Monthly Archives: May 2023

Brian Alessandro’s novel “Performer Non Grata”

“First of all bullfighting is, as somebody once said very well,  indefensible and irresistible …but I’ve turned against it for very much the same reason that my father, who was a great hunter,  suddenly stopped hunting he said, “I’ve killed enough animals.” I’m ashamed of myself…I’ve seen enough of those animals dead, it was…a waste…almost all Spanish intellectuals have been against bullfighting for the last 150 years…Lorca is one of the few Spanish intellectuals who ever approved of bullfighting.”

Orson Welles, 1974

If I were teaching a class on Brian Alessandro’s literature, I’d call it:
“How Hard it is to Write and Move an Audience…With Unattractive Individuals.”

Alessandro’s follow up to the impressive The Unmentionable Mann (2015) is even more deviant, crafty, and insightful than its predecessor. His fifth novel (two previously unpublished, including Freud Droid which some avid readers lucky to get their hands on it —  consider his best work and his first book, An Ego Dream Game, self-published in a limited edition in 2003) takes the gloves off completely and gathers prisoners as aggressively as it tries to shame the devil. 

I admired the novel without liking a single character. 

In what I felt initially had superficial similarities to a Todd Solondz film and its themes (the smug white suburban malaise, the yuppie heart of darkness, the emphatic white man’s ironic slouch towards racism or sexuality, etc.) Performer Non Grata is actually a backhanded slap at the hideous nature of white male masculinity (particularly) in all its toxic forms and incarnations (he  displays the gamut’s psychosis from heterosexual to homosexual to beyond) and the violent escapades that that culture breeds. Our contempt for animals, women, and all entities that could be construed as their “others” is alarming and exquisitely detailed in this phantasmagoric book.  

Centered around Risk Bonaventura, an American corporate zombie, and his deranged obsession with bullfighting and all that it implies— we are embroiled in a bizarre menage-a-trois between him, Javier his Spanish matador lover and Lorna, his wife, an academic and teacher (a character inspired by the deteriorated passion and warped ideology of none other than the disappointing Camile Paglia), Performer Non Grata is many things.  But it is principally a crystallization of what has been latent in Alessandro’s entire body of work – from his novels to his plays, his film Afghan Hound, even some of his drawings – the pursuit of characters who are not particularly likeable.  Especially Queer characters, that’s where his transgression lies.  Javier is deeply disturbing, transmitting both homicidal and suicidal urges of the imprisoned masculine Queer; Risk and Lorna’s sociopathic son, Theo, is a graphic example of all that is terrible, coming to fruition. When you read the book, ask yourself: Which of these awful renderings could be me? The title says it all:  there is no performer.  There is only you.

The book is an orgy of sadism, meditations on Feminine and Masculine psychologies, the horror of rape culture, and the schadenfreude ethos of our media world and literally everything it embodies.

I could say it’s about a bullfighter, but it isn’t. And the novel in no way glorifies the atrocious act of killing a bull.  It skewers the male perversion of wanting to become a bull fighter.  I make this point because, unfortunately, many progressive and radical activists are losing their knack for insight and humor and are not understanding the differences between satire, irony, parody versus work that promotes violence against animals.  I find it deeply disturbing that we allow Ernest Hemingway to sit comfortably on the edges of the Left because of his association with Cuba and later Castro – while not acknowledging his passionate desire to exert and romanticize aggressive male behavior, namely hunting and bullfighting. Orson Welles, in a stunning 1974 BBC interview, conceded how terribly wrong he was to have indulged in such a backward mode of thinking and behaving and he declared how sad he was that he and his ilk had participated in the murder of animals. 

 I could say the book is obsessed with rape but it isn’t.  I could say it’s merely about toxic masculinity, but it isn’t.  It transmits aspects of toxic masculinity. And it becomes increasingly the result of those toxicities, it expresses the pangs of the spoils of war.

I could say the novel seems to hold several mirrors up to the myriad of rotten pathologies in Western society but it doesn’t….at least not in a detached way. And if it doesn’t do that it’s not a mirror. However it is a reflection.

