Need was to have been my second book of short fiction, following Secret Things by about five years. But the book never made it to American (or most Canadian) book stores because the distributor went bankrupt the very same week the print run arrived at their warehouse. At the time, combined with other personal and professional problems, I thought it was a career killer and so I stepped away from it all for a while. And now Need has (formally) released to the public, albeit in an expanded e-book edition—on December 10, 2014, fifteen years after its original (false) start.
From the back cover…
Thomson delves incisively into the varieties of need we experience—sometimes through emotional fireworks, but more often in the personal, quiet, sometimes funny, and painful details of daily life. Written with visceral immediacy, grace, and wit, the sixteen stories in this collection can be held up like mirrors to our emotional selves.
The supplemental stories in the e-book release are “After” (previously unpublished) and “Blur” (published in Quickies 2 under the title “Mantasy”). There are also two alternate (original) versions of two stories: “Final Rinse” (“Positive I.D.”) and “No Time to Die” (“Brad, Descending”).
Here are short excerpts from each of the stories:
Neurotica; An Introduction of Sorts
Instead of jumping off of tall buildings, we jump off people—lovers, friends, family—anything to up the volume, sharpen the pain, improve the drama.
Enemies, At Last
I am twenty-nine years old, have a nasty drag habit, live in a second-floor walk up in Toronto. I’m used to being ignored. Tant pis, as they say in French. Tough luck or, as I prefer to say, Aunt Piss.
Waiters are only appreciated by their own kind, like members of a secret club, participants in a sacred ritual. The objects of a stereotype.
All of the years of names—queer and faggot—became a white-hot molten rock ready to explode. Did you deserve it? How many times did I stab you?
It’s not because I have less to lose by leaving, but rather because I have nothing to gain if I stay.
She rises and goes to the window and looks outside into the still, dark night. A splinter of a thought surfaces in her mind but she fights against recognizing it. She checks the clock behind her on the desk but cannot see the face. She walks to the kitchen and observes the clock there. It’s after four in the morning. The word bubbles up. The word from the dream. She is too slow to stop it this time. Opportunity.
The Guy Next Door
I don’t know much about the guy next door except for what I’ve learned late at night when the walls between our apartments are at their thinnest. I hear music, sometimes just a rhythmic thumping, sometimes a melody. Saturday mornings he plays Nina Simone or Miles Davis. Sometimes both.
It’s not a casual kiss, and he always looks glad afterward, even though I don’t know how it makes him feel. After I lock the door behind him, I often wonder what it all means, where it’s all going, and where it’s come from. I don’t have many answers, and that’s probably because I don’t ask any questions. All I have is the kiss.
“Bill Reid has run off and done another soft porn video and still wants to do catalogue work for us,” Brad drones. “Our most popular model doing cheesy pornos and then bitches that clients won’t hire him to pose in underwear.”
“Do you realize that next week is our anniversary?” Call asks.
Love and War
Sex is an everyday thing. It’s also Oz and Xanadu and home and comfort and fear and joy. It’s two bodies coming together in motion and emotion. A-ha! Emotion. That’s what was missing.
For twenty minutes I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to figure out who it was I looked like. I smoked a cigarette and glared at my reflection in the mirror. Whore. Slut. Fuck-up. Zombie. I don’t know why it happened.
I look back inside around me, from the city to a picture on the wall. It’s a photograph of my companion smiling, wrapped in the arms someone his age.
“He’s dead,” comes a voice heavy with… is it sleep?
A dark mop of hair covers his eyes. He pulls it back and sits looking at me as if waiting for a response.
Room for Patrick
There is a picture of the two of us. It hangs, framed in brass, on the wall opposite me. In it, Patrick looks down at something on the ground, and I, beside him, darkened by shadow, stare at him reverently. I hardly recognize that expression now, although the picture is only a few years old, taken without our knowledge and before the tidal wave crashed down on us. I am in love. At least in the picture I am.
Bad Emotional Risk
“I’ve always told you that you weren’t built for dating,” my friend Ronald says over an expensive cup of coffee.
“Oh, so you think it’s my fault that I only date ridiculous men?”
“It’s all in your perceptions, Brian. There’s something wrong with you. I just haven’t been able to put my finger on what it is.”
“You’ve put more than your finger on what usually gets me in trouble.” I smile.
