The following is a book review written Tuesday, 17 Nov 1998
Hitting the Mark in An Arrow's Flight
a book review by John Burridge
If you were an urban gay man in the '70's, chances are you will like An Arrow's Flight, a novel by Mark Merlis set somewhere between Tales of the City and The Illiad. If you were not an urban gay man in the '70's, you might find the book, funny, tiresome, depressing and compelling. Merlis seems to be aware of this when he writes:
"The city, before the war -- to listen to the scattered survivors of those days, you might suppose they think about nothing else. Kids who come along now are sick of hearing about it. Why should I add to the overburdened shelves of hymns to that time and that place? Yet I must: it will truly be gone the day we leave off singing about it."
The main character, Pyrrhus, is the son of Achilles. Achilles has died in the Trojan War. Before the Greeks can conquer the city of Troy, Pyrrhus must be present on the battlefield, along with the bow of Philoctetes. Pyrrhus knows nothing of this destiny or his father's death, and leaves his boring island home for The Big City. There, the young prince stumbles into a career as a go-go dancer and prostitute. After various childhood flashbacks and scenes of burlesque exposition, Pyrrhus is shipped off by Odysseus -- played as a conniving, heterosexual lawyer -- to the island of Lemnos to pick up the bow of Philoctetes and then off to Troy.
Although Merlis has cleverly juxtaposed contemporary times and a bevy of Greek heros, he has taken his cue from the likes of Flaubert and Hardy and provided us with a main character who is a two-dimensional idiot you want to slap for being so bored and directionless. It is possible that Merlis is trying to deflate the mystique surrounding the ideal male physique by having a walking centerfold as the main character; but I suspect his main reason was that it made it easier to start the book with a grope show on top of a bar in a strip-joint. Merlis's secondary characters have much more depth and motivation.
What is tiresome about the book is that it occasionally lapses into whining about the now-gone Golden Age of Gay Eros, when men were Fabulous Men, and queens were Bitchy Queens, and the universe as a whole was AIDS-free. This is forgivable.
Unfortunately, Merlis seems to have spent some time reading Robert Bly, and so we read about Pyrrhus trying on the fabulous armor of Achilles and secretly wishing he was a butch warrior instead of a sissy-faggot. I spent page after page wondering when Merlis was going to unite the opposite poles of male expression in a culture of shame and introduce us to Patroklos, Achilles' "comrade in arms." But the butch/femme dichotomy remained to the book's end; we never read about the relationship between Achilles and Patroklos, and Merlis never explores male expression which can be both loving and martial.
What is fun about the book is that Merlis occasionally breaks the narrative and speaks directly to the reader in the same manner as a director of a play stopping the action on the stage to address the audience with wry remarks about the staging, or how much the costuming costs. I have a weakness for this kind of "I'm telling you that I'm telling you a story" meta-fable, and I recognize that not everyone likes the narrator breaking in every so often with an aside.
What was compelling about the book was that Merlis knows how to write well, and he knows how to write about people in love. He knows how to write about people with AIDS. He knows how to write about exiles from the country of the self. He knows how to use metaphor, although near the end of the book his metaphors acquire an overbearing sheen of Dickins-esque symbolism.
Despite periodic lapses into nostalgia over the sexual freedom of the '70's, Merlis does a good job of mixing elements of destiny, love, shame, coming of age, sex, and gay identity into his retelling of Sophocles' Philoctetes. In an era where authors are frequently re-writing "historical novels" in the image of the political movement de juer, Mark Marlis's An Arrow's Flight offers a cockeyed reflection of contemporary gay consciousness in the late 1990's.