Alessandro houses a grotesque gallery of 21st century psychosis, proclivities, and behaviors— all which are vicious and antagonistic avatars, revealing the damage we endure and witness in our everyday life.

You learn a lot about a writer you like by focusing on how you approach their work. It’s unconscious of course, but it does determine a lot of how you process and inquire. If works of art are personal it’s also because we share a bit of ourselves as we interpret it.


If Unmentionable Mann was statelier and more mainstream, Performer Non Grata is more challenging and akin to the madcap, with its gravely dark humor barbed like a wire.   Unlike many writers or filmmakers who try to employ a heavy satire or understated morality (often lapsing into nihilism – a problem for White authors as it is for Black hip-hop artists ) Alessandro is not trying to flex his “awareness” or wink at the problems of the white bourgeoisie or his working-stiff brethren, somehow desperate to always make a clever point at how moribund their culture is. Alessandro actually cares about his characters, despite how atrocious they are. Most artists nowadays and since the  New Millennium have derogated themselves to cynicism, hipster irony, and the celebration of their worthlessness— as opposed to seriously criticizing it. The way most White people shrug their shoulders when confronted with changing the racist mores of their culture or how most men (gay or straight) recede like a middle-aged man’s hairline – when confronted with challenging other men on the oppression inflicted on women – our mothers, sisters, daughters, lovers, friends, aunts, teachers, co-workers, etc. – and the bestiality committed on our children’s minds. 

When satire became smug parody, social commentary loses its way. An early critical observation I encountered with other readers or critics was that perhaps Alessandro’s characters were too venal, not aware enough of their harm to themselves and particularly to their victims, the people they inflict physical and psychological violence upon. But I came away feeling that was his point.  To have these characters care would be dishonest.  True caring is in the writing of the book.  The characters are just that: characters.  And so are most people.

Burroughs, Genet haunt the book marginally – but I would actually say the Rabelaisian spirit in the book is found through the alienated great grandchildren of Marshall McLuhan: abandoned and angry in this digital Sahara we are in – clamoring through the character of Theo, who asserts his power in the book (and over the reader) by his demented depictions that he wields through the power of YouTube, the young sociopath exceeding what McLuhan imagined, we’ve divorced ourselves through technology whilst creating a “global village,” but have made that community one that is steeped in the demonic nature of defiling and exploiting. A literal “futurist” notion of how to push the horror of rape.  Theo makes YouTube scary in a very clear, direct, and immediate way.  I am glad I don’t have children.

Alessandro’s proclivity for crafting  an enjoyable reading experience about unlikable characters, is a conscious maintenance of art.  Employing caricature, even profane exaggeration, he paints on his canvas in a myriad of ways – literary characters—not ersatz “real” people. I am not sure when audiences lost touch with characters VS “real” people and began to foolishly and erroneously judge dramatic art based on its human characters’ verisimilitude as “actual” persons living next door. Art is about the insides not “the next door.” If art does actually teach, then you learn from characters – not actual people. 

When actors do it, principally in movies, it tells you more about yourself than about them. We like “the bad guy” in movies for example because he may be what most people actually want to be.  There’s a strange notion that the more pitched, strained, or exaggerated an actor’s performance or mannerisms – the less human they are.  The West has been categorically labeling behaviors and assigning pathologies based on our physical behavior and how we appear for at least the past five hundred years and no one finds it bizarre that our schools, teachers, critics have a nasty desire to keep ‘human reality’ at a base level, never rising above a Library tone of voice, never acknowledging the horror of civilization or the grandeur of opera in our lives.

 In his excellent article entitled “Considering a Place in Fiction for Badly Behaved Queers”  for the Gay & Lesbian Review, Alessandro expounds on this and specifically how it pertains to the presentation of Queer characters in novels and movies.  The biggest misconception is that “reality” is truth.  Where in fact we all know the reverse is the truth.  And while it is true that most “lessons,” emotional impacts and even lingering thoughts are mainly imbued through the technique of “bad” characters,  Black, Queer, and Women artists have to always mine the impositions of their double-consciousness when presenting behaviors because it is usually members of the oppressed class that do battle with the “cops in the head” when attempting to reveal the ugly side of any milieu, whether it’s real or completely made-up.  It’s one thing for the stupid critic to attack you, a whole other thing when it’s a member of your own tribe. 

