It is difficult to try and explain what Drew Nellins Smith’s debut novel, Arcade, is about. At its most basic level, the novel follows the unnamed narrator who refers to himself as Sam as he tries to anatomize his almost-closeted gay persona and the role society expects him to play. Other times, the novel switches to Sam’s desperate attempts to get back together with an ex who has long moved on. Even then, that’s not what the novel is about. Smith’s novel emphasizes the space the arcade —a place where otherness and anonymity mingle in between racks of porn DVD’s and dim-lighted booths where men (and sometimes couples) see their sexual fantasies come to life— takes in Sam’s life.
Sam is lonely and fails to know what he wants many times. In particular, the short chapters in the novel reveal Sam’s inability to figure out what it is he wants to do with his life. In fact, the chapters devote a sufficient amount of time and space to describe Sam’s job, the new relationship his ex-lover has, the peepshow arcade, and the sexual escapades that occur within it. As for the sex in the novel, Smith captures both intimate sex and the wild, almost neurotic, and detached sex —sex Sam only sees but rarely participates in. Though I really liked how the sex is presented, it is not the only reason I enjoyed Arcade.
Astoundingly, I believe it is the novel’s refusal to be a coming out novel that made me want to keep reading. For a long time, the gay novel genre has revolved around portraying male homosexual behavior and stories about their acceptances or rejections. However, Sam never outright admits he is gay and it is only his actions that ultimately portray him as a gay man. Of the topic, Sam says “And the truth is I’m telling people that I’m not really gay or whatever, but that I’ve fallen in love with a guy.” When asked what is the distinction between being in love with a guy and being gay, Sam’s response is that he does not want to think of it and that he “doesn’t even care if [he’s] gay or whatever.” Smith’s rejection of the typical gay novel allows the reader to focus more on the space, literal and imagined, of what it means to be a gay man never truly participating in sexual acts but watching them.
Though some may shy away or be offended by the frankness in which Sam recounts his time at the arcade, it is this very honesty that kept luring me to turn the page. Smith does not hold back in his novel: he patiently and carefully walks us down the lobby, through the aisles, and into the booths to join Sam to question the space which has been provided. The reader faces the truth of a situation where men like Sam are forced into literal dark spaces in order to satisfy their sexual needs.
The reason novels like Smith’s are important to read, especially given the recent Orlando attacks, is because the reader is able to see others have the same issues. Sam is not the only man in the booths but there are times when he might as well be. Sometimes he feels connected to the other men at the arcade knowing that just like him, they are looking to satisfy and be satisfied. However, more often than not, Sam feels detached from the location and the people in it knowing that most of the men go back to their wives and families and jobs and pretend the arcade does not exist. Sam does not have that option since it seems he is always thinking about the arcade, the people in it, and how he feels about it every time he steps inside and feels the surveillance the store is subjected to.
Arcade is a short novel in which Smith’s prose is straightforward and captivating. The series of scenes which are introduced with each new chapter create a cohesive story about Sam figuratively and literally watching others engage in sexual acts within the arcade. The men thrive in knowing they are anonymous since outside of the arcade those same men live normal heterosexual lives. Perhaps the arcade can be best described by Sam:
“Of course I could tell which men were rich or poor or middle class, but it didn’t matter out there. After the three dollar threshold, we were all the same… I liked the idea that most of us never would have met or interacted if it hadn’t been for that place, divided as we were by our jobs and incomes.”
Arcade is available now through Unnamed Press.