Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle As Queer as It Gets

By Claiborne Smith

JUNE 15, 1998:  Christian McLaughlin is always up to something. When an idea comes to him, there's a thunderbolt - not a lightbulb - going off in his head. Anyone who meets him could figure that out because words spill out of his mouth at a dizzying pace. Listening to him is a stop-and-go pursuit: He'll knock off paragraphs at a time, pause in mid-sentence to let his brain catch up, and then wind up again. Robert Rodi, his colleague in gay fiction and future collaborator, says that McLaughlin "can fill you in on his life in one three-minute blurt. He talks quickly." For someone trying to write about him, his breakneck speech isn't his most eccentric quality, though. It would have been nice to say something to the effect that it all began innocently enough for Christian McLaughlin or that he hasn't always been this way, but Christian McLaughlin, it seems, has always been up to something. While attending Roosevelt High School in San Antonio, he met future director Robert Rodriguez. They made two videos together, Reform School Sluts and Lesbian Avon Lady From Hell. For those projects in particular, McLaughlin can only be held accountable for the casting and writing, but that's enough. In the two novels he's published, he more mildly continues the aesthetic subtly hinted at in those video titles. Nonetheless, Sex Toys of the Gods and 1994's Glamourpuss have been called trashy, shallow, and breezy, and they are, with a vengeance. If fiction were doled out by prescription, physicians would require a hospital stay for patients reading Christian McLaughlin.

Since nothing about pop culture escapes McLaughlin's purview, his novels are more than trashy; they're about trash. And writing about trash is far different than merely writing trash. Setting out to write a novel that is meaningful but trashy is just plain sad; writing a novel that is knowingly trashy may be unquestionably escapist, but it opens up an entire world that in the case of McLaughlin is ripe for satire. After all, the study of the "bad" - the "B" - is serious academic business. At least two established gay authors are able to invoke literary or academic notions when commenting on Sex Toys of the Gods: Charles Busch, author of Whores of Lost Atlantis, believes that "with this second novel, Christian McLaughlin is becoming the Balzac of Melrose Place." Robert Rodi is the author of Kept Boy and Closet Case, among others, and the author of the novelization of The Birdcage; he refers to himself and McLauglin as "the two reigning queens of gay satire," so it's appropriate that he and McLaughlin will soon be collaborating on a novel set in a convent in 1978 where Sister Benedicta causes hardships for a "hunky priest" and an overly eager 14-year-old student. Rodi thinks that Sex Toys is "just the kind of entertainment-industry novel we've long needed: filled with enough delicious sex, dizzying intrigue, brain-rattling coincidences, and high hilarity to put a stake through postmodernism's undead heart, forever." Still, there's something embarrassing about the attempt to culturally validate the works of Christian McLaughlin. Fortunately, they defy that stultifying task.

Glamourpuss, set in Los Angeles and Austin (where McLaughlin attended UT), concerns the life of Alex Young, UT graduate and eager, unemployed, and gay actor who progresses from a recurring character to a "three year contract villain" on Hearts Crossing, a daytime soap. When Alex is outed by a national tabloid, all hell breaks loose and passages like this are the result: "Later on, people would ask me how it felt to perform what were to become known as some of the most outrageous scenes in soap history, and I'd have to say that I had a pretty great time - fighting with Natalie, doing Ollie, kidnapping my ex-lover Frederic... spewing passably campy dialogue. ('You're as transparent as prison bedsheets, Natalie. And just as besmirched.') And the costume designer, Mitch (Mittens to his friends), who was eager to prove right the cliché that homosexuals dressed better, came up with some real smart ensembles for me to terrorize the town in." It won't reveal too much to say that the opening sequences of both of McLaughlin's novels are busy playing narrative tricks on the reader. The first sentence of Glamourpuss reads: "I had put a lethal dose of poison into Cyrinda's milk shake two weeks before, but the bitch had lived through it." The reader, of course, does not know that the action is taking place on the set of a soap opera. "I think of a good first sentence and go from there," McLaughlin explains succintly.

