In high heels and falsies, trenchant memoir staggers along the wildly funny side
“I Am Not Myself These Days: A Memoir,” by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. (HarperPerennial 2006) 334 pp., $13.95.
Since Oprah chewed out James Frey, the memoir has lost some credibility. Publishers now realize that the autobio trade is regarded with suspicion. Especially suspicious would be a memoir endorsed by Frey, as is the case with Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s “I Am Not Myself These Days.” However, a disclaimer on the copyright page makes it clear that the contents of this book are “the truth in drag.”
For several years, Kilmer-Purcell sashayed through the New York nightlife scene as Aquadisiac Aqua for short a seven-foot-tall drag queen whose chief gimmicks were the live goldfish that swam inside her transparent plastic breasts. One night, a handsome young man (Jack) approached Aqua and asked what the fishes’ names were.
“Left and Right,” she replied.
Shortly thereafter, a relationship began between Jack and Josh, and it wasn’t long before Kilmer-Purcell moved on up to a proverbial deluxe apartment in the sky: Jack’s 42nd floor penthouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Unlike George and Louise Jefferson, Jack pays the rent by being a much-in-demand male hustler.
People love to read about incompatible relationships the more mismatched, the better. So the saga of a vodka-swilling drag queen and a hustler with a growing crack habit sounds like high drama tailored for “Jerry Springer.”
While “I Am Not Myself These Days” never loses sight of its trashy origins, Kilmer-Purcell’s writing pulls it out of the gutter and achieves the near-impossible task of getting jaded readers to root for this screwed-up pair to get their acts together and salvage their union.
From page one, it’s clear we’re in Augusten Burroughs territory, and not just because Kilmer-Purcell drinks too much and works for an advertising firm. The memoir opens with an unforgettable scene of Josh waking up from troubled dreams to find Jack standing over him with a knife, ready to commit murder or suicide.
“But I just got that for Christmas,” Kilmer-Purcell says wearily to his homicidal hubby. “I haven’t even used it yet.”
Nonchalance permeates “I Am Not Myself,” providing a pungent contrast to the often-bleak situations that Josh and Jack find themselves in. For example, Josh often drinks to the point of blacking out, and regains consciousness in odd circumstances like during a sales pitch meeting at his ad agency, or worse.
“Some people might get obsessed with figuring out how they wound up on the F train in drag, with no bag and only one shoe. But that’s simply not my style,” he writes. “What’s done is done. I’m sure I had my reasons.”
A defining moment occurs when Josh observes, “once you’ve crawled into what’s commonly thought of as the sordid underbelly of life, you realize it’s all just different versions of normal.”
Take one of Jack’s clients, a successful British businessman nicknamed Houdini. He pays quite handsomely to be trussed up in Jack’s penthouse and abused for a weekend. At one point, Josh asks Houdini about his family, and the two end up spending a relaxing Sunday together, reading sections of The New York Times, with Houdini using his mouth to turn the pages
Kilmer-Purcell’s writing style lends a breezy whimsicality to grim proceedings. He makes waking up from an alcoholic stupor seem like a quirky habit rather than a life-threatening situation, which underscores the seriousness of when things really start spinning out of control. Jack starts disappearing for days at a time and can’t be reached. Josh retreats further into the bottle and reruns on late-night cable, imagining he’s living in a bad Lifetime movie.
“Sometimes, down is the only way out,” he writes
Not even a perfect Thanksgiving get-together of friends, clients and fellow hustlers can salvage things, alas. “And sometimes the show can’t go on,” he writes.
An addendum contains a fun multiple-choice quiz about highlights of Kilmer-Purcell’s life, which reveals what happened when he tried to contact Jack almost 10 years after their breakup.
“Jack hasn’t found me yet. And I guess I have to be okay with that,” he writes. “I’m no longer all that lost anyway.”
LONE STAR SNOW JOB
On Monday, as part of the 15th season of Arts & Letters Live, actor Raphael Parry, pictured, reads Ron Carlson’s “The H Street Sledding Record.” Carlson, a Chicago journalist, finds himself in a small Texas town on Christmas Eve and unfurls a homespun family celebration complete with sled races and reindeer dung on the roof.
Daniel A. Kusner
“Texas Stories II,” Horchow Auditorium, Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood. April 10 at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. $30. 214-922-1220.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 07, 2006.