Kevin Killian is one of America's great eccentrics, a stylist with so much pizazz that perhaps it's inevitable he has been punished with under-recognition. His sentences are suffused with a folksiness that reminds one of the great southern writers, though his books are usually set in the California he has called home for the past several decades. In his latest novel, Spreadeagle, one of his characters relays the following: "'Dogs and cats got two things in common,' my mother used to say, 'and one of them ain't fit to mention.' That always made me feel uncomfortable. I didn't even know what the first thing was, and felt naïve asking." Killian's ongoing joke is that his narrators are never really dumb, even when they aren't exactly smart, and it is in this restless ambiguity, their unintentional savviness, that we discover the beautiful fact that their naiveté is in fact rooted not in ironic posturing but in an openness—a spreadeagleness—to the world that most of us lack.
Spreadeagle has so much going on—it's an AIDS Novel, a Gay Novel, a Murder Mystery, a Comedy of Ill Manners, a City Mouse and Country Mouse—but is ultimately a satire of all those genres as well as of the two milieus that the book takes for its setting: San Francisco and a rural Central Valley enclave, the fictional town of Gavit. If it sounds like a lot to take on, Killian gives himself plenty of space; the novel approaches six hundred pages, every one of which serves as a showcase for its author's comic genius and wit.
Spreadeagle is divided into two parts. The first, "Extreme Remedies," focuses on Danny Isham, a wealthy hack writer who churns out a series of beloved gay kitsch novels, the Rick and Dick books, whose content is loosely based on his relationship with Kit, a gay activist. Clichés? Why, of course. That's what allows Killian to have so much fun. Into their life walks fan boy Eric Avery, a confused part-time stripper and performance art student at the San Francisco Art Institute, who idolizes Marcel Duchamp, despite not quite understanding him.
Part Two, titled "Silver Springs," after a Fleetwood Mac song, is a squalid crystal-meth comedy set in a backwoods town, with a gallery of redneck criminals, classic Cali loonies, trailer trash, and shady queens—one of whom, Geoff Crane, procurator of a mail-order scam-autograph business, narrates the strange tale, frequently digressing with flashbacks and quotes from the canonical Hollywood flicks that serve as the fabric of his imaginative life.
Connecting the two plots are brothers Adam and Gary Radley, who run Extreme Remedies, a company with a dual identity: It's a line of pornographic spanking videos run by Adam, although Gary, Geoff's ex-con lover, also uses the brand to peddle a Kona spray he alleges can cure AIDS. Eric pops back in to fall victim to the former scheme, becoming one of ER's most sought-after models (and escorts), while back in San Francisco, a dying writer named Sam D'Alessandro, former lover of Kit, forks over his last pitiful savings to the brothers in an effort to save his own life.
There is much insideriness at play here that may fly over some heads. Danny Isham, whose sworn enemy in the book is Armistead Maupin, with whom he is often confused, is actually based somewhat on the real-life Maupin (though all the characters in the book are more likely composites of types recognizable by Bay Area literati). Sam D'Alessandro, one of the luminaries of the New Narrative writing scene, and one of the countless artists taken away by AIDS before he attained the fame he longed for and arguably deserved, is resurrected here as the unwitting victim of a murder later sensationalized by Isham: In death, the great are so often feasted on by the mediocre.
Since everyone in Spreadeagle is equally corrupt—yes, in spite of their naiveté!—part of the fun and the motivating factor to keep reading is the quest to find a moral center, but there is none. How can there be, when "truth" is as slippery as the words that encode it? While such a rambling and rambunctious approach, which is ultimately rooted in an acknowledgment of the plastic qualities of language, might be thought to give rise to an aestheticized universe of total artifice, Killian paradoxically achieves a candidness rarely found in books that are more certain of truth. We can never really know another person, and Killian's writing never claims otherwise. Instead of characters, in the traditional sense, what we get are approximations of consciousness, and caricatures of the various types wandering around in Spreadeagle's world, which is the great B-grade horror-comedy of reality that we loathe to love.
Travis Jeppesen's new novel, The Suiciders, is forthcoming from Semiotext(e). He lives in Berlin and London, where he teaches at the Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths.