There is no joy in Zak Salih’s novel Let’s Get Back to the Party. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to declare any of the days in which we encounter former childhood friends Oscar and Sebastian to be good days for them. What can one expect, Salih’s novel seems to be saying, when you’re a gay man?
And as gay men, we’re still living in a culture that teaches us to expect (and give awards to) stories of our suffering. For every TV show like Schitt’s Creek or novel like Less, in which we’re depicted as complex human beings, there seem to be 25 more projects that reduce us to martyrs or witty sidekicks.
Which means there’s a stale and familiar air wafting off the miserable men at the center of Let’s Get Back to the Party. The novel opens a few weeks after gay marriage is passed, and Oscar is appalled at seeing his gay friends go mainstream, settling down when he’s still clinging to a hormone-addled vision of homosexuality as a perpetual hardon. And Sebastian just wants to settle down with a man—seemingly any man who can tolerate the commute from his suburban home to Washington, D.C.—but he’s too jealous of the ease with which teens get to explore their sexuality to bother trying to find anyone.
These men are in their mid 30s, and yet Salih’s treatment of them is far more dated. There’s no hint that either of them came of age at a time when societal norms were shifting; Oscar’s father threw him out of the house, leaving a wound that still festers, but both men came of age in an era of Ellen and Will and Grace. Not that either of those pop culture phenomena eradicated a long history of internalized and externalized homophobia, but still, not referencing such undeniable advances in the culture makes the story ring false.
Just as false is Salih’s choice to end the book with the Pulse nightclub shooting, offering a chilling reminder of just how frightening being gay can be. After 200 pages of Oscar bemoaning the commodification of gay life and Sebastian mourning his closeted youth, both men are confronted—hungover and physically wounded—by the aftermath of that night on the morning news.
See? Salih asks as he wraps up their stories. Oscar and Sebastian have known the truth all along. Anyone who is having fun at the party is missing the point.
Except that being a gay man in America has often meant that having fun is the point, because the alternative was too bleak to contemplate. Even The Boys in the Band let its characters have a good time for a while! Now, though, the bleakness is all anyone wants us to examine.