The characters, even when slightly alien, are all manifestations of archetypes in one way or another,  but Lorna and Theo reveal something else behind the mask. They are contemptuous in ways that are more insidious than the husband and father. Maybe it’s because they are, too, results of these Risks in life. When you read the book, you may pay attention to this dynamic. Alessandro does a superb job spinning the cobweb amidst this trio, an admirable quality in prose and one that is particularly cinematic.

While Risk felt easy enough for me to critique because of my own innate dislike (and disinterest) for such figures, it’s his freaky wife and son that disgusted me so — and upon which the novel’s emotional elements hinge on. Lorna and Theo would be more traditionally linked to the underarm of patriarchy, as victims of course.  And they are, as well as being willing participants in the oppressive and hateful matrix known as capitalism.  Alessandro makes them as ugly, if not more so, than the appalling weak Risk and the demented Javier, the toxic male embodiments, and their Queer applications. If the men were the cause, the women and children are the symptoms (Lorna’s thesis on rape is absolutely appalling and probably one of the best modern excoriations of the empathic losses we seem to be gaining every single day in the United States alone ). Upon my third reading, I was very excited how the novel seamlessly unfolds due to the character’s psychology and behavior.  That may sound obvious, but it’s not.  Some great novels are steeped in “telling a story,” versus character portraits.  One way isn’t better than the other, the impact a writer makes is owning up to their strengths and not trying to con us.  Alessandro is interested in psychology, he has a Master’s degree in it.  And he applies that to character construction, not plot ornamentation.  

I maintain if we reduce Shakespeare to plot — there’s nothing there. Shakespeare is about everything else. He exists in HOW and WHAT. Not the “meanings” or plot. And certainly not in appealing to audiences who want to be flattered. If you ever meet a Lady MacBeth or Richard III — run. Because they will not be anything remotely as fascinating as Shakespeare’s creations.


Creations. This is where Brian Alessandro thrives: where he lets loose. I like his anarchic humor and his uniquely “patrician punk” approach to writing and I hope he takes it further. For its all HIM. And in his world he has a lot to share about the society we participate in.  Edmund White astutely declared the book as “speaking to our crazy times.”  It’s not reflective of the times.  It is the times. Within the novel, there’s nothing sacred (except annihilation) and nothing pure (except self-hatred, compliance to imperialist cruelty) and the heartbeat of the book seems crunched in and viperous and reaching out through its tentacles of social media and the internet.  Kubrick gives you HAL.  Alessandro gives you Theo.  Pay attention, this character will have more gravity in the years to come.  For the sociopathy of youth is the future of the novel and the world.  Alessandro may in fact be linked to Kubrick’s clinical beliefs:  man is fixed.  He won’t change, possibly can’t – ever.  He just develops…and usually that means his ability to hate, inflict pain, destroy just becomes more sophisticated. Anthony Burgess famously criticized Kubrick’s cinematic vision of Alex, his creation in his novel Clockwork Orange.  Burgess felt that post 1968 Americans want (need?) to acknowledge that there is no hope, whilst Burgess himself was convinced change is always possible.  It certainly is a moral choice how we decide to leave our characters.  Do they learn lessons, is there a consciousness that gets expanded?  Is there an empathy that gets embraced?  (Funny enough, these questions rarely get specifically oriented.  Gender, sex, identity aside – Native Americans/Indigenous and Blacks have a far more complex, darker, and brighter notion of “hope” than any white man could conceive.  Except for Beckett or Kafka. Or even Burroughs, who’d probably state that if he had hope, he wouldn’t be a writer.)

