The Best Novel of 2021 Stars a Middle-Aged Cuckold
My Top 13 Books of the Year
“You live vicariously through celebrities, I live vicariously through the guys who fuck my wife.”
And so begins Darryl, the first novel from trans writer and poet Jackie Ess published this spring from Clash Books. It’s the perfect first line for the most “What the FUCK?!” novel I read in 2021, my favourite of the entire year.
The novel is told from the point of view of Darryl Cook, a 45-year-old man living in Eugene, Oregon with his wife, Mindy. The pair live off of Darryl’s inheritance, a large sum of money that is never quite explained, but allows for the two to live an uninhibited life of sexual pleasure and play.
The catch? Darryl is a cuck. He loves to watch other men have sex with Mindy, including his friend, Bill.
The story is told through Darryl’s entries in his journal, a series of short vignettes that cover a page or two at a time. Despite his wealth and unlimited free time for sexual excess, Darryl is doing pretty horribly. It’s a clever trick on Ess’ part, with Darryl’s deadpan delivery duping the reader into believing that everything is, if not fine, then at least somewhat normal for him.
In the first six pages alone, Darryl has not only told the reader his involvement in “the lifestyle,” but that he buys GHB off the Internet and that Bill has recently let Darryl touch his dick. In the next fifteen pages, Darryl tells the reader that he asked Bill to kill him. This prompts Mindy to print out divorce papers, take Darryl to the hospital and set him up with a new “therapist” named Clive, who gives Darryl MDMA and watches him have sex.
Although what he describes is unusual, bizarre and extremely dangerous, from Darryl’s perspective, everything is business as usual. In the first twenty pages alone, Ess smartly sets up many points that on the first read seem unassuming, but later pay off when Darryl’s mindset begins to widen in the second half of the book.
The principal theme of Darryl is that of the question of identity. At the beginning of the novel, Darryl insists that he is a cuck and nothing more. He likes to watch guys fuck his wife, plain and simple. As he writes, “Basically, I live in a male universe. What gets me off is male hierarchy and my place near the bottom of it.”
However, as the novel progresses, Darryl’s view of himself shifts, often depending on who he surrounds himself with. As Darryl becomes closer to his friend Bill, as well as Oothoon, a trans woman he meets in Las Vegas and begins an email exchange with, Darryl realizes that maybe there are other possibilities for him. These possibilities are also expanded in his exploration of the BDSM scene where he meets another lover, a new-age woman named Satori, as well as her partners, Patrick and Moonbeam.
Darryl is the equivalent of a human sponge. “According to Clive I have an “unstable sense of self,” he writes. The way his sense of identity mutates throughout the novel was a genius move on Ess’ part. Without anyone to confide in, Darryl writes through his self-questioning in his journal, thoughts that will be almost too on the nose for anyone who’s ever gone through a similar process of soul-searching.
Inextricably entwined with Darryl’s sense of identity is his sense of desire. As his identities shift, so do his desires; as his desires shift, so does his sense of identity. As he explores more possibilities in his open marriage, through his wife taking on a female lover, as well as his own personal exploration of the BDSM scene, what is normally viewed as sexually taboo becomes a way for Darryl to experience true personal liberation.
“Sometimes I feel like my heart is a long hallway with every door locked. Locked by “gross,” “humiliating,” “unsafe,” “bitter,” or just in chastity. Exploring this lifestyle feels like unlocking those doors one at a time, except I guess for the last one,” he writes. While explorations of fetish in literature still remain taboo (unless it’s socially sanctioned when marketed to middle-aged white women, à la Fifty Shades of Grey), Darryl’s desires help him figure out not only who he is, but who he can imagine himself becoming.
Still, even if he is mentally freed by exploring his desires and identities, the constraints of the real world affect his ability to truly live all of these utopian possibilities. The double-sided coin of shame and pride nags at Darryl. Since his fetish is so niche, so despised and so mocked, even when he can indulge personally, there is still a constraint to how he can vocalize his desires publicly. “You know what absolutely sucks in 2017?” he writes. “People are scared to talk about the cuckolding lifestyle because they think it’s right wing. We were here before all that!”
While these heavy themes are at the core of a lot of queer novels, what makes Darryl so special is by far Ess’ writing. Written in short sentences that often counteract what was written right before it, Ess’ prose as Darryl is deceptively funny. This novel is packed to the brim with deadpan joke after deadpan joke after deadpan joke. As Darryl offhandedly asks, “Are there any songs about being a cuckold besides “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers?”
Even in his serious questioning, Darryl is cracking one-liners. “If that’s what life’s about, where do I fit into it? Again and again, what links my life to life? The old cuckold’s anxiety,” he asks wholeheartedly. Until he follows with, “But in the moment? I could give a flying fuck. Instead I’ll watch one. Actually I prefer to listen.”
While at first this humour comes across as slightly bizarre given what the reader learns from Darryl about his dark situation in life, it’s ultimately the highlight of the entire novel. I don’t remember laughing this hard at a book in a really, really long time.
Another highlight of Darryl is its sly references to characters and plot from another queer novel, The Sluts by Dennis Cooper. Published in 2004, The Sluts is a fetish whodunnit told entirely through posts on a gay escort website, with users attempting to figure out the mystery of Brad, a young hustler in LA with a death wish, and his relationship with an older wealthy man named Brian.
If that sounds weird and somewhat disgusting, it is! The novel was an outlier for Cooper, a celebrated underground writer and poet who has been publishing since the ‘70s and is most well-known for his five-book George Miles Cycle series. When I first read Darryl shortly after its release last spring, I had never heard of The Sluts before. When I saw several people on Goodreads commenting on the connection between the two novels, I knew I had to read it.
I finished The Sluts in a 24-hour fever dream that had me turning pages as fast as I could humanly manage. While Darryl is a great novel on its own, the element of mystery is enhanced if you’ve also read both works and can make the connections between the minor characters and plot details they share.
While LGBTQ+ literature has exploded in the last decade with narratives that have pushed back against boundaries and stereotypes, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that has quite exploded my brain quite like Darryl. The themes of identity, desire, pride, shame and fetish are operating at galaxy levels, likely to make even queer readers wonder what the actual fuck they just read. Best of luck, straights!
Still, no book I read from this year has stayed with me quite like Darryl has. The themes, humour and reference to another queer novel were executed brilliantly.
But it’s Darryl himself as a character who I can’t seem to forget, and what he spends the novel searching for in his quest of identity and desire. Ultimately, the most haunting part of t is the vulnerability his journal paints regarding the truth towards the mutable nature of the self. The epigram of Darryl, after all, is “Calamus 9” by American poet Walt Whitman: “Is he too as I am now?”
Darryl knows that he will change every day, and every day he has to reckon with what that change means to others, but more importantly, what that change means to himself.
My Other Top 12 Reads of 2021
I’m not going to do reviews for these because I’ve already written about most of them at length; my previous reviews are linked if you want to know my detailed thoughts. Overall, these are what I’d recommend if you’re looking for a fresh, modern read with great prose.
A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan (Little, Brown and Company, 2021)
Summer Fun by Jeanne Thornton (Soho Press, 2021)
100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell (MCD x FSG, 2021)
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters (2021, Random House)
The Listeners by Jordan Tannahill (2021, HarperAvenue)
Short Story Collections:
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (Riverhead Books, 2020)
A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021)
Personal Attention Roleplay by Helen Chau Bradley (Metonymy Press, 2021)
Sarahland by Sam Cohen (Grand Central, 2021)
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib (Random House, 2021)
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon (Beacon Press, 2020)
Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses (Penguin Random House, 2021)
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