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Poof 1

by J. M. Tolcher
Publication Date: 02/05/2023
5/5 Rating 1 Review

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RRP  $30.00

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Part provocateur, part seducer, this young gay man's account of life offers one of the freshest takes on Australia and the world today.

Honouring poets of the past - Jean Genet, Veronica Franco, Euripides, Hunter S. Thompson, Oscar Wilde - and joining in their task of finding meaning in existence and the modern world, Tolcher has produced a brazenly honest debut without precedent.

Through his writing he subverts his own shame, weaponises it, and positions himself as an anti-hero of our time right when we need him the most.

Following his humble beginnings as an outcast in the dreary outer suburbs of Brisbane and escalating into a Dionysian, poetic and pornographic international climax, Poof follows Tolcher's search for love and purpose as he is drawn to the beds of powerful, sadistic men. If he can endure just a little longer, a little more... will they love him?

In an age of victimhood, Tolcher offers us a roadmap to empowerment and integrity as he pulls back the curtain on both our pride and our shame, and shines a spotlight on a hidden history that has been erased time and again.

Contemporary fiction
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James Tolcher
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1 Review

Contains Spoilers: Keep Reading?

A version of the following review (some small edits), written by myself, was published in Issue 283 of DNA Magazine. This review contains some spoilers.

Australian author James Tolcher’s debut book Poof is a harrowingly truthful biography. The book is an achievement and a chronicle of achievements: a “curriculum vitae”, as Tolcher puts it, of if not triumphs then survivals. Taken together, these survivals construct a panorama of the traumas and hostilities which punctuate, define or redefine, and sometimes end queer lives. That Tolcher has survived to tell his tales is an achievement all its own. That he does so with gripping prose is the achievement that hopefully will persuade readers to buy and read this profound and timely book.

Tolcher tells his story in a series of anecdotes, moving chronologically from his childhood to early adulthood, scaffolded in 5 sections with Anne Carson-like, Dionysian interstitials. Starting with his early years, Tolcher recounts bullying and exclusion from his peers (enabled by teachers and authority figures) and clashes with adults over his difference. While growing up with loving and supporting parents (his father is the first of four Michaels highlighted in the book), he is given no guidance, only silence when it comes to one of the central questions of his identity and the reason for his torment. He learns the power of the word “poof,” but both family and peers refuse to clarify the label with which he has been branded. The effect of this torment from all sides has drastic mental and physiological consequences: extreme anxiety, resulting in debilitating shyness and constant indigestion and diarrhea that permanently shaped his physical development. At moments he almost finds solidarity with other queer youth, but those opportunities pass quickly. Through willpower, he is able to transfer from his soul-crushing school to an arts and technical academy which is an oasis, if too little too late. These first two chapters are peppered with flashes to the near-present: fragments of gay nightlife and parties with their own paranoias, bullying and excesses.

After school life, Tolcher escapes Australia for London where he has his first sexual experiences away from the hostilities of home. Exploitative work situations reinforce Tolcher’s disillusionment with WASP respectability and the Protestant Work Ethic, and after a brief time, he returns home to Brisbane (to work situations no better than abroad). Again seeking escape, he connects through the internet with a high-profile CEO in Sweden, “M.M.” (another Michael), and enters into a Master/Slave dynamic with him. He serves as the live-in sex toy for this Swedish high-ranked executive for a while. Eventually Tolcher grows to feel he deserves emotional commitment from M.M. and returns home unrequited (though he remains in touch). Throughout this third chapter, Tolcher again returns to the near-present, inserting lurid sadomasochistic sessions with “Pig” (another Michael) involving physical torture, meth use, exhibitionism and financial domination; a reversal of the roles of Dom and Sub that Tolcher experienced with M.M. that blurs dark fantasy with shocking reality.

Tolcher meets other sadistic men who take him to places many kinksters only find in erotic fiction. Bondage, flogging, public sex, and objectification become Tolcher’s connection to competitive men who project self-confidence and delight in his capacity for physical pain. Men around him introduce Tolcher to the scene of Leather bars, clubs, and contests, and he enters gay BDSM’s social world with enthusiasm and even more sexual exploits. Despite his volunteering and contributions, he is twice snubbed in his efforts to win leather bar contests. It is amid this involvement that Tolcher recounts the arc of his relationship with, Jeremy, a man whose initial tenderness and affection gives way to physical and psychological abusive.

