A REVIEW OF THE DREAM LIFE BY BO HUSTON
The Dream Life by American novelist Bo Huston (1959-93) was published by St. Martin’s Press in New York in 1993.
Holly’s Dream Boy
AT FIRST GLANCE, the plot of Bo Huston's The Dream Life seems like a stereotype — a 33-year-old con man with phony credentials is hired to tutor a 13-year-old boy, whom the man subsequently abducts and leads into prostitution. The fact is, the stereotype serves as ironic counterpoint to a strikingly original overture into a dream-like, interior harmony shared by a man and boy who genuinely love each other.
In The Dream Life the man, Hollis Flood, known as Holly, and the boy, Jed, testify in separate first-person accounts to their life together. The two versions are presented in alternate chapters, each identified respectively as “Holly” or “Jed.” The reveries in the Holly chapters occur in a cafe between snatches of conversation with a former acquaintance. The Jed chapters are not linked to any real-time event in the novel, but exist as the spontaneous result of the mutual empathy between man and boy. They represent Jed’s recollection of events that took place when the boy was 13 to 15 years old.
Jed’s description of his well-to-do, often-divorced mother, whom he calls by her first name, Lila, serves as a psychic SOS of a boy ripe for rescue:
Lila was sitting on her brand new mauve sofa, which cost five million dollars or something, swirling her martini around and sucking her cigarette and saying how disappointed in me she was....
I said, rather loud, “Look, do you think I like to be messing up in school? Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that maybe I'm troubled or something?”....
“Oh, you’re troubled are you?” Her legs were tucked under her bottom on the mauve sofa and she began rubbing the soles of her stockinged feet with her hand. “Troubled? Troubled? Well, we've all got troubles, mister. I mean, if you think you've got troubles now....” She was having a fit or something, she was all red. She stubbed out her cigarette, her hand was trembling, and then she closed her eyes and took a few huge breaths. She whispered to herself, with her eyes closed, “I am serene. I am serene. I am serene.” (pp. 31-32)
To Holly, Jed is a “complex, sad, mean little package” that approaches perfection:
When she called the boy in... I saw profound sorrow. A queer wisdom, too. Nothing sinister in the boy, nothing contrived. And sex all over—a perfectly winning little form. A splendid curve to his butt when he stood with his weight on his right leg; smooth, smooth brown arms and slender fingers; a dark complexion without blemishes or bristle; handsome line to his checks, his jaw, his brow. A gentle roundness at the shoulders. At 13 years old, he was a delicious, coy flirt. (p. 41)
When Lila compares Jed to his father, telling Holly that Jed's father “was a worthless shit. They look just alike, you know,” Holly realizes that her concern for Jed is phony: “Lila never said one word about Jed that did not indicate her devotion, adoration, the most self-sacrificing and tolerant of attitudes. One might never have known that she despised her son.” To Holly, Jed is a dream come true. Sitting in a café obsessed with thoughts of Jed, who after three years has left him to strike out on his own, Holly reflects that he misses Jed “with that saddest kind of grief; the way I miss my own childhood, my own self.” The boy is Holly’s hallmark of authentic existence: "This part of my life, and the future, I suppose I will label ‘After Jed.’” Holly compares himself to Aschenbach in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, emotionally ravished as he contemplates the beautiful Polish boy. In a word, Jed is the center around which Holly's every thought revolves; Jed is Holly’s better self:
Jed was many things to me at this time in my life. He was my charge, my ward, my pupil, my job.... Jed was a sweet flute sound. Jed was the highest, most mellow note a flute can make. Jed was a soft rustling of leaves in a breeze. Jed was the coolest, calmest river.... Jed was sensuality. Jed was a boy stripping off his clothes and diving into a chilly, dark green spot of a river, rising up in a splash to shake his hair. I closed my eyes. I was thinking of spring. I was imagining naked Jed, diving, laughing. (pp. 71-72)
I felt lost, though pleasantly so, in some dreamy, incomprehensible displacement, where I had no childhood: Jed's youth was mine. I existed in relation to Jed, as his protector, as the adult. Jed was such a perfect boy, not layered with shame and apprehension and weakness. (pp. 118-119)
Huston's ability to depict both the exterior and interior aspect of a situation is well illustrated by the lemon sourball incident, in which Jed and Holly are in their “schoolroom” hanging a mobile. This incident reveals both characters’ awareness of the absurdity of Holly's attempting to take a down-to-earth, teacherly stance before a pupil who, at least in the teacher’s mind, qualifies as an immortal being whose every action is worthy of worshipful contemplation. Jed’s unconscious, spontaneous actions trigger an interior, erotic response in Holly that contrasts with remarks that parody typical schoolmasterly pedanticism. The contrast between Jed’s and Holly's separate accounts reveal an inherent pedagogical Eros so powerful that, to the teacher, the pupil himself, including his least conscious, most off-hand gesture, is observed and documented in loving detail:
“I think we'll take the entire Spring for a comprehensive study of evolution,” Holly said. “We can’t be at all cursory in our study of evolution. We must dig very deeply into the material — scientifically, but, more important, philosophically.”