Apart from this ring and my frequent flyer points, I have few valued possessions, and few needs outside the black the two of us create together. I was not expecting it, the way I know you, but it relieves me and fills me. Just thinking about you hovering above me in the darkness and nothing else. That’s all I want. Today is Thursday. I leave my life and come to you empty and needing.
It’s okay now. I’ve worked it through as friends, doctors, and books have instructed me to. But still, I cannot help but hate her. For being so far away, for not believing in passion, for stifling her dreams, and expecting the world to accompany her in silent agony. I admired her if only because she understood control, although it served no one but her. I hate her because she left me. But what good is the hatred now? It’s a soot-stained antique that cannot be cleaned. And so it stands there, tarnished, weary, perhaps trying not to attract too much attention. Hatred is a lamp that doesn’t light.
For the Love of Ella
Marcy goes to the window and looks outside. It’s a sunny day, mid-July. She raises her left hand to the window and holds it there. She is silent for a few minutes. I look back and forth between her and the television set. Whatever happened to Richard Dawson? Who is this new blonde guy?
“Honey, let’s rob a bank.”
Top five answers on the board…
“Gary did you hear me? I said let’s rob a bank.”
E-Book Bonus Stories:
There’s a reason you can’t taste your own spit.
Nature must have wanted us to be able to remember who has been inside of us by making certain things linger in our senses.
“So you, uh, have a thing for bald guys?”
“Older bald guys.”
“You’re obviously not trying to flatter me…”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to. You’re older than me, so I said older. I didn’t say old. Relax.”
No Time to Die (Original Draft of Brad, Descending)
Positive I.D. (Original Draft of Final Rinse)
The following reviews are for the 1999 print edition of Need (which was never officially released to the public).
Toronto-based author Robert Thomson has scored a hit with Need, his second collection of short stories centred primarily, though not exclusively, around issues of gay male existence. His style aims to capture and cultivate the snippets of experience—other people’s experience—that find resonance in all of us. And that aim is dead on: an observation here, an insecurity there—Need is the sum of its parts and then some.
There is an immediacy to Thomson’s writing, a sense that he is capturing the fleeting thoughts which comprise the texture of day-to-day life. The voices of his characters are cacophonic, diverse, made coherent and unified by the common denominator of the author’s guiding hand.
Need is by no means a “pleasant” read, in the truest sense of the word, but it is an enjoyable one. Throughout the book, we discover that Thomson is a kind of literary spokesman; his is the voice of despair, albeit a lyrical one. The collection is largely “field trip” fiction, full of introductions to the not-so-strange worlds and the not-so-exotic people we encounter every day, often without knowing it. These are inner thoughts dragged out into the light and onto the page, uncomfortable in their candor yet comforting in their relevance, no matter how painful. A few chapters before bed will doubtless clear away the day’s debris, either through sighs of “thank God I’m not that messed up” or “thank God I’m not alone.”
Need is a book that belongs on the nightstand as much as Tylenol or condoms. Highly recommended.
—David Crosson, Outlooks magazine
Robert Thomson has hit upon the nerve of the downside of the queer lifestyle with startling results, however, after about four of these sixteen stories you wish he would put his talent into creating new scenarios and lives and stories, and even perhaps a positive story on queer love. And Thomson is capable, as he shows in perhaps the best of the stories, “waiting.” This is one of the few stories in the collection that isn’t decidedly queer and oddly, it is the best and showcases Thomson’s ability at wry humour. It is a first person narrative about his various jobs as a waiter/host at various restaurants and at each one vowing he’ll “never work in another restaurant as long as I live.” The twisted “for the love of ella” is another which displays Thomson’s talent at creating absurd situation, carefully balancing love, hate and fear. But these are far and few between. Throughout most of the collection Thomson’s needle on queer love is skipping on the sad song as we wait, in vain, for him to bump the turntable and move to the next song.
—Kevin Jagernauth, Broken Pencil
I’ll admit it. I’ve never really understood what Queer Lit was or is. If it’s books written by and for homosexuals, does that mean, being heterosexual, that I shouldn’t know sections of Walt Whitman by heart of that David Leavitt’s Family Dancing is one of the most accomplished books of short fiction written in America in the last 20 years? Maybe it means I’m in denial about my own sexual identity and have been simply aesthetically sublimating all this time.
