Review: Plastic Jesus

Plastic Jesus by Poppy Z. Brite

Whenever I’m sick or I can’t sleep, I read TVTropes. Much like the Internet itself, it is infinite, so there’s no lack of new or interesting things to read about or analyze–I’m particularly fond of alternate interpretations of certain properties. While working my way around TVTropes, I stumbled upon a reference to Plastic Jesus, a novella by Poppy Z. Brite. It sounded interesting–what if a Beatles analogue had affected the course of gay rights? But getting my hands on a copy proved difficult. Physical copies are obtainable at upwards of thirty dollars on Amazon, and my usual thrift stores are nowhere near getting a novella like Plastic Jesus donated. But finally, I found a copy of it available on Barnes & Noble’s website, as an eBook. It was even half off, so I knew it was time to cross it off the list.

Plastic Jesus starts off with the shocking murder of Seth Grealy, a former member of the influential rock band The Kydds and megastar. Seth’s murder leaves behind his musical partner and lover, Peyton Masters, also a former Kydd. In grief, Peyton visits Seth’s shrink, Jonathan Pumprhey, a man personally touched by the political activism of Seth and Peyton, relates the story of the Kydds and their relationship to him, trying to understand the motives of his killer.

In a defensive afterword, Brite makes it very clear that Seth and Peyton are thinly veiled versions of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, respectively. Because of this, she relies, I feel, too much on the reader also being a big Beatles fan, which I am not. I hesitate to call the novella bare because of this, but it feels a bit like an etching of a gravestone. While all the important details are there (hit songs, drug addictions, falling in love), the lack of context leaves things a bit bereft. While it’s very useful in making Seth and Peyton’s relationship universal, as well as the climax, it robs the 1960s setting of a lot of its flavor, especially the history of gay rights, which was something I was really looking forward to.

Still, the characterization transcends that. At first glance, Seth and Peyton are like any odd couple–Seth is a messy, passionate genius, while Peyton is a diplomatic and mild-mannered genius. But there’s more–the overly dramatic Seth can be annoyingly dedicated to being anti-mainstream (to the point of having one of his infamous fights with Peyton over their very first single), and Peyton can be steely and just as passionate. Since I’m not a dedicated Beatles fan, I’m not sure how much characterization comes from having Lennon and McCartney as templates, but all I can tell you is this–Seth and Peyton are very human and I’m quite impressed with how Brite made them so, given the natural limitations of the novella. Their relationship feels almost inevitable; of course these two people who understand each other on so many levels are destined for each other. I would have loved for more build-up to the moment Seth confesses his love and for their relationship as a whole (Peyton appears to just go with it instead of reciprocating at first), but, again, this novella is very unrelenting in pace. Their life as a couple is touching; Peyton relates the story of how he forced Seth to kick his heroin habit, and when Peyton goes to identify the body (which is superfluous, due to their fame), he demands the orderlies allow him to wash the body and prepare it for the funeral.

The plot, such as it is, is a straight forward flashback book-ended by Seth’s murder and Peyton’s visit to his murderer, Ray Brinker. Brite, expecting the reader to be fairly familiar with the history of the Beatles, breezes through the highlights of the careers and personal lives of the Kydds. The other two members, Dennis and Mark, are barely blips on the radar, although they do provide a reminder of the times Seth and Peyton live in towards the end. In removing the context, Brite makes Plastic Jesus, in the eyes of a reader who is not a big fan of the Beatles, very focused on the personal. I wanted to see more about the politics of the time, which would have given Seth and Peyton’s post-Stonewall interview so much more impact. We get hints of it; Pumprhey, towards the beginning, wonders what his life would have been like if Seth and Peyton hadn’t given him the courage to come out. But it’s not nearly enough. I was hoping for something with a lot more weight.

This is definitely a novella for Beatles fans who want to follow Brite’s line of thought in positing a hypothetical romantic relationship between Lennon and McCartney beyond the usual realm of fanfiction. (Oh, they’re out there. I won’t tell you where, but they’re out there.) Because it’s so thinly veiled and the context is, well, missing, you might want to brush up on the Beatles before you read Plastic Jesus, if it interests you, but if you’re curious about gay rights, this isn’t the novella to enlighten you.

Bottom line: While Plastic Jesus boasts an interesting premise and very well executed characters for a novella, the lack of context (Brite expects the reader to know a lot more about Beatles history than the average Jane) and the relentless pace will disappoint anyone hoping to learn more about the history of gay rights and wanting a little alternate history on top. If it interests you, go for it; if not, you’re not missing much.

I bought this eBook from Barnes & Noble.

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