Recounting the controversy spawned by his first tell-all book, “Postcards from Palm Springs,” author Robert Julian wraps up the prologue to his latest book by saying that “truth-telling is a gift that keeps on giving.” He doesn’t make a distinction between truth-telling and TMI.
Revealing too much information is the reason Julian was vilified in some circles for “Postcards,” a book that would hardly have registered as a blip on anyone’s radar — or gaydar — had it not become fodder for a two-page spread in the Los Angeles Times giving the self-published memoir extended life.
Completing a trilogy with “Hollywood or Lust,” Julian seems to have plumbed Palm Springs for its most interesting stories in his earlier books, leaving the dregs for his last installment. It begins with a voyeuristic vignette at a small annual event for gay men who have a fetish for penile pumps — suction devices used to make their manhood look larger.
Julian explains in the preface how he intentionally puts himself in situations that make him feel uncomfortable or that are “entirely foreign” to him to expand his understanding of Palm Springs. Presumably this is his reason for joining the pageant of pumpers. It’s doubtful his descriptions, often very funny, would be shocking or enlightening to his gay readers, but straight women, whom he says comprise a large percentage of his readers, might find them peculiar, if not repugnant.
One could conclude that Julian opens with this salacious scenario at the Canyon Club Hotel to further portray the “hyper-sexualized environment of 21st century gay Palm Springs” that he hopes is captured onscreen if his first book ever becomes a TV show.
There are two main threads to “Hollywood or Lust.” One ties together the ultimately fruitless machinations of having “Postcards” turned into a TV series. Through numerous starts, stops and delays of the project Julian discovers a Hollywood rampant with homophobia despite the fact that gays hold many high-powered positions.
The other dominant storyline reports Julian’s efforts to expose collusion between the Palm Springs Police Department and the Indio branch of the Riverside County District Attorney’s office in 2009. An illicit backroom agreement, the author posits, resulted in an undercover sting operation targeting gay men for engaging in lewd and lascivious behavior in Warm Sands.
In bringing injustice to light, Julian notes that at the time there was a unproportionate number of openly gay officers on the city’s police force and that a prejudice against gays existed at the department’s very top.
“Palm Springs has a total population of 45,000 and there are 100 officers on the police force,” he writes. “We have a gay mayor, a gay majority on city council, a gay population of approximately 20,000 men and women, and we have only one openly gay officer on the force? This suggests a problem and it’s not a small one.”
While his personal commitment to solving the problem ebbs over time, Julian chronicles how the case of entrapment was resolved for men caught in the sting.
Overall, “Hollywood or Lust” triangulates between Julian’s past life in San Francisco, his present life in Palm Springs and his potential future in Hollywood; the result is a disjointed memoir in which the two main stories are broken up by unrelated but not altogether uninteresting anecdotes about the author’s audition for a game show and an evening spent as an interloper with a local lesbian at a seedy Palm Springs strip club long past its prime.
While he is ensconced in Palm Springs with his now-deceased longtime partner Patrick, Julian writes about the community, where he serves on a neighborhood association advisory council, with a sense of detachment and a slight air of superiority.
Along the journey, the author laments about the process of aging as well as discriminatory ageism that permeates Hollywood. Perhaps in defiance, he employs references that will be alien to younger readers — Eve Harrington, Electrolux, “Day of the Locusts,” Nick and Nora Charles — and some like Chester Morris, whom he admits would not be known to anyone under the age of 60.
An anachronistic allusion to “Peyton Place” recurs in “Hollywood or Lust,” inviting a comparison between the fictional world created by Grace Metalious and the colorful characters that might be found in Palm Springs. But while readers turned “Peyton Place” into a cultural phenomenon, the same isn’t likely to happen with Julian’s provincial book about small-town politics and uneventful evenings at Toucan’s Tiki Lounge.
John Berendt had great success with “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” because the city of Savannah, Ga., itself became a character in his book alongside all of its charming, eccentric denizens. Julian fails to personify Palm Springs in the same way, choosing instead to stay on the sidelines to provide acerbic commentary with very little insight.