Stepping into the titular bath house with narrator Oliver – a recovering addict from Indiana now in a stable relationship with a wealthy D.C. surgeon – I was sold on his moral dilemma. He badly wants anonymous sex (and, more importantly, the resulting sense of agency he sorely lacks) yet he knows infidelity could unravel the Great American Gay Dream of a monogamous relationship, a Georgetown brownstone and the sheen of near-married respectability. We also learn this relationship – however controlling – is the only thing that stands between Oliver and relapse.
A lot to deal with, right? Enough for an entire novel, perhaps. Ha!
A few pages in, Oliver’s steamy hook-up turns into attempted rape, then brutal strangulation, followed by breathless escape. This incident and its panicked cover-up – he tells boyfriend Nathan it was a mugging – trigger a seismic sequence of events fuelled by lies, paranoia and violence, well off the Richter scale.
You can tell I don’t read thrillers very often, hey. Maybe it’s my inability to suspend disbelief. This time though, I had a hunch I was in capable hands. I surrendered to the plot avalanche, letting myself be led down a very steep rabbit hole of manipulation and deceit (I was manipulated and deceived with as much authorial glee as the characters).
What I loved here is how the specificity of contemporary queer lives colours the tropes of the genre. Updating Hitchcock (cue domineering mother), the narrative is borne by the codes of gay sexuality, awareness of the straight gaze and internalised self-loathing.
PJ Vernon’s prose is spare but dense with meaning. Present-tense first person narration and rapid-fire short sentences propel the action forward at breakneck speed. Paragraphs burst at the seams with clever similes. The imagery is vivid, claustrophobic: each character has metaphorical teeth, scalpels, hooks – even a scorpion – embedded into his flesh, tearing at his insides. The style is so showy and over the top as to draw constant attention to itself, a brazen brand of camp noir.
It’s also a dispiritingly accurate portrait of the ravages of late-stage capitalism. There’s no middle-class option between white trash oxy-ridden poverty and soulless gay-done-good hyper-wealth. Bath Haus bleeds the cynicism of American Psycho but 80s maximalist angst has made way for our current malaise: mediated by apps that surveil our every move, relationships – friends, family, lovers – are purely transactional. The hands wrapped tightly around Oliver’s throat? We all feel them.