Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Born Today in 1947: Cult Novelist James Robert Baker

Writer James Robert Baker was born today, October 18, in 1947. He wrote sharply satirical, predominantly gay-themed transgressional fiction. After graduating from UCLA, he began his career as a screenwriter, but became disillusioned and started writing novels instead. Though he garnered fame for his books Fuel-injected Dreams and Boy Wonder, after the controversy surrounding publication of his novel, Tim and Pete, he faced increasing difficulty having his work published.

Baker was born in Long Beach, California and raised in what he considered a "stifling, Republican Southern Californian household". Rebelling against his parents, he became attracted to the fringe elements of society, including beatniks, artists, and gays. In high school during the 1960s he explored his sexuality at underground gay teen nightclubs, while living in fear that his abusive father would find out. At one point, his father hired a private detective to follow him, when he suspected Baker was having an affair with a male neighbor. This family dynamic would be used in many of his novels, most extensively in Boy Wonder.

Baker began taking drugs, and became, in his own words, "an out of control, teenage speed freak." He also began drinking heavily, attributing it to the fact that he was closeted. However, even after coming out, his substance abuse remained excessive and "still had a life of its own."

His first book, Adrenaline, was published under the pseudonym James Dillinger. A story of two gay fugitive lovers on the run, it presaged the satire and drug fueled violence so prominent in his later books. Here Baker began developing the themes that dominated his following works: anarchy; angry, and somewhat paranoid gay men; the dark underside of Los Angeles, juxtaposed with its sunny outward image; the hypocrisy of organized religion; anonymous sex and its implications in the age of AIDS; and homophobia and the oppression of gays in a Republican dominated America.  

The modest success of this novel encouraged him to devote himself to what have become his best known works, Fuel-Injected Dreams (a novel revolving around a character loosely based on record producer Phil Spector) and the 1986 release Boy Wonder. After the novel was published, he stopped screenwriting in order to solely concentrate on books. He spent the bulk of each day writing and researching, and acted out characters and scenes of his novels on videotape to perfect the dialogue.

A self-described anarchist, Baker has been categorized as a writer of transgressional fiction, in that his novels are frequently populated by sociopathic, nihilistic characters who engage in taboo behaviors such as heavy drug use, incest, necrophilia and other practices; and often commit acts of extreme, surrealistic violence.

Baker's work received mixed reviews. His only two books not specifically gay themed (though containing gay characters and a somewhat gay sensibility), Boy Wonder and Fuel-Injected Dreams, were better received by critics, and more popular with readers, though he was never a bestselling novelist. His following book, however, Tim and Pete, met with hostile reviews, primarily for its advocacy of political assassination and terror tactics in combating AIDS discrimination. Baker himself was ambivalent on the subject. "I think assassination does change things ... But I'm not really calling for violence," he said. "It's a novel, not a position paper."

There were also charges of racism, due to his portrayals of blacks and Hispanics. Baker also denied those charges.

The book caused a great deal of controversy among critics, with some calling it "irresponsible," and saying it was "determined to give offense" and "appears to endorse violence." 

After the reception of Tim and Pete, with several critics calling him "The Last Angry Gay Man," Baker faced increasing difficulty finding a publisher for his work and his financial position became precarious. He was only able to publish one novella, Right Wing, and that was self-published on the Internet.

Baker's life partner, Ron Robertson, believes that this difficulty led Baker on a quick, downwards emotional spiral. Baker killed himself at his home on November 5, 1997, by asphyxiation in his garage.

Since his death, Baker's reputation has steadily increased among critics and the reading public; and his works now have cult status in the literary community. First editions of Adrenaline, Boy Wonder, Fuel-Injected Dreams and Tim and Pete have become collector's items and command high prices at rare book stores.

Three of Baker's books have thus far not been published: White Devils, Proto Punk, and Crucifying Todd. Additionally, he wrote two screenplays which have not as yet been filmed: Inez and Desert Women.

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