Monkey Suits explores the clashing worlds of uptown Manhattan society and downtown AIDS activism. Jim Provenzano's second novel serves up a behind-the-scenes look at New York City's upscale party life from the servants' point of view, evoking the 1980s excess and growing outrage of a recent yet already historic era. Amid the romantic and friendly entanglements between a handsome crew of waiters, a surprisingly passionate and funny class war ensues.
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A former cater waiter-turned activist at the time the novel is set, the author of PINS offers a darkly comic take on the society set, and the touching liberation, both personally and sexually, of those who wait on them.
Lee Wyndam, shy and unfocused, finds that his work-related affairs lead to more problems than passion. But when a secretive affinity group leads him to the liberating world of AIDS activism, his true passion may finally blossom.
Brian Burns, Lee's insufferably handsome ex-boyfriend, thinks the world owes him a living. His foray into 'the oldest profession' leads to a strange encounter with a formidable and familiar client.
Ed Seabrook, Brian's current boyfriend, is one of few who actually enjoys his job. It could be his spiritual healing meetings that get him through the servile nights.
Marcos Tierra, a club celebutante between catered parties, doesn't move him up fast enough through the ranks, but he's always on the guest list downtown.
Ritchie Hurst is everybody's friend, except the gallery owners who scoff at his unrefined sculptures. But after meeting a world-renowned violinist, his artistic appreciation reaches new heights.
Scheming philanthropists, philandering boyfriends, and flowing champagne make for a bubbling recipe of class warfare, with friendships tested, as society scions and angry activists clash.
"As the last guests departed, the swift deconstruction of the elegant tables began. Plastic tubs and ice tins were hauled from table to table, becoming blood-colored like a Guyana Koolaid mix. Candles were snuffed out and silverware tossed into trays with a tiny clatter. Glasses were dropped into plastic racks and stacked to the side like small skyscrapers. Tablecloths were ripped away and stuffed into garbage bags for laundering the next day by unseen crews of Chinese women, whose efforts reaped less than four dollars an hour. In the rest rooms, a few waiters took silent pleasure in pissing on the piles of unused ice cubes that were poured into the men’s room toilet."
Met Vets - David Ehrenstein for the Bay Area Reporter
More than anything else, Jim Provenzano’s new novel Monkey Suits captures something terribly specific about New York in the 1980s, something only a gay man with a "worm’s eye view" of that era’s obscene confluence of luxury and squalor would notice — the rapacious waste of it all. Set largely in the great hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where party after party unfolds for the delectation of the city’s "swells," Monkey Suits revolves around a coven of cater-waiters, many of whom are also members of ACT-UP. One only has to read a few pages of Provenzano’s prose to sense that an AIDS demo of some sort is bound to unfold in the climax. Yet it does so with surprising discretion.
For, just as he grasped the subtleties of adolescent lust in PINS, his gay-teenage-wrestler-coming-out novel, Monkey Suits glides smoothly over the surfaces of buff boys in tuxes, discreetly flirting and less-discreetly humping to get at what can only be called the zeitgeist of the AIDS generation. A fatal disease is running amok, and its primary victims are rising up to deal with the chilly indifference of the world in which they live.
Provenzano is alive to the way that fiction can get to the heart of things in a way that nonfiction cannot. Still, for all the sexual heat generated by the cater-waiters of "Fabulous Food," and their awakening to the fact that their lives are on the line, Provenzano maintains a poker-face reportorial style that resists the temptation to caricature.
Speaking as a former employee of the Met, I can vouch for the authenticity of every page, particularly the way the book evokes the ambiance of dinner being served in a reconstructed Egyptian Temple.
Needless to say, all this has been whisked away now, like those dinners. The rich are greedier than ever, but are careful to "dress casual" and even "down" to ape lower classes they otherwise despise. Gayness is "out" and therefore more "in" than before, yet kept at a discreet distance.
And AIDS is not only still with us, infection rates are on the rise. But the cries of the dying are muffled as a new generation strides forth, largely indifferent if not downright hostile to the past. This book is for them.
BookMarks by Richard LaBonte
"Lives there a gay man in his early 20s with good looks, black trousers, and a white shirt who hasn't waited a table while awaiting his big acting break? Well, some; but not the sexy lads of Monkey Suits, a nostalgic Manhattan-set novel about unfocused youth, mercurial boyfriends, and the early days of ACT UP activism and anger. The characters are all cater waiters - thus, the "monkey suits." Their underclass perspective on the upper class they serve at society functions is part sneering and part servile, a nervy imbalance that gives this novel a subversive, comic clout.
If Provenzano wasn't himself a waiter, he must have slept with some - his behind-the-scenes details are a hoot. The novel's realistic energy is further heightened by the author's invocation of thinly veiled facts."
From the secret lives of married gay men to the secret lives of cater waiters, it seems like everyone has something to hide. That's especially true in Jim Provenzano's exciting second novel, Monkey Suits.
A nostalgic mix of sex and melodrama, Provenzano crafts a late-80s AIDS story with paint-by-numbers plotting. Still, it's to Provenzano's credit that "Monkey Suits" is such a fun read, jammed with in-jokes, intrigue and involving characters. It's those details and finishing touches that make the book a sultry page turner.
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