Soaringly, hysterically, tragically and unapologetically gay. And that’s a good thing.
At Danceteria and Other Stories, the debut collection of author Philip Dean Walker, is like a perfect martini: intoxicating, freezing cold, a little salty, nostalgically glamorous and best consumed in one quick sitting. All seven stories that make up the collection have a breezy, light quality that makes them easy to swallow but are laced with just enough toxicity to leave a lasting burn in the throat.
Walker’s prose has an easy readability that makes even those stories that are closely attached to a specific character read with a certain omniscience, giving the book a cinematic quality that goes beyond the simple inclusion of real-life icons, who are here in abundance. This makes an already-quick read move lightning fast, and it’s possible and recommended to consume At Danceteria in a single sitting. Recurring elements such as the presence of celebrities (particularly the legendary designer Halston, who is the focus of the opening story and who is referenced in several others), a (well-researched) focus on fashion, tragicomic social encounters, ‘80s nostalgia and the thematic presence of AIDS make the book feel like a true collection.
While there are thematic links between the stories, that is not to say that there aren’t standouts. The collection’s middle piece, “The Boy Who Lived Next to the Boy Next Door,” is the undeniable star here as it manages to cast the well-trodden topic of AIDS in the gay community in a new and creative light as a “Hot Guy Flu” targeting only the sexiest of gay men. It’s a horror story that is also devastating, funny and sexy. Another exceptional selection is “Charlie Movie Star,” which boldly imagines a scenario with Rock Hudson as its central character. What’s particularly stunning about “Charlie Movie Star” is the ease with which it imagines an alternate chapter of a well-known history, conversationally sharing details without over- or under-informing the reader. All of the stories are excellent, but these two show the particular facets of Walker’s talent.
Another of At Danceteria’s qualities is that it is soaringly, hysterically, tragically and unapologetically gay. Standard homosexual favorites like “Golden Girls” references, drag queens and appearances by gay icons like Bette Midler, Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, Princess Di, Jackie O, Liza Minnelli and others marry well with subtler layers like the different, often-delicate permutations of male-male couplings and the constant threat of AIDS, which is particularly relevant to these stories, many of which are set in the darkest days of the American AIDS crisis.
If there is a particular flaw to identify in this collection, it is that At Danceteria isn’t quite as tasty when it gets warm. The relationships that work best in these stories are brisk and shallow and the characters are flawed and often brittle. Comparable scenes representing deep friendships and true romance are rarely depicted, which is fine, but the problem is that they don’t appear to be as appealing to Walker, who briskly moves beyond them and back to the glitz, the drama, the humor and the tragedy.
Still, that’s light critique for a collection that is refreshingly consistent yet consistently surprising. It’s rare to read a book of short fiction that is this thoroughly delightful, and At Danceteria and Other Stories comes highly recommended to any reader that looking for literary intoxication.