The hustler - John Henry Mackay

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Text by: David Thorstad

The Hustler - John Henry Mackay

This novel is a love story. It is romantic, cynical, insightful. In places it is moving. As someone who has put down many novels before finishing them, I found it often compelling. I wanted to know how things would turn out. I could tell, from hints dropped here and there, that the outcome would not be saccharine or unrealistic, and was glad to discover that it was, if not tragic, at least not tritely happy or optimistic. Gay activists often complain about films and creative writing about homosexuality that seem to require the inevitable Unhappy Ending. The star-crossed love of The Hustler makes its ending realistic.

Mackay published the novel in German with the title Der Puppenjunge in 1926 under his long-time pseudonym for his gay writings, Sagitta (Arrow). Mackay had been writing boy-love literature and pamphlets under that name for more than two decades. The book was sold privately and had little success. It is surely a classic of boy-love literature, and it is a welcome addition to the list of such literature available in English.

Mackay - whom Hubert Kennedy has probably done more than anyone else to bring to the attention of a North American readership - was one of the most important and consciously radical proponents of man/boy love in the early German homosexual rights movement. He was not a boy-ogler but a sexual freedom fighter who devoted his life to activism on behalf of individual freedom and sexual liberation. In his writings on man-boy love during the first part of this century one senses a kindred soul; his insights into the man/boy love relationship and the hypocrisy and bigotry of the society of his day have a fresh quality that is inspiring and courageous decades later. It can only be hoped that the publication of this novel in English will reach readers who still think man/boy love is somehow a phenomenon that can be divorced from the "broader" issues of gay liberation. And, just as important, the novel will make accessible to English-speaking boy-lovers and youth an awareness of a historical continuity to their struggle that has escaped all but the few who read German.

You don't need any political baggage to appreciate this novel, however. It provides a special window on the Berlin hustling scenes of the late twenties - upper class, middle class and, most of all, lower class. It manages to give Mackay's views of the man/boy love relationship - views of an individualist-anarchist - but it also tells a story whose characters come alive and, curiously, might inhabit the real boy-love world today. It is that, of course, but it is much more as well. I found myself frequently smiling and noting similarities with friendships I have had, even though I have never personally been involved in the hustling scene. The reason is that Mackay knows boys; he knows boy-lovers, and he skillfully portrays the aspirations, joys, anguish and occasional rage that accompany the connections they make across the generations.

The Hustler is the story of Gunther Nielsen, 15, and Hermann Graff, a man in his twenties, who both escape their small-town life in the provinces for the wider vistas of Berlin. They meet, by change; lose each other, meet again and finally lose each other for good, each having been transformed in his own way. Gunther is drawn into the hustler subculture of the big city, and Herman believes, naively, that his overpowering love for the boy can save him from this life.

One of the most attractive aspects of the novel is its portrayal of the hustler scene of the lounges and bars of Berlin in the late twenties. In this, Mackay does not suger-coat anything that I could detect. The boy-hustlers are often on cocaine and are cynical toward their johns - even, as in the case of Hermann, when they are not johns but men who actually love their young friends. They have no future, nor even awareness of a future. They live from one day to the next.

One of the more interesting chapters is a description of the hustler table at Uncle Paul's saloon, where the boys hang out in the late afternoon before going out to work for the evening. Besides Gunther, whom the boys call Chick, Mackay introduces the entire clique as they relax before getting on with more serious business: Leo, Kuddel, Hamburger, Tall Willy, Saxon, Brown George, Clever Walter, Atze (an "eighty-penny boy" who is a police informer), Corpse Eddy, Sailor Otto, Karl the Great. Each character has his own personality. It is one of the better chapters in the book, though here, as elsewhere, Mackay's style is not to describe so much as it to sketch, and let the reader fill in details from his own imagination.

In fact, if Mackay as a novelist has any weakness, it is in his powers of description. Boy hands are "little"; teeth are "splendid"; boys are "strikingly handsome"; and the words "beauty" and "beautiful," which convey nothing directly, seem overused. In one place hair is "light brown"; later the same hair is "dark blond." Mackay's use of adjectives is, generally, quit unoriginal. But you could look on this as a bare0minimum approach, in which the reader can participate by filling in the blanks. By and large, it works. One description of Gunther's hand - which plays an exaggerated role, perhaps because straightforward descriptions of more interesting and intimate body parts could not be included, no doubt for legal reasons - struck me as off-beat: Mackay notes its "unclean but well-grown nails." It is a typical, almost algebraic description in that the reader can make of it what he/she wishes.

