Yield is a risky book—in lesser hands, Lee Houck’s debut novel, about a gay hustler who moonlights as a file clerk in a hospital basement, could have easily fallen into the trap of cliché.
But Yield’s protagonist Simon is neither a hustler-with-a-heart-of-gold nor an amoral anti-hero, instead wavering somewhere in between. As a narrator, he is observant, intelligent and often uncomfortably honest about himself and the people he loves.
The tone of Yield is candid, almost documentary, aiming to accurately relay information rather than to sugarcoat or to sensationalize. Even at the book’s more scatological moments (and there are plenty), Simon’s self-awareness and quiet humor prevent the passages from becoming exercises in shock value.
From his sexual “menu:”
Pain, bad pain, really bad pain. Soldier, Motorcycle Guy, Surfer Dude, Captain of the Football Team, House Painter, Plumber, Farmboy, Airman, Marine, Cowboy, or Convict. Some people like Nazi stuff—I don’t have the clothes, but I can borrow them…Menthol, ice, wax. Blindfold, gag, mask, chains, plastic wrap, adhesive tape, chastity belt, rope, restraints, cuffs, harness, hood, straightjacket. Enema, catheter, suppository. Shaving. Psychodrama!
Yield is, at its core, a book about men (as there are no major female characters) and the various ways in which they relate to one another—through sex, of course, but also through friendship, romance, and violence.
The bulk of the book’s action focuses on Simon’s interactions with his clients and with his three closest friends: Jaron, an anorexic self-mutilator; Farmer, the well-intentioned intellectual of the group (and the book’s “voice of reason,” Houck says in the afterword); and Louis, Simon’s best friend and a former hustler turned successful male model.
When Simon and Louis become the latest victims in a series of gay bashings throughout New York City, Louis loses his perfect physique, his Calvin Klein contract, and his Tribeca loft, moving into Simon’s apartment and developing a bad case of agoraphobia. The emotional aftermath of their attack, and the bashings that continue, comprise a major part of the narrative.
Simon’s relationships with two particular clients are also driving forces in the plot: the first, Mr. Bartlett, is an effeminate elderly man with a penchant for water sports who keeps an industrial freezer in his apartment. He manages to be both the book’s creepiest character and, I think, the most sympathetic, due to his palpable loneliness and genuine concern for Simon’s well being; the second, Simon’s neighbor Aiden, is the realization of many a queer hipster’s fantasy: rugged (but sensitive), smart, and independently wealthy.
As Simon develops feelings for him and survives a frightening appointment with an out-of-control john, he begins to question his chosen profession and look to both his future and his past. Though this relationship, more than any other, walks the fine line of Pretty Woman convention, Houck resists a neat resolution and succeeds in making the romance more than pure fantasy.
Houck’s prose is strong and unapologetic, not shying away from either profanity or lyricism. The dreams and flashbacks punctuating the novel are written with incredible imagination and lend the book a surprising tenderness. That said, the writing sometimes feels heavy-handed and when Simon’s narration veers into broad statements about the human condition, it’s hit or miss.
Houck’s dialogue, however, is pitch-perfect—punchy, funny, and always believable. The exchanges between Simon and his friends are so on point, I found myself re-reading these passages several times. On the other hand, because Yield is so character-driven, the arc of the plot sometimes suffers. Though the book is a compelling read, the action lacks momentum, events feeling isolated and sporadic rather than having a cumulative effect.
Yield is perhaps most successful as a book about New York. Spread across multiple boroughs and seasons, Houck’s descriptions of the city are insightful, well-chosen and true, giving the book a strong sense of place and an undeniably urban perspective. His New York could not be farther from cliché or fantasy, instead offering a unromantic portrait of a city where people work, have sex, meet with friends, fall in love, get beaten up, and spend a lot of time waiting for subway trains to arrive.
Yield—sexy, horrifying and sensitive in equal measures—is an impressive debut and I’ll be sure not to miss Houck’s next venture.
By Lee Houck
Trade Paperback, $15, 288pp