If my life were an episode of Friends, I’d have pulled a Rachel and put this book into my freezer. For those who don’t understand the reference, Rachel put books that scared her into the freezer until she could process them and get over her fear. Tricks gave me that insane terror.
Arliss is a nobody. He’s a been an abused child, a high school dropout, a runaway, a homeless teen, a hustler, and more. Currently, at the ripe age of 22, he’s a stripper at a gay bar, aptly named Tricks, in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. (For those who don’t understand THAT reference, it’s an area on the near north side of the city which is thoroughly gay friendly. Chicago is a pretty gay friendly city, on the whole, but this is where the gay bars and Pride parade are located.) Arliss shakes his body five nights a week, and earns enough to pay his share of the rent in a flophouse apartment with two roommates who are virtual strangers and who are big into the PnP (party-and-play) scene. Arliss is not. He drinks a bit, and smokes a lot, but he doesn’t do drugs. Ever. Despite Arliss being a nobody, I really liked him. I felt a lot of empathy for his life and situation.
Thirty-seven year-old Sean is an everyday joe. He has a non-descript job, wears non-descript clothes, and has a non-descript life. He wanted to share that life with Jerome, but Jerome thought, “Nah!” and Sean brings his battered heart into Tricks for a bit of escapism. He finds Arliss to be very sexy, but he is turned off by the whole tawdry scene, so he takes a walk to the lake (Michigan for those not in the know). While hanging out there contemplating his misery and wondering how to get on without Jerome, Arliss approaches him. He also wanted to get away from the sweaty, groping crowd and find some peace. Meeting Sean there was a complete surprise, and a pleasant one. Arliss is usually down for some anonymous sex, but Sean isn’t. He insists on a date, and this begins their romance.
Quite unexpectedly, Sean and Arliss hit it off. They have one bad bit, when Jerome turns up like a bad penny, but Sean’s a persistent man and he wins Arliss back, for good. Well, he hopes so. It looks like that might be the case for a few months even, until the sexy Josh arrives on the scene offering thousands to Nobody Arliss for starring a porn movie.
I had to check to inside credits again, just in case Stephan King had adopted “Rick R. Reed” as a pen name. See, this book has a malevolent undercurrent. Weird people turn up and say horrifying things. And there’s more going on than just a romance with a break-up to make-up. Josh is a man of two personalities, one is sympathetic, because he knows his proposition to Arliss is a façade for something far more sinister. The sociopathic side of Josh thinks Arliss should have known better. Arliss, while surviving homelessness and developing his street savvy, had been exploited time and time again. People who claimed to love him turned their backs, or pimped him out. He’s not proud of his past, but he’s working toward better things. One of his goals has always been to be in porn. Not a lofty goal, but a lucrative one for a former teen runaway. What’s standing in Arliss’ way is his love for Sean, and knowing that going down that path will sever the single loving relationship he’s ever experienced. Josh’s alluring offer has unseen threats, though, and it’s even worse than the real potential of diseased co-stars.
Sean can’t handle the idea of his love, Arliss, being intimate with another man—not even as a job. It’s sickening to him, and he’s not shy about admitting that. He’s the perfect definition of a hero: an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary thing. While he wants to turn his back, he can’t forget that Arliss is young, and might make bad decisions. When that proves true, Sean goes into battle mode, hunting down his love and braving all the seedy elements that normally horrify him. If he can save Arliss from this experience, he’s going to—and, well, even if he can’t, he’s going to love Arliss through the aftermath…perhaps.
The suspense builds in the most ordinary of ways. A missed phone call. A harsh lie. A regret spoken and ignored. The darkest threat is only a hint until the reveal in the very ending pages, but that hint is brutal and made me set the book down before bed so I could sleep without freaking out. That sick dread bubbled within me as each page turned and I feared Arliss would be forever lost to Sean. And vice versa. Gah! No, this isn’t a fluffy romance.
The sexytimes are not the major focus, but the sentiment is high. The writing, as usual from Reed, is straightforward and unflinching. So much so that I could envision this nefarious plot being real, and unfolding in my own backyard. Quite distressing for a gal who lives an L ride from every location highlighted in the book. And Reed didn’t windowdress less-than-savory aspects of gay subculture including prostitution, substance abuse, drug use, and anonymous barebacking. The simple prose allowed the scenes to shine, and to illustrate the dearth of love in both Arliss’ and Sean’s lives, how they were isolated within a crowd. Deft foreshadowing had me seriously worried about a tragic end from nearly the beginning. (Thank goodness I didn’t break down and slip my iPad into the freezer!)
Note: This is the second release of Tricks by a new publisher. I did not see any notes that reflect revision of the story from the first edition.