“I'm always really tuned in to what this evil albino squirrel is doing,” says author Drew Nellins Smith, gesturing to a scary-looking creature on top of his backyard fence in Austin, Texas. Squeak, Smith’s 14-year-old Papillon, eyes the rodent impassively.
“He always wreaks havoc,” Smith says, more amused than annoyed. “He would always knock these birds out of their nests. He's a little anarchist.”
Smith talks about the squirrel with what sounds like grudging respect. The novelist, after all, has a soft spot for people (and animals) who go their own way.
Take Sam, the misfit narrator of “Arcade,” Smith’s debut novel, released in paperback original this week by Los Angeles-based independent publisher Unnamed Press. After his heart is broken by a policeman who wasn’t quite his boyfriend, Sam starts to explore the world of anonymous sex in the video booths of an adult bookstore.
The novel is funny and chilling by turns, and because of its subject matter, necessarily dark. But if there’s any darkness in Smith himself, it’s hard to find — wiry, boyish and enthusiastic, he moves around with the energy of a teenager, and looks much younger than his 38 years.
Talking at the home he shares with his partner, Smith recalls the genesis of the novel, inspired by an actual adult bookstore off U.S. Highway 290 on the eastern edge of town.
“It's an industrial-looking building with three Xs on the roof. It's out there in this weird cul-de-sac next to a strip club,” he says. “During a much more closeted phase of my existence, I would go out there. I wasn't much of a participant, but I was so curious about everything. For a while, I became sort of obsessed with it.”
Adult bookstores, like parks, rest stops and bathhouses, have long been associated with “cruising,” a term used for men seeking anonymous sexual encounters with other men. In “Arcade,” Sam — who, like Smith, works as a hotel clerk — can’t keep himself away from the bookstore, although his interest is as much anthropological as sexual.
Some of the men cruising for sex in “Arcade” consider themselves straight. “These guys just assume it’s a secret that everyone has,” Smith explains, about both his characters and men he’s encountered in real life. “It's a funny mix of things, whatever they're doing internally, the rationalizations they must be operating with. Certainly, many of the people who go out there are married, but almost all of them are definitely living lives as straight men.”
It wasn’t easy for Smith, who grew up in the small central Texas town of Hillsboro, to come out as gay. “There was nothing there,” he recalls. “The closest thing is 40 minutes away; you could drive to Waco. I graduated high school in three years just to get out of there as fast as I could.”
He moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where he majored in English. But even in the state’s most famously liberal city, it took him a while to feel comfortable with his sexual orientation. He came out when he was in his late 20s.
“It's still hard to come out, however progressive this era might be,” he says. “I just couldn’t confront being a gay person myself for a long time. I knew I could sleep with women, so I thought, I'll just make that work. I was one of those guys who knew they could pull it off. For a lot of these guys, that's just the way it is. But there’s definitely an emotional toll.”
In “Arcade,” Sam goes through a similar trajectory, and Smith acknowledges that the novel was inspired by his own life story. “I vacillate between saying it's 40% fiction and 60% true, and 60% fiction and 40% true,” he says. “But the more I think about it, the less I really care what people perceive.”
For a while, Smith assumed the point was moot. He wrote “Arcade” in less than nine months, never holding out much hope that it would be published, despite his frequent bylines in publications like Tin House, the Millions and the Los Angeles Times.
One major press seemed interested, Smith says, but only if he agreed to cut most of the explicit sex scenes from the novel. He did, but they passed anyway: “[The publisher] finally called me and said, ‘It's not happening. They just don't get it. It's not going to work. They think it's too hardcore.’”
But “Arcade” found a sympathetic reader in Olivia Taylor Smith (no relation), the executive editor of Unnamed Press. Her first suggestion: Put all the sex scenes back in.
The two Smiths worked on the book when Olivia visited Drew in Austin. “We read the entire book aloud during that period — it was in a very late stage of its final version then,” he recalls. “I feel lucky that ‘Arcade’ got so much attention from Olivia. I know it was more than I would have gotten from almost anyone else.”
Eyeing an advance review copy of the book, Smith sounds as if he still can’t quite believe that it exists. He admits that it took him a while to tell his partner that his debut novel had sold.
“My partner didn't read it until it was out in galley,” he says, referring to advance copies of books that are sent to journalists and librarians. “I never even told him what it was about until just before it was finally sold. The idea of it being published just seemed so remote to me.”
Smith said he was initially concerned that some readers might think some of the book’s more shocking scenes are just thinly veiled autobiography. In the novel, Sam has a series of sexual encounters with strangers, including one with a one-eyed good ol’ boy in the parking lot of an adult bookstore, and one with a barely coherent tweaker strung out on speed.
“I borrowed so recklessly from my life, not imagining that it would be published. [But] if people think the whole thing is true, what … do I care?” he says. “I don't know these people, and they don't know me.
“I guess I just learned that the best way to get rid of shame is to openly talk about the thing that you're most ashamed of,” he says. “Which is so hard to do the first time you do it, but it gets easier. And this is something that gay men are largely pretty good at. I'm so much happier to be part of a culture of expression rather than repression, because I spent so much of my life in a culture of repression.”
Schaub is a writer in Austin, Texas.