouse with the assistance of Devlin Williamson, a former child star currently between roles.
Although initially furious with his mother, Jayson soon realizes that his dream of stardom is far easier to reach in New York City than the Midwest. From this point on, things can only get weirder …
Connoisseurs of camp will devour "Candy Everybody Wants" with gusto. It’s a delightful trifle that abounds with ’80s pop culture references and TV in-jokes galore, but also acknowledges the darker elements of its times. Sitting somewhat uneasily with all the initial frivolity is the gritty reality of 1981-1982, such as the "gay cancer" makings its inroads among New York City’s gay community, and SoHo still being the refuge of countless drug dealers and maverick artists.
However, Kilmer-Purcell attacks these disparate plot elements with the fearlessness of someone accustomed to navigating the world in dangerously high heels and a constrictive corset while sloshed, and succeeds largely on sheer chutzpah. And besides which, only an ex-drag queen would have the cojones to incorporate a memorable minor character from "Valley of the Dolls" into his novel’s proceedings, and to pull off this appropriation with such panache!
Obviously, this literary confection won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Some will be undoubtedly sickened by the novel’s outwardly sugary exterior. However, these people run the risk of missing the tart disappointment of dreams deferred; the disillusionment of a devotee discovering that to most of the people on the other side of the camera, this is all just a job; and the realization that "getting famous" doesn’t equate to "getting somewhere."
Only towards the end does "Candy Everybody Wants" come dangerously close to jumping the shark, with Jayson facing choices he has no frame of reference for, because reality television doesn’t exist as a concept yet. But Kilmer-Purcell manages to pull off this last implausible plot twist with aplomb, once again proving the old adage that spectacle almost always trumps logic in a season finale.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 30, 2008.