Grant Rogers Lattimer, the product of old money and generations of dirty little secrets, narrates "Karl Flinders" tale of extreme boarding-school bullying and elegant revenge. But what appears to be a satisfying corrective to the "sad young men" school of gay novels in which homophobes and gay bashers prevail turns out to have a nasty sting in its tail… a sting subtly foreshadowed on the second page and sprung on the last like a bear trap lurking unnoticed in a cluttered garage.
Nine-year-old Grant's first crush was live-in tennis instructor Jack Foster, the handsome, sensual fruit of the bad branch of a good family; his animal magnetism was such that Grant carefully drilled peephole through the wall separating their adjoining rooms in hopes of seeing his conspicuously well-endowed tutor in the nude. He eventually saw much more than that: First both his mother and his father in the throes of carnal ecstasy with Taylor, and then his parents attempting an angry sexual reconciliation that ended when Grant's father bludgeoned his mother to death with a brass candlestick.
Selectively sheltered by his grandmother, who manages to keep Grant out of the public spotlight but not her late husband's extensive collection of pornography or the hands of a 69-year-old Italian price who undertook to school the then 11-year-old stripling in the ways of same-sex love -- Grant is abruptly sent to boarding school at the age of 15. Not just any boarding school, of course, but Cornhill (known to the cognoscenti as "cornhole," for reasons that soon become clear), whose generous Lattimer-family endowment deals Grant a high card he quickly learns to play. While still processing the shock of finding that Jack Foster is now Cornhill’s athletic master and getting his first, albeit second-hand, taste of prep-school bullying, Grant notices fellow transfer student Jefferson "Jeff" Talbot, a pretty 14-year-old boy whose exquisitely delicate looks instantly attract the attention of upper-class sadists Jamie Crawford, Tony Applegate, Gordie Phillips, Lloyd Waterman and Corkie Jennings, all privileged members of Taylor's soccer team. Poor Jeff is sensitive, lonely and given to late-night prayer in the chapel Grant's grandmother funded in memory of her late husband, and it’s there that Jamie and his toadies surprise and gang rape him. Once spent, they warn Jeff to keep quiet unless he wants to spend the rest of time at Cornhill the butt of sidelong looks and smutty jokes.
Grant intercepts the violated Jeff immediately after the assault and tends to the younger boy's injuries, persuades him to confess the whole ugly story and sends him to bed with painkillers and the promise that the guilty parties will be punished. But both the headmaster and Foster shrug off Jeff’s ordeal as "boys will be boys" roughhousing and insinuate that the only reason Grant cares is that Jamie and company got to Jeff before he did. Having given the system its chance to step up, Grant goes to plan B: Using his family influence, he secures a suite of rooms with a private bath – displacing junior faculty member Bill Butterworth (whom he later discovers is queer, horrified by Cornhill’s tradition of sexual sadism and deeply sympathetic to the poor, brutalized Jeff) in the process -- and has Jeff assigned to room with him.
Grant’s next move is to hire straight but gay-friendly artist Tom Little, who moonlights as a private detective, to find a beautiful, VD-riddled prostitute willing to infect Jeff's rapists, whom he now thinks of as "The Five." Grant is undecided about how he should deal with Taylor until Taylor attempts to persuade him to make nice with Jamie and company in return for their assurance that they won’t assault Jeff again. Tom meanwhile comes up with the instrument for Grant's revenge: Beautiful society girl Sandra, who deliberately contracted gonorrhea and syphilis so she could seduce and infect men who abused young gay boys like her late brother, Clyde. Sandra’s fiancée, angry that she wouldn't put out, turned to her brother and then persuaded him not to seek medical attention when he suffered serious internal injuries during their spiteful liaison. After Clyde died of blood poisoning, Sandra's path was mapped out; Grant thinks her mad but perfect for the task.
