In Getting Off, readers take a wild, drug and sex fuled ride with Jonathan Reiss’s adorable, deeply troubled protagonist, Simon, also known on the website Camboyz as Sid Licious. Simon, despite being heterosexual, performs on Camboyz sexually for men, to earn cash so he can support his increasingly crippling heroin addiction. Along the way, he breaks all of the rules he makes for himself, acquires a dog that may very well save his life, and despite being a somewhat unreliable narrator, shares with us his loving, conflicted heart. Getting Off, despite depicting the horrors of drug addiction and sexually debauchery, is really about the human condition. How do we live with all the pain, how can we not want to blot out our emotions? When do we cross moral lines and can we cross back? It was with great pleasure I talked to Reiss about this brilliant, hilarious, unputdownable novel.
Paula Bomer: I’ve had the privilege of reading Getting Off in various stages, cheering the book and you along the path to publication, and finally, here it is. I get called “brave” a lot as a writer, and at times it makes me flinch, because I feel very vulnerable as a writer. But perhaps the two are inseparable. Simon, the main character of Getting Off, is an aspiring actor and heroin addict who performs sex acts on the internet as a “Camboy” to feed his habit. Getting Off really doesn’t try to make him look like a hero — but he is. How brave did you have to be to write this novel? And how vulnerable does it make you feel to have it out in the world, if at all?
Jonathan Reiss: As far as bravery is concerned, I think it just takes bravery to be a writer in this day and age. I’ve noticed this recent trend of blogs on the various literary websites titled something along the lines of “Why Not To Be A Writer” or “Why You Should Give Up Writing.” I’m not condemning those pieces. A lot of them are tongue in cheek, and I can even understand where those that aren’t are coming from, but they’re all the more reason why you have to be somewhat brave to call yourself a writer and actually back that up. There’s something unhealthy about the level of insular existence that goes on while writing a novel. It borders on mental illness. I think a lot of writers have this St. Sebastian-esque complex. Maybe it’s martyrdom, but it’s also the compulsion to want to give a piece of yourself to the world. There’s a weird dichotomy of self-reflection and humble introspection vs unbridled ego that it takes to write a novel. You’ve also got to face a shit ton of poverty. I’m not sure if it’s the result of all the movies wherein the protagonist is a writer, or because this generation is extremely self-focused, but there’s been an explosion of self-identified writers. For many of us it’s all the more reason not to write.
The bottom line for me is that my parents urged me to find something I love and do it for a living. That, they told me, was the key to happiness. I love a lot of things but writing is the one thing that could never be ruined for me. I worked at Dunkin Donuts when I was a kid and I can never drink their coffee again, and I love coffee. Being a writer has made me cherish the time I spend reading books all the more, or watching TV, or reading the paper. My level of happiness is definitely correlates to the extent that I can believe myself when I say I’m a writer. If I’m busy with work, I’m happy. I’ve found utter peace in that simplicity.
There are plenty of other — let’s call them false — dichotomies throughout the novel. For instance, Getting Off is insanely funny, slapstick funny at times, but also deeply sad. I also feel like Simon’s self-awareness is balanced with equal measures of denial. There are so many beautiful moments where Simon sees his life so clearly, as well as the lives of others. Once he thinks “age is just a stalker that follows you around, picking away the things you like about yourself.” But then delusion sets in, often when he has to do things to feed his habit, for instance when he’s shopping for his mother: “I smiled because I knew I’d worked hard for my mom’s gift, that I had the gumption and resourcefulness to make it happen.” It’s an incredible balancing act through the book.
I think I wanted to show the balancing act addicts perform on a daily basis. They say it’s a 9-5 but really it’s more like a 9-11. People ask how can people use heroin? How, when you know how terrible it is for you and how negatively it can impact your life, can you continue to do it? I think maybe it’s a difference between knowing and understanding. You know it, but we understand it, and we work hard to subvert it. In a sense we problem solve and intellectualize our way around the damage. This cuts to the core of humanity. It’s why we socialize. Why we crave diversity. Because some of us can be brilliant in our ability to see some things clearly while being veritably blind to other things. Think about the practice of law. Pretty much the whole thing is people finding different ways to look at and talk about the same information. More practically speaking I think I wrote this book at two distinctly different time periods in my life — at one point, when I had these adventures in my head that I wanted to write down, and later, when I had perspective on those experiences, real or imagined. At a certain point when I felt like I was failing to get the book published I thought to myself. “Why am I even writing? I’m not particularly sage or wise. It’s not like my friends from high school would have said, “Oh yeah Jon Reiss, I remember him, so wise that guy was.” I started thinking, “Why would anyone in their 20’s write a book? They’re all so stupid.” But I guess I realized two things: one, a book is about feeling feelings as much as it is about learning, and two, there’s wisdom in naiveté. Sometimes we’re the most articulate about the things we barely understand.
