Trigger Warning: This book contains a nightclub shooting that takes the lives of seventeen people and injures several more. The events of the attack are not overly graphic and are used to further the plot. There are no gratuitous or voyeuristic overtones to the event, and while it affects the lives of those who lived through it, this story is about their love and compassion for one another and their ability to grieve and heal from their losses.
Club 21 has been a New York icon in the gay community for quite a few years. It’s where 20 years ago Dan and Brad spent their youth, sneaking in for drinks and dancing until they were old enough to get in legally. It’s where Lance bartends and where his boyfriend, Liam, dances in the cages along with Ken and Xander. It’s where Paul works as DJ Heat and Gabriel just got hired as a bouncer. Club 21 is filled with stories of love and lust, of sex, drinks, and pulse-pounding music. It’s where friends become family, but one night the unthinkable happens and Club 21 will never be the same.
This book is a look into the lives of five couples from Cameron D. James’ other books all coming together at Club 21. However, this can easily be read as a standalone; I’ve never read any of James’ other works and had no trouble following the various plots that tied the characters together. This book also has the most sex scenes of any book I’ve read, with almost every other chapter (and there are over 70 chapters) ending with one of the five couples having some fun, be it against an alley wall, in the DJ booth, at home, in the office … you name it, they’ve probably been there.
Dan, in his 50s, has two things on his mind: he’s the new owner of a popular club that he wants to see prosper, and his boyfriend, Ken. Ken is in his early twenties and is the love of Dan’s life, but Dan isn’t certain if he’s Ken’s prince charming. His boyfriend is hot, hungry, everything Dan could want while Dan … Dan isn’t in perfect condition. He’s older and things are a little sofer than they used to be. He lives in near constant paranoia that Ken will leave him for someone else no matter how often Ken makes it clear just how much he loves Dan, and that he’s in it for the long haul. Dan’s secret weapon is sex. He’s good at it, and he wants Ken to enjoy it, and him. He wants to prove to Ken he’s worthy of the other man’s love, and Ken … well, Ken more than enjoys his lover’s attention.
Brad, like Dan, is also in his fifties. He also, like Dan, has a lovely twink boyfriend, Simon. Simon who is limber and lovely and doesn’t mind a little flirting. Brad has his own issues about his age and, like Dan, frets that his boyfriend will leave him but — unlike Dan — Brad won’t talk to Simon about it. He knows he’s putting a wall between himself and his lover, but he can’t let Simon know how afraid he is that their relationship will end due to his jealousy, or Simon finding someone his own age. When Simon and Brad decide to take the old building next door and turn it into a yoga studio, Brad thanks Simon for helping him with his dream no matter how often Simon reminds him or shows him that it’s their dream.
Lance once worked as a go-go dancer, but now he’s a bartender and gets to watch his boyfriend dance in the cages for men to ogle and touch and stroke. He hates it. He also hates that Liam was suckered into leaving New York and doing porn on the west coast by a boyfriend who cheated on him. But now Liam’s back with Lance. The two of them have a great deal to work on: Liam refuses to feel shame for his past even though Lance feels it for him, and Lance has to work on the jealousy he feels. Liam isn’t interested in anyone but Lance, but he’s not going to change his life for anyone else ever again.
Paul — aka DJ Heat — has just gotten out of a relationship. His girlfriend knew that he was bi but thought he just needed the right amount of love to pick a lane. So, Paul’s now single, which is where Jake comes in. Jake, another bartender, has had a crush on Paul for quite some time, but he wasn’t going to make a move while Paul was with someone else. Now, though, they’re both free to indulge and Jake isn’t going to let this chance pass him by.
Xander is a new dancer who knows what he wants: He wants the perfect guy (with the perfect dick) rather than just any guy (even if he, also, has the perfect dick.) Fortunately for Xander, Gabriel — who just so happens to walk into the bathroom at the right time — happens to be just who Xander both wants and needs. Gabriel, who came to the United States from Ghana, was raised in a world where two men being together could, and did, end in death. Now, though, with Xander, he has a chance not only for some fun, but for something more. He can be himself and be with the person he truly loves, and Xander falls for Gabriel deep and hard.
All five of these couples are briefly touched on, each given alternating chapters. While their stories and relationships are interesting, their characterization is a bit shallow as the main plot is spread so thin. In the early chapters of the book, the exposition is clumsy and very forced. There are some common homophone mistakes (such as reign instead of rein), some minor typos here and there (“if we sells” instead of “if we sell”), and the sex scenes began to feel rote and rather stale. However, while the writing and characterization may leave something to be desired, the message of this book resonates. When we are hurt, it’s okay to feel pain. It’s okay to be afraid and lost. It’s also okay to ask for help from your friends and family and loved ones. Hate only holds you back; it’s love that keeps us moving forward.
While Dan is hurting from witnessing and being part of the shooting and from surviving it, so too is his community. The dancers, the bartenders, the people who come to Club 21 to be with their friends and family, they are all suffering with him, each in their isolated bubble of grief. Dan choosing to reopen the bar isn’t about giving the finger to the haters, it’s about being there for the people who truly need him and letting them be there for him.
In this book we get to see the strength and resilience of the LGBTQ+ community, first after Liam’s accident, then after the shooting. A young boy, cast out by his family, is claimed by the club and after losing his life in the shooting is given a proper burial by Dan and Club 21. Seven hundred members of the community come together for his funeral because he was one of their own. These complete strangers were more of a family to him than the people who gave him birth, and then gave him away.
The author also gives us several scenes from the shooter’s perspective. I understand trying to humanize the murderer; I understand the need to understand why, to know what could make someone do these horrible things, but these chapters didn’t work for me. In the midst of everyone finding their happily ever after in loving, sexual relationships, it seemed to imply that if only this poor fellow had fallen in love and had sex it would never have happened. I’m certain that wasn’t the author’s intention, but given how it’s framed — against the backdrop of the other relationships and the shooter’s own thoughts on isolation and lust — it’s how I, personally, read it.
That isn’t to say it’s wrong or badly done. It just didn’t work for me.