In the final chapter, Tolcher introduces the final Michael, an arch-embodiment of the series of sadistic men who extract Tolcher’s pain for their own pleasure while denying him genuine commitment. He intercuts these hair-raising physical tortures and heartaches with his witnessing a relationship between his friend Jacob and Jacob’s wealthy boyfriend Andy. Filled with glamorous destinations as the backdrop for drug and alcohol-fueled squabbles between Jacob and Andy, their toxic relationship culminates in a climax that, in a book full of shocks, reaches yet a new level of extremity. Finally, Tolcher breaks off from this last Michael to establish his own independence and sense of self.

Writing in a range of modes, including exalted, Whitmanesque pronouncements, postmodern, dialogues, and his own voice of mannered outrage, Tolcher recounts key experiences that both defined his queerness and illuminate how his queerness defined his experience of life. Cutting across the five chapters of the book are two distinct narratives: First, Tolcher’s childhood and his journey to understanding his own homosexuality, intercut with fragments of relationships with several of the Michaels that mark his life (roughly summarized as his survival within the cruel, homophobic majority). Second, Tolcher’s adult experiences of his Australian queer community and a more straightforward accounting of other relationships that have marked his life (and body; his survival against the cruel and similarly traumatized minority who should have been comrades).

Tolcher carefully constructs his flow chart of cause and effect, and it is his eloquence and articulation of the causality between majoritarian, chauvinistic cruelty and the suffering of queer people makes this book more urgent and timelier than ever. He diligently connects the anecdotal to the structural: the oppressive silence used to starve him of understanding, the oppressive politeness that twists self-defense to look like petulance, the oppressive conformism that twists self-affirmation to look like narcissism and twists rebellion to look like laziness. These are not simply devices created to torture Tolcher alone (although the pain is always personal, wrenching, spirit-breaking) but wholesale programs, mindsets, and value systems designed to suffocate nonconformity out of existence.

Reading Poof, I was struck by the fact that one need only strip away the trappings of modern technology and new recreational drugs for Tolcher’s experiences to fit neatly alongside narratives of queer and trans lives that sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld documented in Berlin in the first decades of the 20th century, before a radical right wing movement known as the Nazis destroyed his major repository in 1933. Now again, we are seeing a wave of Christian Nationalists bent on queer genocide. First and foremost, the genocide of the mind: of knowing what can possibly exist, erasing queer identities from protective policy, from textbooks, from public life. In my own country of the United States, right-wing candidates for state and national office campaign proudly on promises drawn from the Nazis’ playbook for queer erasure. This first half of Poof is the story of the world desired by Conservative politicians and astroturfed coalitions of ‘concerned parents.’ Cruelty upon cruelty is heaped on Tolcher for his difference from peers and from teachers, who notice and sense his difference but give no guidance or insight to give him beyond how unacceptable his difference is. When Tolcher finally comes out to his parents, his mother shouts “I knew it!” This moment, often a point of relief and triumph in queer narratives, has a bitter taste to it: If his mother knew it, why couldn’t Tolcher himself, then, access that knowledge? What suffering is caused by the adult suppression of information that children need to make sense of the world? “SILENCE = DEATH” is what ACTUP taught us during the HIV/AIDS crisis.

What is the weapon against silence? A voice. That is what Poof is, and Tolcher wields his voice in prose like a weapon, the vengeful glint of a supervillain in his eye. There is something of the supervillain monologue in Tolcher’s logic of suffering. He tells you how he suffered, he tells you that he will no longer suffer in silence, no matter the cost. There is certainly a long history of queer coded supervillains and antiheroes in entertainment and culture, and Tolcher draws upon this queer legacy that hasn’t been successfully destroyed by Nazis or their spiritual descendants. For those who are not queer, or who are and have miraculously lived without experiencing anything that resonates with Tolcher’s anecdotes, his incisive writing recounting these incidents will surely inspire them to take up a laser death ray in solidarity to join his call to suffer the hypocrites no longer. Tolcher is a convincing and sympathetic anti-hero. His crimes (figurative and literal) have rationales: they are reparations, they are specific acts of rebellion, with a focus on, above all, survival. His substance abuse is a symptom of the escapism of all outcast subcultures, a grasp (however doomed) against nihilistic despair. Poof is Tolcher’s barbaric yawp—a throat-tearing shriek that is meant to ring in its readers’ ears long after: this is what the silence of heteronormative, WASP respectability costs for queer people, this is the price of ignorance on a human body and psyche. Writing as an American, the fact that Tolcher is Australian does not diminish Poof’s relevance for different local contexts. The fight for queer recognition is global.