Finally, I wanted the book to be funny because I know how it feels to be engrossed in a book and then read something that makes you laugh out loud. It’s a cathartic kind of laughter. Then We Came to The End had me manically cackling on the subway, which made me feel like a total creep but alas, I cackled on.
I feel like seeing Simon sink so low— he’s a grifter, he’s using his body sexually in ways that don’t bring him any pleasure, he’s a liar, he manipulates people, all to feed his habit. And yet, he’s so lovable. What is it about people struggling to stay afloat (and not doing a great job of it) that appeals so much to readers? It can’t be pure voyeurism. But if it’s partly our innate voyeuristic tendencies, then it resonates well with Simon’s work. In this way, the reader becomes complicit with Simon’s morally questionable Camboy clients.
It’s universal because it’s true of all of us. For some of us, hiding the extent of that struggle is more important than it is to others. Struggle is beautiful, it’s thick and rich and there’s so much to mine from it. Whether you’re a junkie or you’re pretending to be a pony on the weekend and fucking other strangers in pony costumes, we’re all doing what we can. Find me someone who doesn’t have that one thing, and I’ll be really curious to meet them and see what the fuck they spend their days doing, because they sure as hell aren’t reading novels.
I wanted to make Simon lovable. Short of having an agenda I wanted the reader to look at certain people a little differently. I’m working out this general philosophy about people. I’ve come to believe that the people in this world who do really terrible things are the ones who have no space in their minds for evil. I think one of the healthiest things a person can have is a relationship with their propensity to do wrong. It’s the staunchly heterosexual god fearing vegans who eventually go on a spree of fucking, killing and eating innocent dudes. Take Dennis Cooper, who is one of my very favorite authors. He regularly writes about fucking and killing, not always in that order and yet he’s the last person I could see harming a person. He puts it all in books. I also believe in the power of learning from your own mistakes. I think you can learn the most from the person in the room who has made the most mistakes. I’m also firm believer in harm reduction. I think there’s a such thing as a functioning junkie, and a fulfilled prostitute, and I think that’s something to which little or no credence is lent. That’s why I love junkies, prostitutes, ex cons, rent boys, sluts and punks. They are in touch with their inner selves in a way that most aren’t.
In terms of voyeurism, that’s a really cool observation and I’ll just go ahead and claim it was absolutely deliberate. To some extent it actually was. If you can jerk off to my book, god bless you, I’m happy to provide. I always enjoy most the authors who take their time with the sex in their books, and there was never a version of this book that wasn’t going to have plenty of words dedicated to fucking. I think I knew I wanted to be a writer ever since I was a kid and would steal Playboys from my dad’s closet. He usually had Playboys but one day I found a Penthouse Forum and from that point forward I searched for more issues of forum because the erotic stories engaged me far more than the photos ever did. Not too long ago I took an erotic writing class at The New School taught by a great writer/teacher named Tsaurah Litzky. I probably got more out of that class from a technique standpoint than just about any other. I like the idea of writing to the body, whether that’s making someone’s stomach turn, or making their heart race, whether it’s making someone wet between the legs or wet between the eyelids. There have been times in my life when books and stories in general saved me, whether that was giving me a taste of what it was like to feel free when I wasn’t, or by filling me with the feeling of what it’s like to feel sexual when I couldn’t. I learned really early that stories could feel more real than life itself and that sometimes that was crucial for me to get by.
Speaking further of morally questionable aspects of Getting Off, when Simon meets Will in person, he takes a step in a direction he’s not comfortable with — real sex acts as opposed to online. What happens when we start crossing lines that we make for ourselves? Is there any going back? Are we permanently scarred? Also, as a straight man creating the closeted gay man Will, you took a huge risk and I feel like that’s one of the reasons it took so long for you to get this novel published. I’m proud of you for sticking to your guns on this topic. I think it’s important to realize even though it’s 2017, this is still a thing. People can’t be who they want to be. Simon thinks, “I felt for Will. He had this whole life constructed and this one part of him just didn’t jibe with it. Maybe it was the part that didn’t fit allowed him to keep the rest of his life afloat. Everybody had that one piece.” In that way, we all are in the closet, aren’t we?
