Author James Robert Baker could well be the Ice-T of the gay culture. In a manner reminiscent of the rapper’s controversial song “Cop Killer,” Baker’s latest novel depicts the assassination of anti-gay politicians and clergymen.
“Tim and Pete” (Simon & Schuster) depicts a fictional gang of “AIDS kamikazes"--hopped up on speed and armed with machine guns--who, before they die, decide to mow down a few right-wingers.
Their motto: “If I get AIDS, I’m going to take someone with me.”
Baker, 44, avers that such sentiments aren’t meant as a serious call to arms, but concedes that if he ever contracts AIDS, “I don’t think I’d just take AZT and hug a teddy bear. . . . I think I’m capable of acting out some of the scenarios described in the book.”
In that sense--and many others--"Tim and Pete” is about Baker himself: his rage, his raunchiness, his racial views and his amphetamine-tweaked childhood in a Republican household in Southern California.
Baker--gray-flecked goatee, Velvet Underground T-shirt and faded jeans--glances out a picture window in his Pacific Palisades home and flashes back on growing up in Long Beach. In high school during the 1960s, he often hung out at The Pike amusement park, with its roller coaster of death, seedy characters and a visiting “biker mama” who introduced Baker to “straight” sex shortly before her arrest for bank robbery.
He also popped pills (“I was a teen-age speed freak”) and began exploring homosexuality at underground nightclubs for gay teens. But a current of paranoia ran through all this activity: Baker lived in fear of his since-deceased father, who he calls a “right-wing psycho.” At one point, Baker says, his dad hired detectives when he suspected--correctly--that young Baker was having sex with a 19-year-old man who lived across the street.
After high school, Baker turned to booze, convinced that he needed to drink because he was still “in the closet.” When he later went public with his homosexuality, however, Baker realized the addiction had a life of its own: What had once made him feel “euphoric, ecstatic and superhuman” had turned “hellish.”
He sobered up, enrolled in UCLA’s graduate film program and launched a five-year screenwriting career in the early 1980s.
He hated it.
“I felt like a door-to-door salesman going to all these (story) pitch meetings,” he recalls. The money was good, but his work was never produced. He calls the big shots he worked with “rabid, hideous morons.” Make that rabid, hideous morons who might someday want to transform a Baker book into film, so he won’t name them.
He started writing novels on the side--his first was published in 1985--and quit Hollywood after the release of his second book in 1986.
The screenwriting experience proved useful, though. Baker’s 1988 book, “Boy Wonder,” tracks the fictitious life of slime-ball film producer Shark Trager. Strains of the author’s past figure into his other novels as well. Right-wing parents, The Pike, amphetamines, a recovering alcoholic and a suspicious father who uncovers his son’s homosexual liaison with a neighbor all appear in “Tim and Pete,” his fourth book, released last month.
Simon & Schuster representatives say the book is “doing nicely,” especially on the West Coast, but wouldn’t provide sales figures. Baker says his other novels have sold about 25,000 copies each.
Critics have delivered mixed reviews of his fiction. The Washington Post described his second book, “Fuel-Injected Dreams,” as “frequently witty” but “riddled with grotesque (plot) implausibilities.”
A New York Times reviewer, writing about “Boy Wonder,” said Baker might not be America’s most artistic novelist, but “when art fails him . . . (he) thrives on voltage alone.”
In his lawn-chair-furnished living room, Baker pops a can of cherry Coke and talks about the voltage in his latest work: Barbara Bush beheaded by a chain saw, Catholic bishops gutted and torched, tense encounters with blacks and Latinos.
“People ask, ‘Why are you so angry?’ (as if) it’s a personal problem rather than a political one.” Baker says: That’s like suggesting to a Jew outraged by Nazi atrocities that he is actually upset with his father and needs therapy to avoid “displacing his anger onto the Fuhrer .”
The source of Baker’s rage--and that of many other gays, he says--is grief. The grief is from watching friends and loved ones dying of AIDS, and the rage is at the “gay-bashing” conservatives he blames for the death toll.
