I’ve always been a fan of Tom Sharpe, who wrote Porterhouse Blue. This British academic satire tells the story of Zipser, a graduate student at stubbornly medieval Porterhouse College. Zipser is writing his dissertation on the political significance of pumpernickel in sixteenth-century Westphalia, and when he’s not doing that he’s trying to get laid. Somehow he winds up with cartons of condoms in his room; fearing he might be accused of stealing them, he tries to get rid of the evidence by inflating them with gas from the grate and sending them up the chimney. The flue, however, gets clogged with flammable condoms; and when a guest lights the grate, the ancient tower explodes, taking poor Zipser with it.
If Boyfriend Material is anything to go by, Alexis Hall is something of a gay Tom Sharpe. This romantic comedy tells the story of 28-year-old Luc O’Donnell, who is wasting his youth drinking, hooking up, and working at the Coleoptera Research and Projection Project—acronym “definitely not CRAPP”—a charity devoted to the preservation of dung beetles. Luc is estranged from his father, a has-been minor rock star in mid-comeback, but his father’s fame is enough to get him in the London tabloids every time he misbehaves. Eventually Luc’s “public image as some kind of barebacking, coke-snorting, buttockless-trouser-wearing pervert” threatens his employment, and he resigns himself to getting a respectable fake boyfriend to rehabilitate his image. A friend sets him up with Oliver, “a cool, clean, modern-art piece of a man entitled Disapproval in Pinstripes,” who coincidentally needs a fake boyfriend to accompany him to a family reunion.
Hall’s humor is not subtle, but it is funny. As narrator, Luc brings his sarcasm to bear on himself and a wide range of other subjects, including the English upper class, commercialism, Americans, politically correct do-gooders, and the 1990s. Luc’s colleague Alex Twaddle, “the biggest nitwit in the Home Counties,” takes him and Oliver to his club, Cadwallader’s: “Lurking discreetly behind a door just off St. James’s Street, it was made entirely of oak, leather, and men who’d been occupying the same arm chair since 1922.” Given the opportunity, the author shows he cannot resist an risque joke: At dessert, “Alex bounced in his seat like a poorly trained beagle. ‘I’m a dick man, myself. Thick and solid, and piping hot, and slathered in what the French call crème anglaise.’” He is referring to the English pudding spotted dick, often served with custard sauce.
Of course, the laws of the genre dictate that a fake relationship cannot remain fake for long. Luc and Oliver must dump each other a few times—and they do. Then, if it doesn’t end, the fake relationship must become real—and, in fits and starts, it does, with mutual apologies and professions of love. And “afterwards the sky was bright with new sunlight, pristine and blue and endless. And we sat on my doorstep, knees and shoulders touching, while Shepherd’s Bush stirred sleepily around us.” For an author who describes himself as a “genrequeer writer of kissing books” with titles like How to Bang a Billionaire, Boyfriend Material was a pleasant surprise and a very entertaining and funny read.