But if Mackay descriptive talents may not be anything to rave about, you'll find yourself carried along nonetheless. His insights into the psychology of man and boy in such relationships is extraordinary, and this hasn't changed a bit in the sixty years since the novel was published. His style seems occasionally excessively romantic, but on the other hand, the boys he creates are not romanticized or idealized at all. In fact, they are refreshingly cynical about their johns. Mackay has gotten inside the heads of boys. His portrayal come across as authentic. Hermann (who is in part Mackay's alter-ego) seems, in contrast, to be idealistic and naive in the extreme. But haven't we all known real-life boy-lovers who could have inspired such a portrait? Probably we all could have at one moment or another.

Gunther, the boy-hero, is - as Hermann himself recognizes - boring. The energy and emotional input in this "relationship" are all one-way, really. But, then, that is not so extraordinary, however far from the ideal. Gunther has no spontaneity and could hardly be considered your "ideal boyfriend." He's actually kind of a clod, insensitive to and uncaring about his solicitous friend. I can't imagine spending more than five minutes with him myself. But chacun a son goût, and he really is someone special to Hermann. Yet Hermann seems more intent on living out his fantasy of the Ideal Friendship than he is of actually getting to know Gunther. Their first break-up occurs, in fact, as a result of a misunderstanding produced by a misreading by Hermann of Gunther's desire for sex - this kid is the silent type, and his signals are rather weak. By the time Gunther is sent to jail for hustling, Hermann still doesn't know his last name, or virtually anything else about him. There's a lot of action at cross-purposes in this novel - just as there is in a lot of man/boy relationships. There's no didacticism here, but I felt that both Gunther and Hermann made a lot of mistakes in this tale. Mackay is strongest when he relates the interior monologues to which Hermann subjects himself during his periodic separations from Gunther - all brought about by Gunther's standing him up, going off with someone else or being arrested. The two major separations occur when Gunther is picked up and kept by the rich Count, who desires only to look at his nude body in sleep and when he is arrested and sent to jail - an event that turns previous forebodings into inevitable disaster. During these separations, Hermann is unfailingly noble and altruistic, even if he does sometimes sink into a morass of self-doubt about his relationship to this boy. His efforts to help Gunther prompt him to write a fateful letter to him in jail, which is intercepted by the authorities. Hermann is quickly arrested and sentenced - with the shameful acquiescence of his young friend, who has been dehumanized and brutalized by his captors - to two months in jail for violating "paragraph so-and-so" of the penal code. The amazing thing for contemporary Americans is that the sentence was so light - not because Hermann had done anything wrong, but because the state system of repression is so barbaric in the United States that two months seems like almost nothing.

Hermann fluctuates throughout between exaltation and a sense of bliss to rage at his mistreatment at the hands of the unthinking street boy. The fact that he recognizes that Gunther is boring, that the boy really offers nothing of himself, makes one wonder why Hermann expended so much energy, time and money on him. But love is blind, and at any rate, no serious harm was done. The real harm, as Mackay has an old-woman friend of Hermann say near the end of the novel, comes from those authority figures who impose state-sanctioned morality on individuals who share their love freely: "And what are all the crimes in the world compared with the ones carried out by those in gowns and vestments, robes and uniforms!"

Don't read this book if you hope to find hot sex scenes. There aren't any. You'll find no descriptions of dicks or unclothed bodies. Read this novel because it is a good story, because it is well-written, and because it is part of boy-love literature that long has been suppressed and forgotten.

Hubert Kennedy's translation is quite literal. In general, this works well - it captures the period-piece quality, and it shows respect for a work he obviously loves by an author he greatly admires. The translation strikes the proper tone and is faithful to the original. In a few places, it may be a bit too literal ("he had no hunger" for "he was not hungry"), but this was clearly a labor of love. It is one for which both Kennedy and Alyson Publications are to be commended.

Alyson's cover, which it does not identify, is taken from the cover of a 1924 issue of Der Eigene, a boy-love magazine for "art and male culture."

source: Book review 'The Hustler - John Henry Mackay' by David Thorstad; The Hustler is translated by Hubert Kennedy; NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 6, n. 3; April 1985