Baker concedes that the homosexual community also is culpable--bathhouses stayed open, promiscuous sex continued--but he insists “the larger problem is that AIDS was ignored for so many years by . . . people who didn’t care or were even glad it was happening.”
His book builds on that anger.
The idea of dismembering, burning and killing conservatives “starts out as a joke . . . almost as a way of blowing off steam,” he says. “Then the same ideas are expressed in art, and later the feeling is that even the most radical ideas in art aren’t enough . . . that the wrong people are dying.”
Enter the AIDS kamikazes, who figure they’re going to die soon anyway.
Baker says he has mixed feelings about gay terrorism: “I think assassination does change things. . . . But I’m not really calling for violence. . . . It’s a novel, not a position paper.”
But some observers believe he has tapped into a very real sentiment. “I’m surprised nothing like this (violence by people with AIDS) has happened so far,” says Michael Goff, editor of Out, a magazine for gays. “At the same time, I’m not surprised. . . . I think gay people are much more concerned about activism that’s pragmatic. Violence would immediately turn the public against us.”
On the other hand, if the ban on gays in the military isn’t overturned, Goff says, “Who knows what could happen?”
The controversy doesn’t end there.
Baker, now working on a satire about “white liberal guilt” in post-riot Los Angeles, also sends “Tim and Pete” into the minefield of Southern California race relations. When Tim sits next to a Salvadoran woman at a bus stop, for example, he thinks: “Don’t lay your death-squad guilt trip on me, baby. I’m not some bleeding-heart Westside yuppie. You’re sitting next to a queer, senora, and we’ve got our own problems.”
Likewise, when Tim perceives a look of “moral contempt” from a trio of black men at a restaurant, he labels them “hip-hop pigs.”
He later discovers that the blacks are gay and the Latina “was just a sweet old woman putting up with a lot of (stuff) that I couldn’t even imagine.”
But Baker says the character’s initial reactions reflect his own feeling that gay support for civil rights for ethnic groups should be contingent on their support of gays: “If blacks (and Latinos) want my respect, they have to deal with their own homophobia. I’m not playing guilty liberal anymore.”
Still, he doesn’t consider the book racist: “I just wanted to explore the conflicts between gays and Latinos and gays and blacks . . . the real feelings (and the) misapprehensions of each other. I realized it wouldn’t all be nice and politically correct.”
Unfortunately, he adds, the buzz about racial tensions and homosexual kamikazes obscures the book’s other main focus: a love story.
As love stories go, however, this is raunch. Cat sphincters, bleeding hemorrhoids and graphic sex scenes litter the pages. “Supremely bad taste” is how a positive review on the book’s dust jacket describes the text. “Raunch with intelligence” is Baker’s own assessment.
“I’m just trying to capture the way people really talk and think,” he says. “I want to write like Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones) plays guitar.” And using genteel prose to describe sex is the “equivalent of doing (a Stones album) on harpsichord.”
Another reason for the raunchiness, Baker says, is to offer “images of survival and hope” to young gay men in the age of AIDS: “It’s important to say that hot sex is still possible.”
The book seems to come down on the side of monogamy, but in an abbreviated form: Tim and Pete’s relationship lasted six months. Still, even that length rankled one gay critic, who chastised Baker for promoting monogamy as the only way to avoid AIDS.
But other readers criticize the novel’s portrayal of “an erotic nostalgia for the anonymous sex” of the 1970s as seemingly glorifying promiscuity, Baker says.
Baker’s personal practice is “serial monogamy” (he only gets involved with one person at a time and is “not currently in a long-term relationship”), but he emphasizes the book isn’t intended as a primer for other gay couples.
As the debate continues, Baker has moved on to other projects. Writing has become his drug of choice.
First drafts, in particular, are “a real rush,” he says. “I don’t have any major hobbies or athletic pursuits.” (Even his mountain bike has been converted into a stationary, indoor exercise cycle.)
Baker says he cranks through a book in a matter of weeks, then moves into rewriting: “It’s kinda like I’m on speed.”