Tom, Grant and Jeff's association leads them down all manner of interesting paths: Tom’s surveillance videos develop into a thriving career in high end pornography and awaken him to a powerful curiosity about how the other half loves, one which eventually finds him happily paired off with shy sensualist Mr. Butterworth. Jeff, after suitably gentle instruction by sex coach Cary Jenks – one of Tom’s apparently inexhaustible stable of experts -- realizes that he’s gay, even though his first same-sex experience was his degrading, brutal rape by a pack of supposedly straight boys. And Grant acknowledges that more than anything he wants Taylor to pay for his part in the deaths of his parents, to which end Jeff agrees to seduce Taylor as Grant secretly films them. The stills Tom subsequently prepares from Grant's efforts sell at a premium via a "very special dealer in New York" and so compromise Taylor that he hangs himself.
And now to that sting: "[Taylor] took a deep breath," says Grant, eye pressed to a secret peephole, "[and] leaped into the air, at the same time kicking the chair so hard he sent it crashing against the heavy oak door. His body seemed to leap upwards, almost to the beam from which his life was suspended. The resulting fall surely doubled the effect of the weight of his husky body. The fall clearly broke his neck, and I am certain, killed him instantly. "And at that moment of quick, violent death, a great fountain of semen spurted from his magnificent cock. It tasted quite ordinary."
Wow… didn’t see that coming, as it were. The revelation that Grant is the kind of flat out sociopath capable of matter-of-factly lapping up the last emission of a dying man and rating its aesthetic qualities shouldn’t come as a total surprise: Go back to the beginning and the clues are all there. The neat twist of the knife is that it doesn't change the way you think about what Grant has engineered. Jamie and his sadistic posse of prep-school punks needed a good lesson in consequences, one they certainly weren’t getting from Cornhill's faculty. Poor Sandra's date with the dark angel was made long ago, and she committed suicide knowing she helped redress the wrong done to a gentle boy the same age as her beloved brother. Tom didn't need coercing to let his bi-curious flag fly; he just needed to meet Bill Butterworth, and that was happy coincidence rather than part of Grant's scheme. As to Taylor, he was a manipulative, selfish, amoral bastard long before Grant boxed him into a corner from which suicide seemed the only reasonable exit: Taylor's callous carelessness with other people’s lives and feelings would have caught up with him sooner or later.
The fact that Grant is a sociopath is a tidy little one-two punch nonetheless, even if several of his pawns are happier when he's done fingering their lives and the ones who aren't are privileged creeps who deserve the comeuppances they get. But Grant is still mad, bad and dangerous to know: Reimagining Bluebeard as an extreme life coach who helps silly girls get their priorities in order and uses his money doesn't negate the fact that he's a murderer.As is so often the case, I have no idea who Karl Flinders is, though I do have another of his novels, the comic Twelve Inches. His inspiration for The Boy Avengersis another matter:
Their marriage was engineered by her father, a bisexual roué and Lonergan's lover from the time the two met at the 1939 World's Fair, where the 21-year-old former lifeguard was working as rickshaw boy, until his death a year later. Patricia's mother adopted their two-year-old son, legally changed his name from Wayne Lonergan Jr. to William Anthony Burton, and did an admirable job of keeping him out of the public eye; he inherited $7,000,000 when he turned 12. The case was still news in the mid-1960s, when Lonergan was paroled and deported to Canada.
In any event, I’d love to know Flinders' identity, because The Boy Avengers is an offbeat little book that takes a bold walk on the wild side and yet somehow winds up in my grandma’s living room, metaphorically speaking, of course, in that it agrees with her basic approach to life: You should take people as they are and judge them by what they do, weighting kindness over cruelty and emotional honesty over fancy-folk manners and two-faced politesse. Damned if I know what to make of that little conundrum, but it burns with a pretty blue-white flame.
Browse Reviews of Vintage Gay Pulps
The Boy Avengers, Boys Behind Bars, Chamber of Homos, The Concentration of Hans, From Steve, With Love, The Gay Haunt, His Brother's Keeper, Hot Asset!, The HIS 69 Artist's Sketchbook, Intensive Care, The Long Leather Cord, The Male Maulers, Man Eater, Master of Monfortin, Murder One and Two the Hard Way, The Number on the John Wall, The Pile Drivers, The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Tailpipe Trucker, Things Never Went Right... Three Ring Sex Circus, The Wisteria Club