-Reviewed by Ian Chung–
If humour writing were crossed with erotica, one imagines the result would read something like Cameron Vale’s The Tradesman’s Entrance, a novelette from independent publisher Vagabondage Press. The ‘About Us’ page at the publisher’s website states that they ‘dislike the tendency in mainstream publishing to categorize and pigeonhole authors and their work into literary ghettos’, going on to declare ‘a commitment to providing an alternative’. Indeed, with its frank (but not entirely gratuitous) descriptions of gay sex, it is hard to imagine a work like Vale’s being put out by any of the mainstream publishers today, even if the sex is really secondary to what the publisher calls a ‘laugh-out-loud gay romantic comedy and treatise on class dynamics’.
For on one level, The Tradesman’s Entrance really is a straightforward story about fantasy coming to life. Protagonist Stephen Patterson writes romance novels for a living under the pseudonym Patience DeVere, but as the reader subsequently discovers, he also happens to be a virgin. As if just to pile trope upon trope, Vale introduces Dave the plumber (hence the title’s sexual pun) two pages into the first half of the novelette, Act I – Unexpected: Stage Left. Dave conveniently happens to be ‘a tall, tanned Adonis…sprung straight from the pages of one of [Stephen’s] over-wrought novels — dark, shoulder-skimming hair glinting copper in the sunlight, tastily trim and muscular body squeezed, but not entirely contained, by a low-slung pair of blue jeans and a tight, white workman’s vest’.
What follows is plenty of bantering between the two men over cups of tea and biscuits, which primarily serves to build up sexual tension that gets consummated in the second half of the novelette, unsubtly headed, Act II: The Cherry-Popping of Patience de Vere. Admittedly though, it is entertaining, watching Dave steadily break through Stephen’s uptight defences (psychological and physical alike), and ultimately, bed him in graphic fashion. As far as repartee goes, Vale’s writing is slick and solid enough to carry the fantasy forward, seeing it through even to its perfect ending that has been telegraphed pages before it actually takes place.
Yet what saves The Tradesman’s Entrance from being simply a casual romp is precisely how self-aware the storytelling is. From the sprinkling of deliberately bad writing (courtesy of Stephen’s abortive attempts at his new Clarissa Hart romance novel) to the grotesque physical perfection of plumber Dave, it is hard to escape the feeling that while Vale is unabashedly deploying the tropes of the erotica genre at full force, she is also implicitly skewering them because of how over the top their cumulative effect is. Personally speaking, there is also something aesthetically satisfying about the circularity of the narrative, all that sexual comedy being bookended by scenes of Stephen writing at his desktop. (I would definitely read a novel called The Biscuit Tin Philosopher.) The biographical note at the very end tosses out one last titbit, revealing that ‘Cameron Vale’ is itself a pen name. Calling The Tradesman’s Entrance metafictional would be a stretch, of course. It is, however, undoubtedly a good-natured blending of two writing genres that are not the most obvious of bedfellows.