By P. J. Vernon
Our husband’s brother. Our wife’s best friend. Our waiter, our doctor, our gardener. Maybe those zucchinis from the garden, too. Off limits. We know the rules. We don’t even think about it. OK, we think about it a little.
Maybe we’re thinking about transgressive sex right now.
I often thought about our sex rules as I read P. J. Vernon’s second novel, “Bath Haus,” a smart, steamy thriller laced with heady questions about control and shame. As the pages flew by, my mind drifted from the tribulations of its protagonist, Oliver Park, to the cultures in which such stories ferment. It’s right there in the title: “Haus.” Why does Germany have a reputation for both uprightness and sex dungeons? What about genteel Japan, the fetish mecca — or the puritanical yet gratuitous United States? How have we drawn such strong connections between hot, strict and wrong?
“Bath Haus” opens with Oliver, red-faced and palms clammy, sitting in the parking lot of a gay sauna in Washington, D.C. His watchful partner, Nathan, is out of town, and Oliver is working up the nerve to cheat. He’s tired of living by Nathan’s rules. He wants to be bad.
Minutes after Oliver crosses the threshold, he encounters much more bad than he bargained for. Kristian, a chiseled stranger with a Scandinavian accent, invites Oliver to a private room. The two are really starting to enjoy each other’s company when Kristian wraps his hands around Oliver’s neck and refuses to let go. Oliver escapes Kristian’s assault, but the bruises on his neck mark him like a scarlet letter.
Does Oliver dare confess to Nathan? No — he weaves a web of lies to protect himself from a partner whom he both loves and fears. Then Kristian reappears, threatening to expose Oliver, and going so far as to implicate Nathan’s contractor and his cocker spaniel. Kristian always seems one step ahead of Oliver, who grows increasingly desperate to save his relationship and his life.
Vernon tells most of the story in Oliver’s voice, and herein lies the novel’s strength: a fretful narrator who wavers between defying the rules that oppress his desires and hating himself for wanting what he thinks he can’t have. He developed his habits of deceiving and self-loathing during his closeted youth in the Rust Belt, where he and his first love sat a seat apart at the movies. Then Nathan whisked him away to a townhouse in Georgetown, only to infantilize him like an untrustworthy boy toy. We begin to understand why Oliver is so ashamed of what he wants and who he is.
Not all the characters receive such a nuanced portrayal. Kristian, the undocumented Norwegian sex worker, is a convenient villain on par with Roxy, the lesbian psychopath from “Basic Instinct.” As his machinations drew toward their inevitable conclusion, my mind wandered back to the questions I started with. Did Oliver break the rules because he wanted sauna sex? Or did he go to the sauna because he wanted to break the rules?
“The discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society,” James Baldwin told The Village Voice in 1984. He went on to describe his vision of a more tolerant future — a “New Jerusalem” — in which nobody had to conceal or defend their preferences. If sex were subject to less regulation, scrutiny and judgment, perhaps we’d all find transgression a little less titillating. Would Oliver still be cruising for clandestine encounters? That’s not for me to say. But I hope that the “New Jerusalem” has plenty of saunas.