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Lost Boi: on Peter Pan, Neverland and gender-fluid leatherplay


Second star to the right, and straight on till morning

Peter Pan is firmly implanted in our shared cultural memory. Even those who haven't read the original text by JM Barrie, are familiar with the basic themes and storyline thanks to various retellings and the Disney cartoon franchise. There are also many reinventions, riffs on the tale, that use Barrie's creation as a reference point to head off in their own directions to explore their own particular concerns. Hugh Jackman is starring in an upcoming big budget adventure version ominously entitled, Pan.

Television's (and Disney's) Once Upon a Time retold the Peter Pan legend within the context of relationships between fathers and sons. The 1954 Broadway musical was re-imagined as a live television event where the thematic concerns, beyond the offbeat brilliance of Christopher Walken, were fairly muddy. Finding Neverland, the movie and the musical, delve into artistic inspiration. There are endless scholarly and/or gossipy works speculating on Barrie's sexuality and possible attraction to children. And of course SCTV's John Candy playing Divine playing Peter Pan was the ultimate in revelatory satire.

Sassafras Lowrey's Lost Boi goes further than all of the above, especially the traditional playing of Pan by a woman in drag, by taking the tale and placing it within a gender-fluid, punk and BDSM world. The stylized semi-poetic quality of the prose has a beguiling fairy tale charm, so that the disorientation that results from never really knowing where we are or what sexuality or gender the characters are, is intriguing rather than frustrating. One of Lowrey's main intentions is to expose how rigid our gender roles can be: it startled me into a total reassessment of my comfort level with gender ambiguity and reliance on stereotypes when one of the lost bois casually removed their strap-on mid-sexual encounter. 

Fairy tales have always been ways of dealing with the unknown, the frightening or the reinforcement of society's rules. Lowrey takes a familiar story and fills it with characters who are anything but one-dimenional cartoons. A great deal of the fun is found in deciphering how Lowrey has slotted the original characters into the new roles designed for them - I will not spoil it beyond stating that the invocation of the mermaids and the crocodile are particularly ingenious. Only Tinkerbell felt like a slightly awkward re-imagination, but then fairies are always problematic when one is going for grit and a necessary plot device.

Lost Boi is also very immersed in the world of leather sex and Dominance/submission. The passages alternate between being brutal and being hot, often both at the same time. While Pan and Wendy and our narrator Tottle's relationship is the central one, the pirates, led by an old guard leather queen Hook, illustrate the debate about just where the leather community is heading in changing times. And Pan and Hook's rivalry is finally explained in a logical fashion.

The thematic concerns may sound daunting, but the lushness and joy of Lowrey's prose should not be underestimated, Lost Boi is a mesmerizing read. The riff on Peter Pan may be a gimmick but it is ideal for Lowrey's spellbinding mixture of punk attitude and wide-eyed innocence as in this romantic passage,

He knew the dyke working the door, and she had promised to let them in for free. Kelpie is a big femme who cuts the crotch out of her fishnet stockings to help them fit over her thick thighs and, let's be real, to save time. She's kinda the closest thing that Pan's ever had to a grrrlfriend. Kelpie danced at the peep-show place by the Interstate, and Pan liked to surprise her at the end of her shift, when she traded stilettos for boots and threw her bleach-stiffened pink hair into pigtails. Kelpie is tough, but her face often softened into a smile when she pushed open the heavy black door, stepped into the alley behind the club, and saw Pan leaning against a dumpster. He never told her that he was coming, but luckily for him, she never had plans that couldn't be ditched for milkshakes and fries at the all-night diner.

The concept of never growing up is probably the most memorable metaphor in most Peter Pans and one that  has pointed relevance for the gay male community. Lowrey tackles that as well, and when it is mixed with LGBT and gender politics, it becomes even more potent. The ending of Lost Boi is bittersweet and beautiful, and completing this satisfying novel feels like a window opening for a potential flight.