I’ve also always been a little confused about the way books written by gays tend to be received in the media, especially works of fiction or poetry. What puzzles me most is why they’re usually assigned to be reviewed by other homosexuals, as if somehow someone without first-hand knowledge of gay life isn’t capable of determining whether the author is using stale language or their sense of narrative is beyond that of the average television sit-com. Reviewers should not, as the PC-saying goes, be “gay positive.” They should be “gay indifferent”—indifferent, that is, to everything but the quality of the writing.
Need, a second collection of short stories from Toronto’s Robert Thomson, makes it easy for one to be pleasantly disinterested as such. Thomson’s queer credentials are solid—his stories have appeared in the anthologies Queer View Mirror and Brothers of the Night—but it’s easy to praise them for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with what makes his characters sexually aroused and everything to do with the way he puts them together for his readers.
In one story the narrator’s friend calls to chat about a pick up who’s spent the night but with whom he sexually abstained, admitting, “It’s actually good that we didn’t have sex, I think. I don’t really want to get involved with anybody right now.” The narrator reflects, “I’m confused. Taking someone home, sleeping with them—sleeping—letting them vomit in your bathroom… That isn’t being involved?” In another story, titled “if” the nameless narrator admits how he “would like to make if the world we live in so that he would come back and I wouldn’t be so afraid.” Need is full of like characters, striving after the same understanding of themselves and others that mark any piece of serious fiction.
—Ray Robertson, Toronto Star
Toronto writer Robert Thomson’s second book of short stories is often very good indeed, evoking scattershot, anxious, searching/failing urban gay lives with wonderful clarity.
“Waiting” follows the career arc of a restaurant worker, beginning wit his first day at the Golden Griddle Pancake House, where another waiter shows him the ropes: “Have you seen the menu yet? It’s like a thesaurus. How many words can you think of to describe a pancake?… Randy is the assistant supervisor. He talks like a girl. I heard that he has a problem with his throat but I just think he’s gay. But don’t say that. If Debbie hears you say gay or fag she’ll fire you in a flash.” Our hell-bound hero moves on to Bemelman’s, “the ghost of a 1980s hotspot,” where dolled-up embittered old gals gather for fractious lunches. Thomson ruthlessly captures the competitive misery: the display of jewellery, the knowing references to Central Park West, the faded glamour. “They swill wine from labels they cannot pronounce, drain lipstick-smeared glasses, click press-on nails against the marble tabletops… Bits of food and sauce collect at the corners of their mouths and fly forward when they speak.” But he can’t help empathizing with their dilemma, knowing “how stressful it is to perpetuate a stereotype. It’s much bigger than they are.”
If there is a thread joining these stories, it’s that same dilemma. Almost all the characters here, whether downtown queer or suburban housewife, are grappling with the tension between who they are and who they’re expected to be. In the opening tale, an amateur drag artist realizes he’s been torn for years between the squeaky-clean passions of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music and his deeper attraction to the imagery of Rocky Horror Picture Show. His solution? He melds the film characters of Andrews and Tim Curry into a drag person named “Maria Von Frank N Trapp Furter.”
“Bruising” is a serious, earnest effort to describe a man’s brief, skewed relationship with a young homophobe whose belligerence belies his true desires. The tension between Eros and danger here is nicely evoked, but marred by Thomson’s dubious final scene, where we’re asked to believe that a man can be stabbed to death with a grapefruit knife.
One of the best stories takes us convincingly into an oppressive hetero relationship, offering a surreal, spooky journey into an unloved housewife’s evolving madness. Nightmares and reality gradually blend into a world that hovers somewhere in between. It’s a stark vision of the dangers of being a house-slave.
Other stories take us into apartments and bathhouses to probe issues of trust and denial surrounding HIV status. “Brad, Descending” is captured perfectly by its title. In refusing to reveal his own positive test result to his sero-positive lover, Brad creates a guilty/accusing inner hell that spreads pain to all around him.
—Jim Bartley (XTRA magazine)
Need is a primal desire, overwhelming a simple craving. Need is a collection of short stories from Robert Thomson exploring the concept of need and how it drives people to do things they say they never would do. Honest and candid, these stories explore the frankness of human nature and are highly entertaining. Need is a worthwhile investment for the short story enthusiast.
— Midwest Book Review
Where to buy Need