I think life is just a series of crossed lines. That particular line of real sex vs digital sex is one that I was and and still am very interested in because it’s going to inform our lives more and more. In a sense I think technology is very connected to sex and gender. I see a connection between the technology movement and the transgender movement, in that breaking the gender binary can be looked at as a byproduct of a more technological society, where maybe we don’t need to be bound by gender or sexuality. I think Simon is straight, but his experiences make him more comfortable with other men’s sexuality, albeit slowly.
As far as the characters are concerned, it was something I grappled with. I didn’t want to reinforce stereotypes and at a certain point that was a concern, as was Simon being a sex worker who was struggling with drugs, which is also a stereotype. I think being a sex worker can be a beautiful thing that has nothing to do with self-sacrifice, or self-flagellation, but rather a kind of giving and nurturing nature that is beautiful and rare. At the same time, I also think there’s a such thing as a heroin user for whom heroin is a maintenance tool, who isn’t spiritually bankrupt. I also think there’s a such thing as a person who stays in the closet, and it’s okay because they love their children and wife in every way but sexually. If a woman is religiously devout and stays with her husband because she loves him and loves being religious, more so than she loves sexuality, that’s okay. I tend to be an advocate of following carnal passions but it’s not that easy for everyone. I think Will and Simon are two people in two very different places, who came from two very different worlds yet who understand each other quite well. When that happens, it’s worth reading about.
Back to dichotomies. From the beginning to the end of Getting Off, Simon is filthy and desperate to be clean. He has no hot water, his place is a mess, and we watch him constantly trying to hide his filth so he can be presentable to the world. This is very real, very well detailed, and also utterly symbolic. Whether it was intentional or not as a grand theme, it is. It’s basically religious, our dirty lives and filthy thoughts struggling against purity.
That was pretty intentional. One of the first readers of an early draft of the book said, “It reminds me of Hunger by Knut Hamsun, except instead of obsessing of food and starvation, Simon is obsessing over a shower and his own filth.” I loved that book but was never intentionally drawing from it. For some reason Simon’s filth was something I injected into the story naturally, but after hearing that comment I drew it out a little bit more. I think it’s goes back what you said about crossing lines. Addiction can do that to you. It can make a very clean individual filthy. For me that became the seed from which a bunch of other like concessions stemmed. All of which puts the individual in an interesting position when they come out of it because they ask themselves how important those things actually were to them. We all come of age at a certain time but no matter how old you are, kicking heroin will make you do it again.
Kindness, love even, seems to be the answer to Simon’s problems to a certain extent. He finds it in the weirdest places — his drug dealer Repo, for instance. His dog, Fat. Again, this seems to jibe with another tenet of most religions — the idea of mercy, of compassion and love. This idea is maybe less overt than cleanliness in the novel, but maybe more necessary for Simon. The entire book can also be seen as a young man’s desire to gain the love of his mother, veering toward the Freudian.
I think this is why a “higher power’ is such a basic tenant of recovery programs. At a certain point, we all go searching for this part of ourselves and many of us continue to do it for decades afterwards. Some of us find activism, others find The People’s Temple, still others find anonymous sex and gloryholes. When you strip everything else away there’s still this need for purpose. I say I believe in harm reduction but I think the one way in which heroin can be truly dangerous is its tendency to dull that need for purpose. Purpose, when it comes down to it, can be looked at as the one line we won’t cross. Burroughs called heroin God’s Own Medicine.
Even heroin has an antidote however, but it’s often different for different people. Sure, love can be it, particularly the love of a fat wrinkled smashed face pup. Maybe the lines we can’t cross can save us in the end. Simon would never steal an old lady’s purse. He was raised with the very basic value that you treat others with kindness. That value is represented in Fat and that need for love is awakened. He finds it again when sees Max and again when Repo gets out of jail. I think he spends a lot of the novel regretting what he did in the first two chapters when he had dinner with his parents. Heroin can replace whatever you want it to replace, including a mother’s hug. The question is whether you can live with that. I think you may be right, that it was the one thing he couldn’t replace and in the end, it was the one line he couldn’t cross, and that’s what it took to remind him of his humanity.
Paula Bomer is most recently the author of Mystery and Mortality, a collection of essays. She’s also the author of three works of fiction; the novel Nine Months, and two short story collections, Inside Madeleine and Baby and Other Stories.