In the late Eighties, when Rodriguez and McLaughlin both attended UT, they lived together one year, as McLaughlin says, "in this cruddy townhouse" south of Riverside Drive where Rodriguez came up with Film School Sluts. That was McLaughlin's freshman year of college. Fast-forward to his senior year as a Radio-Television-Film major, and he's calling up a New York playwright out of the blue to ask him if he can produce his play in Austin. "I had wanted to direct a play my senior year. I saw The Boys of Cell Block Q by John Wall advertised in the Village Voice and it seemed like a trashy spoof of prison movies, which I love. I found out how to call John Wall and asked him if I could put it on in Austin. I had already cast half of it with my friends.

Regardless of his state of undress, Christian McLaughlin is making waves in gay fiction.

"The UT Theatre Department had a program called 'At Random,' where anybody could produce a play," McLaughlin recalls. After changing some of the play's dialogue because "it was funny but it had some very maudlin moments in it," McLaughlin and cast were set to perform the play one weekend on the UT campus in February 1991. All that remained was the pesky problem of getting the word out. According to McLaughlin, the Theatre Department thought his flyers advertising the production were particularly risqué and asked him to make the flyers less visually suggestive. He acquiesed, at least for the flyers he and the cast hung up on campus. Five hundred other, less subtle flyers, however, went up all over the city and that night, someone from Capitol City Playhouse attended, along with a full house. By March, the play was being performed at Capitol City, where it played for one week and then for several months afterwards in a late-night Thursday to Sunday run.

So far, McLaughlin's fiction has been largely autobiographical. Alex, the protagonist of Glamourpuss, applies to UT's law school and gets in. So did McLaughlin, and he was very close to attending had it not been for a fortuitous set of circumstances that led to his move to L.A. McLaughlin attended UT with Valerie Ahern, who is now his writing partner in L.A. They made a deal their senior year that if she could move out to L.A. and procure the both of them an agent for their writing within six months, McLaughlin would move out to L.A. and skip out on his plans to attend law school. Months before McLaughlin was to enter law school Ahern did find an agent, albeit an agent who didn't do much for the pair.

Like Jason Dallin, the protagonist of Sex Toys, McLaughlin and Ahern endured several long, unfulfilling years before they finally got a writing gig with the WB's The Parent' Hood, which led to stints on Married... With Children and UPN's Clueless. "Unless you have a friend who's on a good show, you're just another name on a list," McLaughlin says. Late May and June is the hiring season for TV writers, so the pair is currently sifting through L.A.'s heady, glutted writing pool. Ahern is the more practical of the two; at last year's Austin Heart of Film Festival, the pair discussed television writing at several panels where Ahern commented cogently and precisely. McLaughlin was more apt to cut straight to the low-down, to tell it like it is. In other words, they're a perfect pair.

McLaughlin's experiences with the publicity aspect of the publishing industry seem fairly representative of gay authors. He has had to hire his own publicist, and when Sex Toys was released last fall, he put on launch parties in New York and L.A., footing the bills himself. Rodi says that "gay people read in a greater proportion than any other demographic," which means that publishers often assume that a gay author has a built-in readership. Certainly the covers of many gay male-targeted books turn heads; McLaughin's books, for example, both feature nearly naked men on the cover with cropped-out faces. (One of McLaughlin's readers in London wrote to web-store Amazon Books that he liked Glamourpuss but it "has a truly appalling jacket - a bronzed, headless beefcake drapes his privates in crimson satin. It's the sort of jacket you have to twist over and hide when you're reading on public transport.") But for Rodi and McLaughlin, both of whom plan on being crossover authors, the assumption that a gay author has an earmarked readership can be detrimental.

If fate has the crossover leap in store for McLaughlin, he'll make it. He is ambitious, with formidable stores of energy to achieve what he wants. But that doesn't at all mean that he won't continue being subversive. "Totally healthy, well-adjusted people are not great characters, especially for comedy. I just write books about characters and some of them happen to be gay and some of them aren't. I'm not willing to please anyone or follow anyone's agenda."

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