I unwrapped this little lemon sourball that I'd had in my pocket for about a year or something and I was sucking on it.
“If you’re such a genius, Jed, you'll be up to a scholarly approach to evolution.”
“I'm just a kid, don't forget,” I said, and then we both laughed. (p. 57)
I stared at his smooth, slender, almost copper-colored throat. Then he put both hands on his ribs and, stretching, rubbed his chest. His eyes were closed. It was an unfettered, immodest motion. One of his hands passed over the breast pocket of his plaid shirt and he seemed to feel something inside. He removed a tiny object from the pocket and held it in the palm of his hand. It was a gold-yellow, round candy, wrapped in clear cellophane, twisted at the ends. Jed examined this candy quickly but thoughtfully. He pulled off the paper. He blew a short breath on the sticky candy to rid it of dust or lint and before popping it into his mouth, shrugged his shoulders. It was the shrug that fascinated me — thrilled me, really. He considered himself unobserved, so his gesture was not for my benefit. He contemplated the candy — How old is this thing, where’s it been, it is safe to eat it? Then, as children do — anyway, as Jed does — he discarded all worry in an instant and just tossed the little lemon ball into his mouth. He rolled it from side to side, where it formed a noticeable, bouncing bulge in his cheeks. I could hear it click against his teeth. Eventually, the moment came for the hard, profound bile, and I heard the candy crackle into pieces in his mouth. (pp. 71-72)
Jed has, in effect, become a cult object for Holly. Jed, who clearly loves Holly, can be more objective, since, for him, Holly may be a mentor, friend, and lover, but not a cult object:
[Holly] seems mean, hard, bitter, and it's embarrassing a lot of the time, it’s hurtful sometimes. But it's so much an act, and you can't know that unless you’ve been with him the way I have. He’s really joking half the time. Playing a part he wrote for himself in a play that he's directing.
See, Holly has to wear a mask. And so he lacks compassion. I once even said, “Holly, the thing about you, you lack compassion.”
He said, “That’s fine, dear, that’s terribly perceptive of you. Why don’t you have compassion for both of us?” (pp. 15-17)
Jed's function as agent of compassion for the two of them often takes the form of a good-natured indulgence of Holly’s various bizarre whims, as incident concerning the Boy Scout uniform, in which Jed fully understands the dynamics of the situation, yet goes along with it anyway:
We were in Phoenix for Jed’s fourteenth birthday. Browsing through a pawn shop, I came upon a Boy Scout uniform, with accompanying scarf and badges. I bought the uniform for Jed. When we were back at Stacey's Welcome Home Inn, located directly under a freeway overpass, Jed consented to dress up in this khaki and olive green ensemble. He did not know the credo or even how to salute. I told him I had a fantasy of being seduced by a Boy Scout, and he rolled his eyes but enacted the role generously, playfully, laughing. He pushed me onto the floor, in a comer, and fucked me fast. I shut my eyes and tried to envision the Boy Scouts I had seen as a child—sexy, somewhat sinister, terribly self-important youths — conjured up a delicious image of being raped by a gang of them. Rape has not meant much to me for some years, as it happens; indeed, I had overestimated the thrill of a Boy Scout. So that fantasy faded, leaving the splendid truth, what was actual — that earnest, delightful Jed, thriftier and braver than anyone, that this little boy was digging his fingers into my bony hips and pushing his slender dick inside me with such force, with no contrivance. It was a sincere fuck; and that's such a rare thing.
Later, he said, “You know, that uniform was really for you. Don't I get a present that's for me?” Very smart, disarming and sweet and humorous. Jed was a perfect boy. I remember thinking, after he’d fallen to sleep, that I could well understand why some kidnappers lock their stolen children away in basement rooms, attics, even in cages: not as punishment, or from a cruel impulse, but simply to keep them, as treasure. I should have put Jed in a box; today I would know where he is. (pp. 118-119)
The boy's willingness of go along with Holly's fantasies is how Jed becomes a boy hustler. As this point, the relationship of tutor to pupil becomes that of pimp to prostitute:
[Holly] was very plain with me, he said right out that he knew I would do quite well if I went with men for cash... He said he hoped I didn't object to having sex with strangers; he would understand if I didn't want to do it, but he asked me to give it serious thought. If I could do it, I would. I did, in fact. But I don't have those talents anymore, I don’t have that appeal. One must surrender gracefully. So, I will do what I'm good at, and you'll do what you're good at....