Something I was struck by and never had considered after first reading was how much gay men’s struggles with masculinity are not just about seeking approval from other men in the way that hetero men do, but also in the ways that hetero women seek male attention/approval of their femininity. While I knew that was the case in terms of physique.  Speaking with the novel’s editor, Laura Schleifer, I don’t think I quite realized that “performative/ritualistic acts of masculinity like bullfighting might be done by the male gays for the male gaze of the male gays.”  It was something of a revelation to me when she announced this.

I refer to filmmaking or avatars of ‘smart’ independent cinema to broach the problem and connection I see inherent in both literature and movies:  there’s a LOT of criticism of everything, facts even, tons of information but very little about life.  And very little expression from a place of either genuine fear or outrage.  The white nihilist filmmakers I grew up with like Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute did a lot of damage to my generation.  It let white people off the hook, it created an intellectual distance from actual pain, and for me, ironically, it just affirmed what I always felt about most white people:  they are even more callous amongst themselves, actually, than with me. 

Brian Alessandro gets dangerous because he dares to reveal depth in characters who may be cruel or nasty — but he is not doing it to “understand” them as much as he doing it to state what he feels are facts about our life:  despicable people live around us, yes, and they do have souls…but that is what prompts us to ask what is important to us, how much of society is bent or compliant to patriarchy, warped racial and gender views, demeaning of sex in all its forms and willfully enabling the rote pathological behavior of masculinity – toxic or otherwise – and what it “should” mean.  Lorna crystallizes much of this and perhaps that is where the book’s political and social ills are actually clearest. Lorna could actually understand a Donald Trump and even make a case for him.  Trump is a human being, folks.  That alone should tell you something.

But decide for yourself.  A plot synopsis would be irrelevant and insulting to a book that operates in both the imagination and the tactile world.  The style of the writing is the meaning and one needs read a mere five pages of any part to get a sense of the power, humor, and ferociousness of good writing. 

Some readers may wonder if the characters “change,”  do they get “saved,”  do they “see the light”? 

Shakespeare died in 1616.  Did his plays give any consciousness and empathy to his own culture?  Did he make men, women, children, whomever – more sensitive?  No.  Quite the opposite, you could argue.  The international prism (and prison!) of Capitalism cast its net, giving us racism and the formal end of humanity (the end of humanity is not going to be a nuclear holocaust, it was already a holocaust over the Atlantic ocean  hundreds of years ago.  Just ask the sharks!)– a mere three years later in 1619 when the Dutch first brought African slaves to North American soil. Three years after Old Willy died, the power of his words instigated everything he may been against. 

Besides the bible, I am sure Shakespeare’s words were read by many slave traders.  The same way Nazis read Rilke. Or worse, privately whistling the melodies of Mendelssohn or Mahler as they maimed the descendants of those artists.    

Where’s the light here, attained? 

If art had the power to imbue empathy in a revolutionary way, such human nightmares could never occur.  But art unfortunately cannot do that.  It is mysterious, but it’s not alchemy.  And it’s not about casting a spell as it is about mesmerizing the human heart, the human mind. The best we can hope for is to be reminded of our own humanity.  Art doesn’t change the world.  It changes your relationship with the world.  And occasionally can prompt us to take action.  Poetry unfortunately has inspired man to rape and pillage.  It also has inspired man to help each other, be kinder, and fight for the underdog. 

Some people firmly believe art should provide empathy. When I was younger I did as well and was terrified when I realized it couldn’t.   I feel art, ultimately, should shake your core. I felt absolutely no empathy except for the world at large after reading Performer Non Grata.   The “world” that must endure these awful people.

I felt for myself. Because I must endure these atrocious characters from the novel —  in our society.  And sometimes tolerate them if I want to eat. Life is hard. So is the book.  But, like most things that matter, that’s what makes it so special.  Art is not for the weak.  Neither is Brian Alessandro’s writing.   

Performer Non Grata is published by Rebel Satori Press, who published the wonderful Fever Spore: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs, edited by Tom Cardamone and Brian Alessandro in 2022.

Dennis LeRoy Kangalee

Jackson Heights, NY

April 30, 2023

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