PHOTOGRAPHY BY GAYLETTER
Isaac Oliver lives in fear of a home invasion: waking up to the unstoppable advances of a sadistic serial-killer’s padded pitiless steps in his Washington Heights apartment, a phobia which is the turnt up version of his ever-present fear of letting men in. This inability to experience vulnerability in a stable, relational way is the premise for Intimacy Idiot, the award winning playwrights debut book, which could have been just another amusing-but-cloying collection of young-Gay-NYC-single-male stories of sassy woe, but very much isn’t. Intimacy Idiot is unfailingly hilarious, until its small, pasty white hands suddenly summoned a strength I could not have known they had, collared me, gutted me, and left me for dead on my tweed tufted couch at 5 am like one of the psychopathic home invaders the author lives in fear of. I’m still fucked up about it.
Intimacy begins with Oliver’s satirical “online dating profile,” which is witty in a way that leads us to believe we are in for a chatty, boozy picnic, as opposed to a fully realized feast. His first proper chapter, “How I Didn’t Learn to Drive” gives a preview of the darkness of the book to come when, after ten pages of charmingly varied “New York observed” banter and keep-em-coming dick jokes with the zing of a decent midtown margarita, Oliver concludes the chapter on a tragic metaphor for his relational life so powerful and chilling that it turns your stomach. You’re suddenly hooked because damn this faggot can write.
As a campy musical theatre enthusiast with a broadly sophisticated cultural lexicon, and a WASP with a profound and nuanced understanding of human pain, Oliver is paradoxical, and one of a very rare breed: a gay white male who I would happily listen to talk about Sondheim at a party. Yes, his punchlines contain the obligatory Julie Andrews and Lea Michelle references, but then he’ll describe himself walking into a bar “looking like the first person to get murdered in an Agatha Christie novel,” or mitigating his eczema on a date by layering clothes a la “Stevie Nicks meets Edvard Munch.” Oliver has an ability to marry his endlessly crass, cum-soaked sex tales with charmingly refined mise-en-scène, such that when he describes being bent over slapping his ass while staring at a picture of John Updike we feel we can know and love him, even if the headless torso watching him on the Manhunt cam doesn’t.
Oliver’s cultural allusions contain something for everyone, though I’ll admit that he won my heart when he asserted as self-evident two truths which I have always held close but never spoke out loud: that’s Disney’s “George of the Jungle” was nothing short of a “gay porn vehicle for Brendan Fraser,” and that Sully from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman was a legitimate moment of childhood sexual awakening. Oliver’s narrative of dreary days working at a box office and slutty nights spent blowing most of upper Manhattan are peppered with recurrent genre stylings, including some really good/bad poetry dedicated to the men he loves from afar, Amy Sedaris-esque “Cooking For One” recipes, and subway commute tableaux that are poignant, weird, and scream out loud funny. His Shavian turns of phrase feature the kind of cringe-worthy, True Punsters puns that arise from delight in life’s frivolity, a delight which for a long while belies Oliver’s deep understanding of how fucked up the world is; that he reveals slowly, as what starts as a book of curated essays becomes a more cohesive, personal story progressing towards an impending darkness of self-awareness in the face of loneliness.
When I finished the book it was 5 AM and the sun was rising over Harlem and I was crying. I wrote a friend the following Facebook message: “Isaac Oliver’s book affected me very deeply. It has unearthed a lot of things in myself which are hard to look at. It’s about being a gay urban slut and fearing that you’ll never be able to love or be loved in an intimate, permanent way. You don’t think the book is going to be so serious because it’s so very funny, but it is very serious, and it doesn’t have anything like a resolution at the end. It’s disconcerting. [Friend], you’ve been a gay urban slut… Have you found love also? [Me] It’s been so long since I’ve had anything I could call that. I’ve had many nice affairs but it’s been years since I’ve had something stable. My destructive habits and reckless behavior always seem to take me back to square one, where I’m alone feeling like I’m untouchable, damaged goods waiting for the weeks to pass before I can take my next reliable HIV test, wondering if I’ll ever know any kind of intimate, permanent love again in my life. I’m sad, and I look up to you, and this book kinda fucked me up.”