To give it its full, formal title: Deprivation; or, Benedetto furioso: a dream romance. Originally it was “a romance of the recession,” but that was a different decade, a different recession, and the implications seem unfortunate now as the Great Recession grinds on, demoralizing all in its path. (Well, all but the 1%.)
Because, despite its faintly ominous main title and setting during the recession of the early 1990s, Deprivation is an oddly joyful novel. I wrote it in a rush during 1991-92, beginning on the MBTA commuter train between Providence, Rhode Island, where I then lived, and Boston, Massachusetts, where I worked—a matter of an hour each way, scrawling on one after another pad of quad-ruled graph paper. It is not, perhaps, anymore my favorite of my completed long works of narrative fiction (The Unexpected Thing gives it a hard time), but I continue to love it unreservedly.
It seemed that this evening Ben was out drinking with his friends. These friends had no names that he knew, he had never seen them before, but they were old friends. He wasn’t sure how many of them there were, or whether they were women or men. Where they were drinking was a bar, raucous, loud, smokey, dark, everyone here was his friend and he didn’t know anyone. The bartender seemed always to stand in the beam of a spotlight, white singlet and pale eyes glowing; he pushed his hair off his brow with his wrists, practiced his smile, and kept giving Ben Scotch and waters and refusing his payment. Evidently Ben liked Scotch. The music in the bar had no melody, only beat, a hard fast thumping that accelerated the thumping of Ben’s heart. Sweating, he moved hips and shoulders to the rhythm, talked to himself and all his friends, and felt that he was happy.
After nearly two decades in a trunk, the MS is circulating again, or so my agent assures me. He may or may not be using a version of the following pitch to sell it:
Between your job and your commute and your vain stabs at having a life, you’re lucky to get four hours of sleep a night. Don’t even think about weekends—there’s laundry to do and you’ll need to go to the supermarket at some point.…
“You know what they say,” your friend tells you, “you can have a good job, a good apartment, or a good friend, but you can’t have all three.”
Graduating from college into the recession of the early nineties with a useless liberal arts degree (comparative literature!), Ben Lansing has—at least—a job, whether or not it satisfies him. He has a nice apartment—though nice has its drawbacks, chiefly the hour-long commute every morning and every night because he can’t afford to live in the same city as his job. In a lot of ways, he knows he’s fortunate. He’s willing enough, for now, to settle for job and apartment, but in the back of his mind he knows, too, he really wants a boyfriend, wants to fall in love. And he really needs to get more sleep.
Sleep deprivation does funny things to your head. In inexplicable circumstances, Ben encounters the perfect young man, a prince in peril, the dream lover any gay guy would give up everything for…but Dario isn’t real. Or is he? Is Neddy, the raffish bike messenger/artist who barrels into Ben’s daylight life? Or the sympathetic dilettante, Kenneth, apparently intent on rescuing Ben from himself?
In Deprivation, a gorgeously romantic novel as real as a fairy tale, rich with fantasy and reality, art and poetry and literature, neither Ben nor the reader can ever be entirely sure of being awake or dreaming. Can you separate dream from reality? Do you want to?