Since I Laid My Burden Down by Brontez Purnell

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In an interview with a European journalist at the height of Nirvana’s fame, Kurt Cobain, in response to a question about his generation’s mythic indifference, offered instead an assured defense of punk rock and the vagaries of taste. “Punk rock should mean freedom, liking and accepting anything that you like, and playing anything you want, as sloppy as you want. As long as it’s good and it has passion.” This has always been my approach to reading. So I didn’t hesitate to put down Moby Dick (you could say I preferred not to finish it) and pick up the latest offering from Brontez Purnell, the Bay Area’s hardest working underground artist.

It didn’t take long to recognize Brontez Purnell as the hero of Since I Laid My Burden Down, a thinly disguised memoir posing as a novel. I’d seen Purnell read from Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger at a bar in Oakland and left convinced I’d witnessed something vital and messy and above all honest. As a performer Purnell exudes an air of volatility that makes him memorable in a Bay Area tamed by gentrification and professionalism. At some point during the reading he did a split and threw his head back at an awkward angle, his face fixed in an eerily vapid expression. It was the kind of look I’d seen before on the face of a homeless guy beating off in the middle of the sidewalk in the Tenderloin. That’s when it clicked: this wasn’t some random public masturbator; this was the Brontez Purnell championed by Kathleen Hanna in the April 2016 issue of Bookforum. In the picture that ran with the article he’s striking a similar pose. That kind of consistency is social media gold, but Purnell didn’t give the impression of careful contrivance. He was all testosterone and wounded ego. It didn’t hurt that he was funny in a self-effacing way and projected his voice powerfully enough to be heard above the din of the bar without aid of a microphone.

To my disappointment, few of the qualities that make Purnell a compelling performer come across in Burden. Purnell’s avatar DeShawn admits as much at the novel’s outset: “He couldn’t carry a tune to save his life, but he could project.” This is literally true of DeShawn: growing up in an Alabama backwater he was the leader of his church’s choir—not because he could sing, but because the church didn’t have a P.A. system and his voice was loud enough to reach the back pews. It’s also a metaphor for the DIY artist’s fierce determination to be heard, which the narrator is quick to point out despite it being obvious. The book is strewn with obvious metaphors that are needlessly explained.

Purnell does not write beautiful sentences. What could have been gained by swearing off eloquence—immediacy, emotional impact, edge—is blunted by pages brimming with dull clichés. So much for the punk rock defense. The book is scattered with empty placeholders—DeShawn feels “a certain kind of way,” something happens in “this certain kind of way”—never to be filled in with more precise language. The crust of dead language adheres to the pages of this book as the dried cum of last night’s hook-up sticks to DeShawn’s skin.

Like Purnell’s previous books, the organizing principle here is the hook-up, and the flashback to formative hook-ups, known in common parlance as the “spank bank.” The sex stories are funny because they’re sad. DeShawn tries and fails to fulfill his fantasy of getting gangbanged by an anonymous horde of men at a sex club in San Francisco. He has better luck mining his hometown in Alabama for sex: there’s the closeted underage church boy whose virginity he takes, and his formerly homophobic childhood bully—and really, who could resist such a satisfying reversal? Purnell has worked this kind of material—episodic, fleeting—to better effect in previous collections. As the narrative thrust of a novel it grows tiresome and limp.

The most compelling scenes take place not in the bathhouse but in the black Baptist church, where DeShawn’s mother has usurped the old minister and is now leading the flock. This is a point of pride for DeShawn, who rebelled against his religious mother as a youth by hanging with Satan-worshipping white girls. Now he basks in the respectability of being the minister’s son. In one of the book’s only surprises, he imagines taking his place in the social order of the church. After all, he did show promise as a youth minister by virtue of his high degree of “emotional receptivity.” Or maybe it’s his penchant for drama, which he tells us he gets from his mother and grandfather.

Of course an appetite for drama isn’t something you inherit, nor is being a “complete asshole at times,” but these are both traits DeShawn describes as heritable. He explains the family’s tendency to resolve conflicts with violence as “this hysterical disease in his family’s bloodline.” (It clearly has something to do with hard liquor.) Still, being back in the bosom of the family, surrounded by people who look like him and cope with life in the same (destructive) ways he does has the effect of naturalizing what to an outside observer would appear to be learned responses. Whenever I spend longer than two hours in my hometown I start to feel unmoored and rudderless, like I don’t have any control over my life or the way I am. This feeling is an artifact of a time in my adolescence when I couldn’t see things otherwise. For DeShawn this feeling manifests as hatred stemming from the childhood trauma of having to witness his mother being beaten and terrorized by his stepfather, Big Daddy. Big Daddy may have scarred DeShawn for life but he loves him anyway and mourns his death with uncharacteristic equanimity. The same goes for DeShawn’s biological father, who dies in shabby isolation in Harlem near the end of the book.

