| If any writer could be said to be the self-appointed court jester of gay literature, it would be Mark O’Donnell. His novels and plays are an homage in spirit to all the cartoon watchers of his generation (and mine). The title of one of his plays — “That’s All, Folks!” — says it all: O’Donnell will stop at nothing to win you over with his Bugs Bunny-style smart alecky world view, and his good cheer is infectious. His work is peppered with characters breaking into dopey jingles or reciting cheesy but charming verse. They are boy-men who are both wise-ass and wise, who, behind a sardonic false front, are open for business in the traffic of pain, passion and inner peace.
Having spoiled us with the giddy brilliance of his last novel, “Getting Over Homer,” “Let Nothing You Dismay” is a disappointment despite its seemingly foolproof O’Donnellian premise: It’s Christmas Eve Eve Eve Eve Eve, or five days before Christmas, and Tad Leary, a 34-year-old newly unemployed and evicted Manhattanite, tries to shake off the gloom of his distinctly unseasonal circumstances by spending one day doing nothing but party-hopping. Tad is O’Donnell’s queer Ulysses, attempting to find a purpose to his meandering existence, exemplified by his toil (or lack thereof) over the vaguest of doctoral theses, “Social Hierarchies of Imaginary Places.”
The book begins with a blow-by-blow description of Tad beginning his directionless day. Staring into the toilet at the morning’s bowel movement — “a tattered yellow flotilla, feather-edged and legion” — Tad is reminded of the “teeming circles of angels surrounding the Light he’d admired in Gustave Dori’s drawings of Dante’s Paradiso. The Milky Way galaxy itself, he mused, also resembles a toilet in midflush. Was seeing angels in the toilet or toilets in the cosmos — firmament as excrement — a sign of madness, sadness, or gladness? As long as you find things interesting, he tried to reassure himself, you will survive.”
The problem with Tad (let’s begin with the name) is that he seeks, in such excrement-gazing, the answers to more nagging questions of self-preservation. He’s also almost infuriatingly acquiescent in his own disparagement. Left and right, hither and yon, Tad is insulted, dismissed, slandered, ignored and condescended to — by family, friends, ex-employers and the most transparently desperate of academic rivals. Because of his diminutive size, Tad’s even mistaken on several occasions for a child, and the wan stoicism with which he accepts his belittlement becomes increasingly irritating. Not that there aren’t a few choice moments: a downtown performance artist/uptown caterer dressed as the Virgin Mary, serving crab cakes and posing for pictures with oohing models, for instance. But at the center is dreary, passive, unsatisfying Tad.
The novel’s “be grateful for the gift of life” wrap-up may be the perfect Yuletide sentiment, but since it’s coming from O’Donnell, I would have liked a little more spice in this Christmas confection.