No, Cruising by Alex Espinoza isn’t a 2019 companion to David Foster Wallace’s titular essay in A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again, it is instead a personal and sociocultural history of that other type of cruising: the type of cruising that is also known, in the UK, as cottaging.
Yes, as it subtitle makes clear, Cruising: an intimate history of a radical pastime is a book-length non-fiction study about the history of gay men hooking up for anonymous sex in public places and it is – unsurprisingly – a great read.
Espinoza is an American academic and writer and this non-fiction book is written with that clear, crisp, direct approach that the best mainstream American [personal] essays adopt. There is warmth and humour in Espinoza’s writing, there are personal anecdotes and interesting asides, but there is also too the clear evidence of bucketloads of research and a real engagement with the elements of cultural history that he explores.
Before I gush praise, I do have to mention Espinoza’s weirdly utopian idealisation of cruising: by equating anonymity with egalitarianism, Espinoza claims that a gay male hook-up is universally equal (i.e. always uncomplicated by external hierarchies) in comparison to all heterosexual encounters being inherently unequal. It’s obviously not inaccurate to state that there are deeply-rooted societal problems within heterosexual relationships, so if it wasn’t for the high frequency of this rose-tinted – and very very very Gen X – idealism, I wouldn’t have felt the need to comment lol.
This is a minor criticism, and there’s nothing other than this to cause a turn-off in Cruising. Espinoza’s book is fun, popular history, containing exploration of homosexuality in the ancient world, in the medieval world, in the joyful, unbridled, 1970s, in the dark days of the AIDS crisis and then – in a chapter I obviously enjoyed – a glorious championing of post-crisis sexuality through a focus on George Michael‘s refusal to feel/pretend to feel shame for the circumstances of his infamous arrest.
Cruising explores how current and historic laws have affected life lived by gay men, and how the American Christian right made assaults on Hollywood following the Wall Street Crash, and it was these interventions that set the tone for several decades of North American homophobia. Espinoza writes briefly about lots of famous gay men, often using the records they left of their own lives: of course, this means there’s a lot about Oscar Wilde.
There’s writing about apps and contemporary cruising, about early directories of gay-friendly businesses as well as gay sex-friendly businesses, there’s lots about the rise and the need for community in periods of intolerance and the risks and dangers of backtracking conservative attitudes.
There are particularly great, and personal, sections about the intersections of race and sexuality and disability, but Espinoza is consistently engaging and witty. He writes in both broad strokes and in pleasing detail: this isn’t a popular history book patched together from a night on Wikipedia with a few glasses of Pinot, this is properly researched, multi-layered stuff.
It’s not a huge book, but it’s great. Informative and engaging.
Do I know a lot more now about homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome? Yes.
Did I have the rear pocket handkerchief code explained to me? Yes.
Did I learn about the growth of the networks that would lead to the creation of national and international communities that would help fight for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in “Western” countries, then with driving towards an understanding of the AIDS crisis and the ongoing campaigns to legalise gay marriage and to fight for trans rights and the rights of other minorities in all parts of the world? Yes.
Buuuuut…. did I learn about the experiences of lesbians during the same periods? About trans and other queer people? Not so much, no, but Cruising doesn’t purport to be an entire mini-history of queerness, it’s a mini history about casual gay sex conducted in public places.
It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s often sad and often tragic, but unless you’re outrageously prudish and/or woefully naïve, there’s nothing here to shock: this is a genuinely informative short history of a leisure activity that has been popular internationally for as long as there have been humans.
It’s not complicated, but it’s about pleasure and pain, about death and sex and – as everything should be – about George Michael.
A great non-fiction book.