Jan 30, 2009 | By: Ken Furtado
It happened in the PX at Fort Dix, New Jersey. PX stands for Post Exchange, a sort of super-Target found on most U.S. military bases, where military personnel can shop at highly reduced prices.
Let me add that the year was 1970; there were no gays in the military — and if there were, you'd better watch out. I was in Basic Training at the time, being transformed from a hippie fag into a killing machine. My company had been given a rare hour of free time, so naturally, everyone headed to the PX for cigarettes and cokes. As I passed the book rack, my attention was drawn to a paperback with a snow-white cover and a pale lavender figure that, upon closer examination, proved to be a handsome — if somewhat fey — young blond. The book was The Lord Won't Mind.
I grabbed it and perused a few pages, unable to believe that I was holding what was tantamount to an entire pornographic gay novel. Dare I buy it? How would I get it to the barracks? Where would I hide it so it would not be found during the next inspection? I don't remember how I resolved those dilemmas, but my fingers refused to put the prized book back on the rack, and for years afterwards, it traveled with me wherever I moved, until eventually it was lost.
The author of that novel was Gordon Merrick. He would feel maligned at his work being called pornography; erotic literary fiction would be better. After all, the novel rubbed shoulders with Erich Segal's Love Story and John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, at the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list for 16 weeks! It was the first gay-themed novel and the first sexually explicit gay novel to appear on the list.
Merrick was a fascinating (and very handsome) character. Born in 1916 with a proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, in the posh Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, he attended Princeton for a few years, then moved to New York to be a stage actor. He became Moss Hart's lover and a successful Broadway actor, but playing the same character night after night soon bored him. He decided to become a reporter.
Exempted from military service during WWII due to impaired hearing, Merrick's reporting experience (and fluent French) led to him becoming a spy. After the war, he lived for a time in France, then he moved to Mexico and began to write. His first novel, published in 1947, was The Strumpet Wind (later re-titled The Night and the Naked). Vaguely autobiographical, it told, in veiled prose, the story of a gay American spy and his sadistic bisexual superior officer. It was a financial success, and Merrick returned to France.
His second novel, The Demon of Noon, is about an expatriate American family living in France and their gay teenaged son, Robbie, who is a sex magnet for men and women alike. The homosexual content is more blatant, but a typical sex scene goes like this:
"Then he felt Toni's hands on him and his hard male body against his, and he was cast up onto the shores where he was to abide and a shimmering happiness filled him and pressed in upon him from the whole room."
Merrick moved to Greece, where he wrote his fifth and most famous novel, The Lord Won't Mind. It tells the story of first cousins Charlie and Peter, who meet for the first time in their late teens or early twenties. Both are impossibly handsome, hung and sexually desirable. Charlie is a bisexual rake and sexual predator; Peter is a virgin, in denial about his sexual urges. But when Charlie seduces Peter, he opens a Pandora's box of emotions and events that spiral out of control. Theirs becomes a love story for the ages, and it was so successful that it launched two sequels: One for the Gods and Forth Into Light.
Merrick cast timidity to the winds when writing The Lord Won't Mind. The initial seduction scene is 12 pages long, and Peter's deflowering defies readers not to touch themselves:
"Peter was whimpering and uttering brief, strangled sobs, but he bore down hard, his hips rotating as he sought to impale himself completely. Charlie withdrew slightly and then bore implacably into him. The sobs became uncontrolled, but something seemed to give way and they both cried out as Charlie felt his full length plunge into him, bringing Peter down onto his lap. The sobs were transformed into choking laughter, and Peter uttered another cry as his head fell back onto Charlie's shoulder and he abandoned himself to the leaping flood of another orgasm. … 'Oh yes,' Peter moaned. 'It's unbelievable. I can. I can do it.' He took the initiative, repeating the movement, his hips working with abandon as he explored the pleasures of this unknown exercise."
And that's only a fraction of one page.
Merrick was a hot property and gay readers couldn't wait for his next novel. The Peter and Charlie trilogy was followed by six other explicitly gay novels and an unfinished seventh, The Good Life, which was completed posthumously by Merrick's life partner, Charles Hulse and published by Alyson in 1997. Merrick died of lung cancer in 1988.
The Lord Won't Mind and Merrick's subsequent novels have been reprinted in paperback several times. The Avon editions of the 1980s, with their full color photo-realistic depictions of handsome young male couples, are highly desirable collectors' items.
For many years, it was fashionable to ridicule Merrick, but twenty years after his death, his reputation is more solid than ever. He occupies a rare position bridging pornography and literary fiction and he was truly a pioneer. His characters didn't die or kill themselves at the end of the story, and Merrick was ahead of his time in being willing to put gay lives and romance and complex sexual relationships on the page.