The Decade of Blind Dates
Reviewed by Tyler R. Tichelaar for Reader Views (7/08)
“The Decade of Blind Dates” by Richard Alther has an excellent quote at the beginning by Simone Weil, “Do not allow yourself to be imprisoned by any affection. Keep your solitude. The day, if it ever comes, when you are given true affection there will be no opposition between interior solitude and friendship, quite the reverse.” The plot and philosophy of the novel can be summed up in those words. The title gives away that the main character, Peter, will not have much luck in the men he dates. Consequently, as a novel, the book is largely episodic, each chapter generally dedicated to one of the men Peter considers having a relationship with and each one of whom he ultimately decides is not right for him, except in a couple cases where the other man decides to see someone else.
The novel is refreshing for the gay fiction genre because it is not about hot sex among young men (something about gay fiction one of Peter’s dates complains about), but rather a very serious—slightly heavy—novel about dating. While the book has some humor in the oddballs Peter meets through advertising for a partner in magazines and newspapers in the years before Internet dating, there is a sense beneath these humorous moments of Peter’s loneliness in being unable to connect completely to another man. But Peter also has the good sense not to stay involved in relationships that are not healthy for him. Peter often gets good advice from his gay friend, Barry, who made the mistake of spending twenty-five years in a physically and verbally abusive relationship, and who does not want Peter to make the same mistake.
Because the reader knows Peter isn’t going to end up with any of the men he dates until the end, the book is largely plot-less so interest lies in the individual characters. Some of them were humorous—such as the man who shows up with his sex toys, or the man who wants to teach Peter how to two-step, only to have Peter’s college-age son and friends walk in on them. I would have liked more of this type of humor. Several of the letters Peter exchanges with other men, including his friend Luke who dies of AIDS, were over-written in tone although the book is always well-written. I just don’t know too many men—even gay ones—who write, or talk, like the characters in the book. The book is obviously geared toward gay middle-aged men—those born before Kennedy’s assassination as the book implies. Since Peter is an artist I found the talk of his painting interesting, but at times the book became too artsy in its depictions of the characters’ sophistication with name-dropping of novelists and artists and special gourmet foods. One of Peter’s dates remarks how glad he is to miss Peter’s birthday party because he did not care for “all the cleverness and gourmet food.” I found myself liking this date of Peter’s at times better than Peter himself, I’m afraid.
That said, I do think “The Decade of Blind Dates” is refreshing in its realism about what gay men experience—friends who die of AIDS, gay men who marry in an attempt to convince themselves they are straight, only to end up divorced—and even straight men will feel for Peter during his bout with prostrate cancer and his interesting medical experiences where therapists try to help him get an erection. Gay fiction tends to focus heavily on sex, and this novel is no exception, but at least the sex isn’t all buff young bodies but realism mixed in.
And the ending is satisfying. The reader begins to feel a bit forlorn and wonder whether Peter will ever find anyone—he does even though it takes him ten years, and his long search makes the happy ending all the happier and more believable. I found myself also wondering how much of the novel was autobiographical. Author Richard Alther, according to his biography, had several adventures as an emerging gay man before he met his partner online. Happy endings can happen, and adding a little realism to them can’t hurt. Middle-aged gay men will definitely enjoy “The Decade of Blind Dates” and anyone who has suffered through years of dating to find a soul mate will feel empathy and humor over Peter’s situation.