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Gay Bar by Jeremy Atherton Lin review – a lurid, literary night out


Lin summons sights and smells from San Francisco to London in a gloriously multifaceted memoir

“I went out to bars,” declares Jeremy Atherton Lin late in this florid, lurid, powerfully brainy memoir of gay gallivanting, “to be literary.” That’s not entirely true: his book begins as he enters one such enclave with a companion who sniffs the musky fug and says: “It’s starting to smell like penis in here.”

Those pheromones entice Lin into the sweaty, congested darkness, and random couplings are soon under way as bodies agglomerate in corners. But gradually another purpose emerges: Lin turns out to be conducting research as well as cruising. He begins in San Francisco, where what Allen Ginsberg called “saintly motorcyclists” huddle in establishments with names such as the Tool Box; after 2005, having settled in London with his British partner, he investigates Whitechapel pubs where employees of the fashion industry multitask, networking professionally while they make dates for sex; a dutiful detour takes him to a drag cabaret in Blackpool that is mostly patronised by gaggles of shrieky bachelorettes. Unearthing history in all of these places, Lin treats gay bars as archives of communal memory. But they also appeal to him as zones of titillating danger, definitely not what the political correctness cops call “safe spaces”. “I went out to take risks,” Lin admits. Luckily, his worst misadventure happened when a vulpine lad he brought home from a bar “proceeded to rip apart my American Apparel T-shirt from the V-neck”.

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