The Palace of Varieties
James Lear
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Buy *The Palace of Varieties* by James Learonline

The Palace of Varieties
James Lear
Cleis Press
280 pages
April 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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A child of the Oscar Wilde generation, the sexually adventuresome Paul Lemoyne follows the path of least resistance when he falls into the seedy underbelly of 1930's London. Working as a prostitute, a kept boy, and a rich man’s plaything, Paul learns the hard way fast of the bitter sting that society reserves for those that it casts out.

Escaping an abusive and alcoholic father who cannot help but conceal his shame beneath a pitiful display of hostility, Paul is only eighteen when he flees Sussex and hops a train to London. Although Paul has very little education, he possesses a fierce natural intelligence. He’s also masculine and good-looking, his aggressive Mediterranean good looks sure to beguile men wherever he goes.

It’s not surprising that, soon after Paul’s arrival, he’s able to secure employment as a stagehand at the South London Palace of Varieties, a bawdy and ramshackle music hall smelling heavily of unwashed bodies, cigarette smoke and perfume. Here our hero meets a variety of characters: the kindly red-headed Kieran, who tempts Paul with his mixture of virility and boyishness, and Mr. Nicholas Holly, the general manager who welcomes Paul with “oral satisfaction” whenever he so desires it.

While Paul aches to conquer Kieran, he’s also helped by Vera, a genial and somewhat effeminate dresser, in the business-like ambition of servicing many of the “toffs and stage-door johnnies” who frequent the performances. Soon enough, Paul is consumed with the idea of getting sex wherever and with whomever he can, becoming a master of this extracurricular work.

Of course, true enterprise comes in the unlikeliest of places - the older Mr.  Newsome quickly seduces Paul, both men ending up taking pleasure in each other as “crudely and as brutally” as they like.

Blessed with a true tart’s instinct for divining the wishes of his clients, Paul begins to ply his trade at the various pubs that pepper the East End, the assorted low dives frequented largely by stagehands, prostitutes, laborers, and itinerants, where the stink of beer and cigarettes and unwashed men require Paul to be increasingly crude and coarse - and above all, dirty.

It is through Paul’s association with Mr. Albert Abbott, who takes a beneficent interest in him,  that Paul is thrust into bigger markets in an effort to make real money, and perhaps also the chance to make something more of himself. Albert swiftly becomes the ruling passion in Paul’s life, playing Paul like a puppet and procuring him clients like the genius artist Mikhail Boleslavsky, as well as levying a certain amount of Paul’s hard-earned cash flow.

Albert Abbott is just one the supporting players in this smut-filled world of which Paul is always the hero, his fleshly adventures playing out from music halls, train stations, public toilets and sordid back alleys all the way to the upper echelons of London society, eventually culminating in the posh drawing rooms and kinky bedrooms of Mayfair and Holland Park.

Within a year of leaving home, this callow, rather unsympathetic character is whoring himself with a vengeance, becoming a hardened prostitute and cynically using the Palace of Varieties and assorted society men as a showcase for his real talents, which lie in a variety of accommodations from “palace to pissoir” across London.

Make no mistake: this novel is unadulterated smut, author James Lear’s unashamed descriptions of Paul’s sexual philandering certainly not for the fainthearted. Although five years pass and Paul changes with them, he never loses his edge, remaining clear-eyed to the last, challenged by the infinite creativity of the criminal mind in search of profit. Ultimately, it is Lear’s breezy and relaxed style, along with his colorful descriptions of 1930’s London and its underworld of vice, that make this novel so unbelievably entertaining, and also so shocking.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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