Arcade is dark, sexually graphic novel about a young man's
journey through an underworld that few people know about. Powerful and visceral in its chronicle of a gay man's sexual adventures in the back room of a XXX porn store somewhere in Texas, Arcade grabbed me in a way that few novels do. I loved Smith’s clean, straightforward, explicit prose--especially in a time when too many novelists are succumbing to fussy literary affectation. Smith isn’t afraid to embrace candor and humor, which gives even more substance to his often sleazy and vivid sexual subject matter.
Sam’s first introduction to the Arcade is from
mentions on the personals online. Labeled the “Wild West of Promiscuity,” the Arcade
(“this XXX place just west of town”), with its two dark hallways and its series of booths at the back with a video screen on the wall (where you put coins in the slot), is a place where you can do things that are not permitted inside city limits. For the men who go there, and for Sam, in particular, the building provides a catalogue of potential partners, “all moving in circles and lines, from booth to booth and from hallway to store to hallway.”
The Arcade is a revelation, a place that fulfills Sam’s childhood fantasies, a landscape of secrets and sexual indulgence “somewhere other than the place he has grown up.” There’s no suggestion of intimacy, only a gesture of “butch camaraderie” as Sam attempts to conquer
the paranoia and distrust that manifested when he first discovered porn in high school. Sam’s first attempted monogamous sexual activities are found to pale when compared with what the Arcade has to offer.
Hiss sudden realization “that I might be the kind of person you weren’t supposed to be” will form the core of his life so far.
At first Sam is content to be a voyeur, peering under the booths while watching the other men pleasure each other.
From the clanging of the coin slots to the shimmering puddles, the bodily fluids on the floors,
and his fears of becoming infected with HIV, Sam vicarious experience is completely free from any fears of face-to-face intimacy.
He is ultimately seduced by the Arcade’s musky, sweaty aroma, “smell of male crotch and nothing else,” a smell that is everywhere but mixed with a certain “bleachiness,” just vaguely diluted.
Building complexity as we read, Smith embeds us in Sam’s perspective without sacrificing his hero’s emotional honesty.
Sex for many of these men is the driving force. As Sam talks about the “mostly straight guys” who frequent the place, he readily admits they are probably unable to have their appetites met at home by their wives and girlfriends. Sometimes they spurn him before connecting with someone else with no explanation. This only reinforces Sam’s insecurities that he
might be “just not good enough.” From a combination of recognition and rejection, Sam keeps waiting and watching, knowing that hooking up with a stranger can be an unexpectedly incredible experience. Sam doesn’t pull any punches in telling
of the thrill of putting his hands in another man’s pants: “I couldn’t believe my luck when it worked that we both happened to want one another.”
Shepherding us through the mathematics of love and desire and despair, Smith carefully balances Sam’s obsession with an
ex-lover cop to his growing affection for his online buddy Malcolm, whom Sam sometimes phones for an occasional “jerk off session.” Sam talks to Malcolm about his life, his encounters with other men, his paranoia about HIV,
and his penchant for threesomes. The fact that Sam can worry so much over STDs is either a harbinger of his tremendous sex drive or more synonymous
with his obsessive nature. Whatever the case, Sam experiences total abandon even when he’s hopeful that the next wide-eyed, raunchy sexual encounter
might be the next romantic lover.
The groping and the stumbling in the Arcade steadily defines Sam, who seems to be finding his own way in this sea of promiscuity. A loveable everyman and a character for all seasons, Sam possess a keen intellect and a wry sense of humor which make his sexual escapades all the more entertaining as he shepherds us through the dark hallways of the Arcade.