Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Outcast of the Island

By Leonard Gill

Watching , By John Fergus Ryan Rosset-Morgan Books, 192 pp., $22 ($12.95, paper)

SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:  I'm going to ask several things of you before commenting on John Fergus Ryan's new novel, Watching: (1) that you disregard the author's recent claims that a member of the Friends of the Library suggested he bow out of its upcoming Book and Author Dinner; (2) that you disregard the counterclaims of representatives that such a suggestion was ever authorized; (3) that you disregard the current claims by United Publishers Group, parent company of Rosset-Morgan (Ryan's publisher), that this was a case of censorship narrowly averted; (4) that you consider this entire, two-bit affair as having next to no importance in the long run; and (5) that you reconsider the reputation of John Fergus Ryan, a reputation that is about to take a decided turn and, more importantly, a turn for the better.

On that final point, reference to Ryan's popular mixtures of high-spirited stupidity and basic good-heartedness -- The Redneck Bride and The Little Brothers of St. Mortimer -- isn't going to be of much help here; the early short stories in The Evergreen Review and Penthouse magazine just possibly could.

Watching is the first-person narrative of one Billy O'Leary, Manhattanite, retired stamper of pickle-jar lids, and self-described "voyeur" and "bi-sexual foot fetishist." His nightly round -- and he unapologetically welcomes you to it whether your stomach is up for it or not -- is a pre-Disneyfied Times Square of porn arcades, hookers and hustlers, homeless crazies, and the occasional well-scrubbed college kid or high-style nymphomaniac. Home is an apartment building a few blocks away in Hell's Kitchen, where for neighbors he can count on a bondage master named Bud, an actor, an aging male couple, a daft, middle-aged woman from Alabama, and Donny Mudway, "the first transvestite [O'Leary] had ever encountered who was fascinated ... by wearing the unglamorous sleeping garments favored by very old women."

O'Leary, having reached an understanding that "unhappiness is not so bad," is not without friends, but he is impotent, unmarried, almost without family, afraid for his health, and afraid for his pension. His entertainment, his obsession is witnessing cruel and unusual punishment, S&M-style. Lucky for O'Leary, he's on the right island, though the frequency with which his kind "celebrate" life and their numbers do seem a little high, even for New York City in the go-go '80s:

"At any given moment there are at least two thousand people here who are bound or otherwise immobilized and strangers are putting alligator clamps on their bare nipples ... one hundred thousand women walking the streets, offering their bodies for sale ... four thousand men bound with ropes and having their ass holes sealed with dripping hot candle wax [4,000?] ... fifteen men lying in urinal troughs in the mens' room of gay bars, begging for golden showers ... [and] about one hundred naked men and women being whipped in basement dungeons."

With so many bindings, clampings, showerings, and whippings going on "at any given moment," it does seem a shame that the company O'Leary keeps is largely restricted to the hard-core screen images purveyed in the dark sanctuaries of two arcades, the spotlessly clean Bon Joy, and the Sultan, where customers often exit complaining of "Sticky Foot." These disturbing film images, which Ryan renders clinically, unblinkingly in the most graphic, dispassionate terms, serve as dependable acquaintances, friends to address, confide in, feel for, "to keep from dying." Offscreen, O'Leary's fellow patrons run the gamut from comradely, to deranged, to zombified.

Outside the arcades, life assumes, if anything, more brutal forms. Bud the bondage master is gunned down in a mob hit. An intruder shoots one neighbor and blinds his lover. O'Leary himself is stalked by an insane Pakistani, almost turns schizophrenic, and loses his pension to a thieving union leader. "The punishment," as in the porno films, "will go on and on and on and in the end," O'Leary muses, "no one will have to answer for it."

And no one does in the S&M trade, in this novel, or too often in real life, but providence can look kindly even on a bisexual foot fetishist on the downswing: O'Leary's natural reserve and the boxing skills he learned as a teenager eventually win him a heaven of a job at the Jock Haven. And there's comfort too in his completed manuscript, which you are reading under the title Watching. A small compensation, perhaps, but one that will let "those who come after ... know that there was a Billy O'Leary who lived in Manhattan and for the most part had a good time."

"A good time" is an unexpected phrase to come across in the context of a life lived as casual witness to and very much in communion with various suffering -- as unexpected as the creative leap Watching represents for one John Fergus Ryan, a local, in late career, who, in dropping the forced regionalism, discovered a home for his writing in the neighborhood of 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue.

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