Venus as a Boy by Luke Sutherland
Venus as a Boy, the first novel by UK author Luke Sutherland to be printed in America, is the deathbed recollections of Desiree, a London hooker with a heart of gold and then some. We never learn Desiree's birth name, but we don't miss it, so generous are her peers with sobriquets. Over the course of the book she's known variously as Poof, Mr. C (for "cunt"), Cupid, Desiree, and D. She's abused, betrayed, abandoned, and victimized by cosmic unfairness.
The novel's first and strongest section covers Desiree's early years living as a boy. He grows up on South Ronaldsay Island, in the Orkney Isles a few miles Northeast of mainland Scotland. Orkney has neither trees nor police, a reasonable trade-off. It's a tough, a dog-eat-dog provincial environment laced with surreal occurrences just strange enough to be plausible. A handsome blonde Dane parachuting out of the sky to claim the narrator's virginity, for instance, is unlikely and yet written so vividly it rings true.
Desiree's childhood is no less grim for the magical whimsies woven through it, whimsies sometimes forced to carry a heavier load of narrative freight than they're rated for. It's part of the joke that in this faery-tinged world the tarot is as tiresomely literal as the work schedule posted on the kitchen wall. Inexplicable weirdnesses are accepted as commonplace, and Venus's foremost supernatural elements both directly concern the narrator: his touch can induce supra-sexual epiphany, and in his mid-thirties his entire body turns to solid gold. Accordingly, transformation is one of the novel's leitmotifs, and metamorphoses abound. The metaphors are unexpectedly resilient, reaching beyond the self-obsession of puberty. What is it like to become more valuable to others at the cost of your happiness, your identity, and finally your life?
The magic touch, the alchemy of flesh to gold, and the classical goddess of love in the book's title bring to mind King Midas, who had a similar problem to the one killing Desiree, though Midas wished his on himself and a good-natured Bacchus shortly rescinded it. Ovid gave us the starving, parched King's plea: miserere, atque subtrahe ruinae splendidae. "Have pity, remove this glorious ruination." Desiree has no such complaint. Ready to die, she views her shiny doom as proof of her essential virtue.
The creative provenance of Desiree's other, nicer gift likely lies with the less lofty lyrics of contemporary pop singer Bjork, whose song "Venus as a Boy" includes the words "He sets off/The beauty in her/He's Venus as a boy." The choir-of-angels-inducing, life-changing sexual touch Desiree is blessed with interacts deeply with the narrative, affecting the narrator's romantic life from early on. Desiree can administer a blowjob that cures fascism, surely an overdue invention, but only with certain, rare lovers can she herself experience the same revelatory orgasms she doles out.
Venus's politics are grounded and unpretentious: the racism of the narrator's actions in his Orkney days is recanted mostly for having alienated a love interest. "As for my sexual orientation," Desiree says, "I hadn't any." Spoken like a prostitute, or anyone whose sexual self-determination has been stripped away and commodified. Desiree's transformation from male to female is imposed by her pimp. In the all-consuming marketplace, gender is just another range of brand-names, one more protean trend Desiree and her compatriots are continuously remolded into conformity with by the bossman who sells their services.
Venus as a Boy's greatest asset is Sutherland's comfortable conversational phrasing and the generous, calming spaces between paragraphs. The book goes down smoothly, light without being inconsequential and rich without being purple. When Desiree describes a brothel as "what you'd imagine if you'd no imagination," you know you're in good hands. Sutherland's bio mentions his music career, which is no surprise given the absorbing rhythms of his best lines. Take the following, enjambment added: "a cunt who gets/his kicks dipping/his wick in kid/napped fanny." Three nimble paeons, da-DUN-da-da, and then a thumping amphibrach to bring us back down.
Though glittering with naturalistic rhymes like "drunk on spunk" or "the copious dope we smoked" (in a boat afloat off the coast of Hope, it so happens), Sutherland's sentences are direct, often declarative. Dialogue is a flattering shade off real. Venus as a Boy moves with the swaggering bop of the underworld, the sawed-off shoulder-swinging strut of Nick Arnott or earlier James Ellroy. A confident stylist with the chops to back up his gambles, Sutherland doesn't need to be flashy. His rendering of a cataclysmic, multiple-vehicle car wreck experienced while on LSD is perfectly straight-forward, forgoing gimmickry, and enough to give anybody the heebie-jeebies. He is a graceful, effective storyteller, and he paints the Orkneys in particular with such fierce wonder that, after reading his descriptions, actually visiting the islands could only be a let-down.
The plot's notable flat spot is an awkward bridge between the events of the first and second parts, a stint spent washing dishes in limbo. This contemplative break from emotional mayhem isn't bad or useless, merely unedifying. In a related complaint, the ending of the book is absent. The story peters out where it began: Desiree in bed, in London, turning fatally to gold. These structural flaws aren't nearly as serious as they might sound, however, and the novel's unusual shape detracts only from its final effect, not from the considerable pleasures of reading it.
Venus as a Boy by Luke Sutherland