Book Slut: Sex, Drugs, Art and Oakland In Brontez Purnell’s Johnny Would You Love Me If…?

Everyone in Oakland knows Brontez. If you don’t know Brontez, then you don’t really know Oakland, because he’s somewhat of a legend around these parts. From his days playing punk shows at The Gilman in the locally lauded, scantily clad, mostly pop outfit Gravy Train, to his recent notoriety with the Younger Lovers, his dance performances and many other artistic endeavors and incarnations of bands, Brontez has always been a man about town. But beyond his creative pursuits, what makes Brontez more scintillating and more engaging than your average scummy Oakland hipster artist wanna be is the ease with which Brontez is Brontez: a burning, brilliant, black boy in our streets.

Now, if you don’t know Brontez personally, maybe I should back it up a little and explain what I mean when I say “Brontez.” Brontez is a loud mouthed gay boy from Alabama with punk rock day dreams and an insatiable yen to fuck. Brontez is usually drunk, and if you know him, you know that he’s always the life of the party. I guess it’s up to him whether or not the party is careening with jolly good times or riddled with bad coke trips and talking shit and starting fights. Everyone I know (or, rather everyone I have ever fucked) has a Brontez story (about how Brontez wants to bang them. In the words of Brontez: DUH BITCH). But, more importantly, Brontez has a story about everyone I know, and, thanks mostly to his commitment to consistent artistic output, some of those stories have been documented, written down, and published in his new novella Johnny Would You Love Me If…(My Dick Were Bigger?).

In Johnny Would You Love Me If…, the fecklessness with which Brontez lives his life is revealed in a series of vignettes that congeal over topics that are all too familiar to those of us disenfranchised, underemployed, disaffected youth: trivial casual sex, our tepid jobs, STDs, should we use condoms?, being a misfit, poetry, married men, therapists, tour diaries, dance routines, poetry, magic, black outs, mom, broken hearts and hangovers. But Brontez tells these stories with the aplomb of someone who has gone to the dark side, realized he belonged there, and then got bored with the dark side and tried to find the dark side’s dark side. His prose is comfortable as he ambles through stories about anonymous bath house fuckery, indifferently discussing unprotected sex, and poo pooing the overly sensitive types who balk at his feigned nonchalance about being HIV positive.

Brontez’s series of vignettes adds up to an image of life in the Bay Area that too many people have never seen and perhaps will never seen due to the demographic shift of the people out here. While Johnny Would You Love Me If… lacks a cohesive plot line, it reads with the scattered continuity that is reflective of the almost schizophrenic mind set of being a young artist trying love and live in this messy city of ours. To be young (or aging) in the Bay Area while trying to be an artist means that you are many things at once: a musician, a fucker, a lover, a dancer, a writer, a drunk, a criminal. Brontez even goes so far as to poke fun at people who see his lifestyle as something to fetishize, but with his book we all have the opportunity to look at this lifestyle and gawk at the pure artistry with which Brontez lives his life. It can be fascinating for some, and familiar for others.

One of Brontez’s central themes is being HIV positive and having unprotected sex. While this can be a grim topic, Brontez manages to talk about it in a way that eschews the typical tragic trappings that the HIV epidemic was always painted with. Brontez is honest about his experience, lamenting the patronizing tone and condescending attitudes of people’s reaction to his status. He is honest about pretending to love people and pretending to care, but he revels in the heart break, examining every inch of the reality of not being loved back. He looks at long term relationships that have no emotion, and the fleeting ones like whirlwinds that always end with broken hearts. He expounds on vengeance, on jealousy, and not giving a fuck when it comes to his multitude of lovers. He lobs gems of wisdom into giggly stories that come off as comedy but pierce with wit. When it comes to bug chasing, Brontez gracefully lets us know that, “the bug chaser says ‘I’d rather have it so I can stop worrying about it.'” This is called extreme. Looking back (with glasses) at certain jacked decisions in the past, I think it’s also extreme to say “I wanna do hella sketchy shit and don’t want anything bad to happen.” Damn.

Stories start out with the self-referential “I was an American Waiter bored at work” and end up in a self-critical expose of either heartless or too heart wrenching sex. His (very successful) stab at imitating the Southern Gothic style is exemplary of Brontez’s ability to blend well-structured, eloquent writing principles with his wry humor and sneering perspective on taboo subjects such as molestation and being the so-called “Satan worshipping California boy” in a family full of Alabama Christians. He expounds on the self loathing chagrin of writing class and his constant battles with his therapist who is full of grad school cliches. He addresses issues of class and race through a sexualized, drugged up lens that leaves the proselytizing (and often alienating) politics out of it. Brontez captures his own life as it comes up emetically in chunks of sexuality, ennui, and self-immolating frustration, but he also captures a slice of Oakland that is quietly diminishing and here only for the moment.

Brontez is unabashed, and, unlike most of us, can admit that he just wants people to like him. Well, we do like Brontez, and as he says in his book, yeah, his stories are on fire. Get a slice of life in Oakland and life as Brontez and buy his book from Last Gasp.