Holly handled everything. He talked to the men on the phone, he set the price, he made the appointments. This operation was rather complicated because prostitution is illegal, but, as Holly told me, boy prostitution is really illegal....
Now, for me, all of this was a really terrific adventure — at first anyway... These men all had a thing about having sex with little boys. So, I walked in, 14 years old, but I looked even younger, I guess. I was like an actor, playing the part of a cute little boy, a pretty boy who only wanted some man to suck him off. It's all a pretense. That’s what Holly told me. (pp. 112-114)
The frequent interplay of the sacred and the divine is best illustrated by Jed’s introduction to boy hustling, which is comparable to the prostitution of vestal virgins. Thus the novel can be seen as an account of a tutor who leads his pupil boy into prostitution, as if hustling were the tutor's ultimate educational goal for the boy. This is ironic, since education carried out by individuals with genuine credentials and operating within the framework of accredited institutions may often train an individual, in effect, for selling himself or his services in a commercial world that some view as little better than a whorehouse, anyway.
When Holly gives Jed the Leica camera, and Jed learns to use it with such instinctive, startling artistry, Jed's tutelage comes to its natural conclusion, and Jed feels a compulsion to forego hustling and strike off in a new direction:
“It’s almost like I’ve been afraid to look at the world because it might be too beautiful or too ugly. But then you gave me my camera and everything is beautiful and ugly. I mean, it doesn't matter, or something. I can filter everything I see, make something out of it.”
“You're an artist, Jed. That's what you're describing.”
“Well, whatever, I don't know. I just know I'm really happy, Holly.” (p. 106)
Jed did not think of us as sinister, which is what made him so remarkable. He was beyond his years in wisdom and intelligence... What saved Jed, and astounded me, was his extraordinary self-possession. I saw it in the photographs he took, and it scared me. How preposterous that I was stuttering out my theories and quotes and definitions, desperate to teach him. I was simply afraid that Jed was maturing, getting smarter and healthier and stronger, and that he would inevitably go away. (p. 110)
After Jed leaves, Holly is reduced to popping pills while reminiscing about Jed, who becomes intertwined in Holly's dreams. Holly could con Jed’s mother into hiring him to tutor her son because of the veneer of culture that had rubbed off on Holly through the contacts he had made when he was himself a young hustler. Holly's peak experiences seem to have occurred only in his relationships with the boy-lovers who took him under their wing when he was a boy. Some of these men were highly cultured, and they imparted something to Holly. If the tutor’s credentials are false, the effect of his method is genuine. His attitude toward Jed is derived from the attitude of Holly’s own mentors toward him.
The episode with the Lutheran minister who has been kicked out of his church for fondling boys is one of the many turnabouts in this novel. Now that he is out of the church, the ex-minister hires Jed (and presumably other boys) but never has sex with him, preferring that Jed pray for him instead, thus linking praying and fondling. While Jed is on his knees praying as directed, the minister is lying on the bed underneath the heavy wooden crucifix, making love to Christ. This draws an ironic parallel between serving Christ and loving boys. Loving boys allows the boy-lover to enter the world of spirit, a mythological world distinctly dream-like. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell states that “dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream.”
Holly observes of Jed that “The boy is such a mystery, a construct that represents the ‘fatal gift.’” From this and other remarks already quoted, it is clear that Jed is Holly's religion; indeed, to Holly, Jed actually qualifies as a numenosum. Jung, citing Otto, defines a numenosum thus:
Religion, as the Latin word denotes, is a careful and scrupulous observation of what Rudolf Otto [in The Idea of the Holy] aptly termed the numenosum, that is, a dynamic agency or effect not caused by an arbitrary act of will. On the contrary, it seizes and controls the human subject, who is always rather its victim than its creator.... The numenosum is either a quality belonging to a visible object or the influence of an invisible presence that causes a peculiar alteration of consciousness.
Bo Huston portrays the characters of Holly and Jed as though they were psychological holograms. For most readers, Holly cannot be a positive character, since he systematically leads the boy Jed astray. Ultimately, however, Huston presents this complicated, improbable relationship between man and boy in a context that suggests that fundamental causes lie very deep, and simple answers even to questions of simple morality do not exist.
For those eager for additional insight into the mystery of the numinous inner compulsions often associated with boy-love, The Dream Life should be most welcome for what it reveals about boy-love as applied, de facto religion, a concept brilliantly exemplified on nearly every page of this fascinating novel.
Reviewed by Robert Rockwood in the June 1993 issue of the NAMBLA Bulletin (Vol. XIV, No. 5), pp. 26-29.