Burden is about a person discovering things about himself as he goes along, things that ought to be obvious to a discerning reader, and for this reason it feels like talk therapy where the talk is for the benefit of the patient, not the audience. Depending on your sense of humor and appetite for pathos, you may find this talk entertaining. Remember, Purnell is a first-rate performer. Precious Hyman (a drag name DeShawn considers adopting) would have made an excellent star in one of Warhol’s Factory films. But as a novelist Purnell doesn’t have enough narrative skill or distance from his material to know what to leave out. A catalogue of anecdotes and masturbatory rumination, however lurid, does not make a novel. The scene where DeShawn looks for a pen to ‘journal’ threatens to spiral into a selfie feedback loop. Isn’t the book itself a disorganized journal? All of the characters play the same role: revealing or explaining some aspect of the protagonist’s pitiable circumstances.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, W. Kamau Bell, a comic from Alabama who lives in Berkeley, joked about his white friends’ apprehensions about his plans to vacation in Alabama. “I have discovered that when you are black, saying ‘I’m headed to the South’ to someone, especially a white person who is not from the South, is like saying, ‘I’m headed to my own lynching and I decided to bring the rope just to make it easier on the Klansmen.’” Bell, whose shtick involves going places where “black people aren’t supposed to be” (like Klan gatherings), relishes this awkwardness, playing it up for comedic effect, ratings, and perhaps even national healing. Purnell’s relationship to the South is less canny and congenial than Bell’s would seem to be. According to DeShawn, he left home “mostly to score dick and try drugs.”

Growing up nerdy and gay in 1980s Alabama, the Bay Area, symbolic site of gay liberation, beckoned and Purnell/DeShawn heeded its call, moving to Oakland on a whim with a few dollars in his pocket. Near the end of the book DeShawn has come to a place where he can see Alabama as something more than just a receding image in the rear-view mirror. Watching his cousins playing church he reflects on the continuity of black life in the South. “Nothing changes,” he thinks. Within the context of the passage it’s not clear if this is to be taken as a good thing or a bad thing. It’s complicated. He considers his lineage: great-grandson of a bluesman and a servant girl, grandson and son to subsequent generations of strong women and the charming scoundrels they loved, and it is here that he has a realization:

He looked past the yard with his younger cousins playing church. He looked past the sunflowers and marigolds, the cotton field, the memories of dead kittens, and memory itself. This was Alabama. It shook him a bit. It was the first time in his life that he ever recalled this place feeling like home.

This realization will come as a surprise to some. Like Bell’s misguided white friends, we wish for the liberated gay black man to stick to the safety of big coastal cities. But Alabama is home too, and Purnell has given us an authentic slice of life in a small Southern town, with the church (and its attendant undercurrent of queer desire) at the center. The sense of belonging DeShawn gets from his ancestral home—the place where he’s buried countless ex-lovers and family members—is different from the one his chosen community provides. And by the way, W. Kamau Bell would like you to know that Alabama has beaches.

Speaking of beaches, in case you’re wondering, Burden is nothing like Moonlight. Both are shot through with everyday violence, but Purnell’s book is crass and shallow where Moonlight is lyrical and transcendent. The comparison is mostly demographic. Hanna’s association of Purnell with David Wojnarowicz, too, is a generous one. Purnell’s avatars are like characters out of The Waterfront Journals. They’re 4 a.m. bus terminal monologists pouring out their life stories for anyone awake enough to listen. But Wojnarowicz’ characters are creations of the writer. Brontez Purnell, on the other hand, is a character in search of an author. That is an important distinction.

As for Brontez Purnell the youth choir leader and talented performer who’s lately taken up the pen, I have no doubt he’ll continue writing anything he wants, as sloppily as he wants. Or as DeShawn puts it as he’s being hauled off by the police for beating his coworker’s ass: “It had all been worth it.”

Dan Shurley is the author of Collective Regeneration and Universal Love, a chapbook of short stories published by Nomadic Press. His criticism has appeared in The Collagist, Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere around the web. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Florida in Gainseville.

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