Picks and Pans Review: Physical Culture

updated 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Hillary Johnson

"She's trying to be ambiguous," the narrator of this unsettling, inverted novel says of a young woman he has met. "People like her say things with double meanings and don't mean either of them."

In other words, all bets are off.

The narrator, John, is a quiet, 50ish sort of man taking early retirement from a dull office job at a mattress factory. He has no plans and no future, but then he has no past, either, except at a local gay health club, Physical Culture. There, one acquaintance tells him, he is a "legend," perhaps because of his enthusiastic pursuit of masochistic homosexual activities.

Johnson, in her first novel, finesses her protagonist; John has no redeeming qualities and is skillful only at being passive, yet he's a sympathetic character. "I have been so afraid of discovery that I never thought to fear its opposite," he thinks when Stephan, a former lover, finds him in bed (uneventfully) with a young woman, "that I would simply be mistaken for something else."

Johnson displays some odd stylistic quirks. She lets a random few sentences just trail off—"It's getting so bad that I."—to no apparent purpose, (It doesn't happen often enough to seem related to John's chronically ineffectual approach to life.) She also at one point refers to John's contemplating his rib cage, which is covered by razor cuts that spell out DEATH TO THE ROTTEN BLOOD SUCKING PUKE LIZARDS, which would suggest that he either has one huge rib cage or knows some sadists who do very fine razor-cutting work.

Most of the time, though, she seems in I steady control, Describing Stephan, who hangs out at and pimps at Physical I Culture, she writes, "Layers of appalling I nerve and indifference have enabled him to broker the obsessions of others, moving through them like a man in an asbestos suit."

It seems incidental that John is gay. Johnson, who lives with her Indian businessman husband in Portland, Ore., and Calcutta, seems engaged not in exploring the pitfalls of homosexuality but the pitfalls of everyone who is trying to find his identity. Her novel is, in fact, reminiscent in that way of Frederick Barthelme's heterosexual novel Two Against One, suggesting that if you are truly lost, it doesn't matter all that much what place it is you can't find. (Poseidon, $16.95)

From Our Partners