Tolcher’s relationship and role in the life of the man named Michael/Pig is certainly the most morally complicated and difficult parts of the self-portrait that Poof creates. Here language gets treacherous. Many queer people, in the process of their discovering their identity (against all odds), come to embrace sex as a natural, biological, social, and psychological need. This affirmation is counter to the ideas engrained in us by a culture established through European Christian conquest, colonization, and genocide. Thus, as sex-embracing queers we already start out as filthy deviants. So how to discuss the physical possibilities of fetishism, consensual sadomasochism, fantasy-roleplaying without using the language of our oppressors? In Poof, the problem only deepens, as Tolcher connects his both his acts of sadism and masochism as being intimately connected with processing his trauma-induced lack of self-worth. The Pig sequences unfold in a fragmented narrative structure that Tolcher employs to create clear meaning in what some readers might be tempted to dismiss as senseless depravity. In Poof, depravity always has a sense. Actions have motivation, and Tolcher’s limit-pushing (mostly) consensual cruelty to Pig is transformed into a combined form of personal-therapy, queer mentoring, and supervised injection site. The twist of a sex-affirmative attitude perpetuating and processing sex-negative trauma confronts the reader head-on in the Pig scenes and in the second half of the book, where we see how abuse from the heteronormative world exposes the traumatized to the dangers of abuses from within the queer world.

Some characters in Poof are less harmful. Others, drastically more so. In the book Tolcher’s romantic/kink relationships are characterized by desperate devotion. They start with the socially-reinforced premise that he is worthless, and so it follows that the men who do show him attention are the best chance he will have at personal validation, no matter the price. They find him worthy at least of a beating, and so he takes it. With no confidence himself, Tolcher is quick to confuse confidence with competence and ends up with, among others, several Michaels with fantasies of control and physical violence and underdeveloped emotional intelligences (or, in one case, severe mental health and substance abuse issues). Tolcher’s spirit, crushed by the time he reaches his teen years, has no vocabulary of self-assertion to stop from being used and abused by these men as he searches of love and acceptance. It is wrenching to read these scenes of him being helplessly bound and beaten, looking for love from men whose attraction to him is not his wit and spirit, but his sheer capacity for pain. Looming over all of these scenes are Tolcher’s true bonds and restraints: his own traumatically-induced arrested social and emotional development. His skillful writing and naked honesty make these passages appropriately hard to read. We gasp with him, we feel the emotional release when at last he walks away or is perfunctorily abandoned.

The trials aren’t confined to Tolcher’s intimate relationships. Movingly he speaks to how queer communities at large, made up of hundreds of individuals personally traumatized by the same oppressive society, bring their traumas to their communal space and often use those spaces to reenact those traumas rather than heal from them. Tolcher recounts his experiences of gatekeeping, exclusion, and petty power politics within the leather/kink scene. Having themselves been battered by the larger society, but having claimed a space for their own, the bullies of these spaces lack any originality that queer culture can push beyond or imagine new social dynamics. These spaces and their gatekeeper show no social imagination analogous to their innovations in sexual pleasure. Instead, they use their traumatically-gained knowledge of “the way the real world works” (a phrase Tolcher’s tormenters frequently invoke) to reproduce the majority’s cruelties in their minority space. What could we expect? Branded and cast out as monsters, so many of us have little experience beyond our needs to survive and a lifetime of conditioning that we are monsters. Some of us act monstrously, go figure.

So where does all this end, this grief and grievance? It ends where it started, with Tolcher alive (happily), angry (understandably), and proud (deservedly). In Poof, Tolcher searches for love, no matter the cost. In the end he finds knowledge, truth, and it is unvarnished truth to which he pledges his devotion and servitude. I wish them well. it seems like the start of a truly healing relationship.

Contains Spoilers Yes
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