Having never read any of Mykola's work before, I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up Variety, the Spice of Life. The book blurb made it sound like a fairly standard piece of coming-out, transgender erotica, but nothing could be further from the truth.
In many ways, this is a sad tale, one that's tragic in places, and comic in others. There is a significant amount of sex sprinkled throughout, but it's very matter-of-fact sex . . . interesting, and even exciting at times, but not what one would generally consider to be erotic. That's not a complaint - the portrayal of sex fits the tone and setting perfectly - just an observation.
For those most part, this is a story about unrequited lust. Our narrator (who never does give us his name) is living on his own for the first time, following the death of his mother. Having moved into a seedier section of 1970s New York, he wanders aimlessly through one movie-house, book-store, and dive-diner after another, watching the homosexual trysts of others from a distance. He finds himself interested in a beautiful (but distant) young man, and while their flirtation seems awkward and innocent, there's something unsettling about the object of his interest. When next they meet, the young man reveals his true self, that of a transvestite prostitute who escalates the narrator's interest to unadulterated lust.
At first, it seems like there's a frustrated romance in the making, as our narrator chases the young whore from one paid tryst to another, never quite managing to accomplish a tryst of his own. If this were a traditional bit of erotica, we'd expect love (or lust) to ultimately win out, and our narrator to rescue the young transvestite from her self-destructive life of alcoholic whoring. When she turns the tables and latches onto him, it seems as if the story just might be heading in that direction, especially as she encourages him to explore his own hidden feminine desires. Just when it seems as if the two cross-dressed lovers are about to consummate their lust, however, she drags him out into the streets (and down to her level), putting him to work as just another paid whore.
Ironically, after a nasty scare in a darkened theatre, he does finally get to experience his first truly enjoyable act of lust with another man . . . even if he is a paying customer. Feeling both feminine and fulfilled, he still longs for the young transvestite tease, but we sense he's opening himself to other possibilities.
Sadly, the young whore is not to be redeemed. She steals from him, lies to him, and continues to use him to pursue her own careless, self-destructive desires. What she does do, however, is introduce him (quite unintentionally) to the bold, beautiful, self-confident, ebony-skinned transsexual he's long-admired from afar. Something about her confidence has always scared him on the street, but he finds it infectious when they meet. The fact that Sheila is the first character to come into the story with a name of her own signifies that she is something special. It is through her (and with her) that our narrator finally finds the happiness he's been seeking. Their brief scenes together are definitely erotic, and they serve to redeem much of the filth and frustration that preceded them.
Yes, the passion he finds is with another prostitute . . . and, yes, he does get drawn into working the streets again . . . but there's an honest bond between them that might even be love. It's not your typical happy ending, but it is happy.
Gritty and nostalgic, I suspect Mykola has presented us with a realistic slice of 1970s life for a gay man in a society that wasn't very open to the concept of homosexuality. Given the time period and the environment, it may just be that our narrator's happy ending with a transsexual prostitute who genuinely seems to care for him may be the best he could hope for.
Overall, once I adjusted my expectations and fell into the flow of the story, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I'm definitely looking forward to my next Mykola Dementiuk read (likely to be Dee Dee Day or Times Square Cutie).