While many would be familiar with William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising, and the controversy that surrounded its making and reception, less well known is the 1970 source novel of the same name, written by New York Times reporter, Gerald Walker. The book was published just over a year after a series of demonstrations by members of the gay and lesbian community in response to a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, seen by many as the start of the modern gay liberation movement.
Policeman Jack Lynch – Al Pacino’s character of Steve Burns in the film – is called to a meeting by his boss, Edelson (played by Paul Sorvino in the film), and offered a job to go undercover to catch a serial killer targeting members of Manhattan’s gay community. The killer’s MO is that he brutally stabs his victims – the most recent one nearly seventy times. According to Edelson, the city authorities are concerned the murders, which the police have managed to keep out of the newspapers, will wreck “the homosexual tourist trade” if word of them gets out. Lynch, who has a vague physical resemblance to a number of the victims, is promised a detective’s shield if he takes the job. Edelson informs him he is one of nine policemen working undercover in the plan.
Lynch is a lapsed Catholic who joined the police after his army discharge. He clearly has no idea how to handle the assignment and can’t even bring himself to even talk to most gay people, let alone go cruising in an attempt to catch the killer. To all intents he is straight but Walker’s book hints, far less deftly than Friedkin’s film, his heterosexuality is fragile at the very best.
He comes across as a prototype Travis Bickle who views gay men as degenerates at the same time as being obsessed, like so many homophobes, with how they have sex. Lynch’s clumsy undercover work is interspersed with ruminations about his memories bashing gay men he picked up off base while he was in the army and his main role model as a youth, his uncle, who was a corrupt, abusive cop killed in a shoot-out.
The story is told from two other perspectives. The first are passages in Edelson’s notebook. While Edelson has no love for New York’s gay community, he doesn’t hate them. Indeed, he draws a parallel between what is going on and his time in England during the war.
‘Reminds me of London during the Blitz. People getting killed every night, but all those others actually larking around outside the street during the blackout. Me among them and not all of us where drunk either. The danger seemed to spice up whatever the hell it was we needed to get through the night and start fighting a war again… Is it like that for the gay boys? Is each of their days part of the war?’
The third point of view is Stuart Richards, a divorced and lonely university student in the final year of doing a thesis on American musical theatre, facing the prospect of having his allowance cut off by his stern father, who clearly disapproves of his lifestyle. Richards has a profound distaste for liberated women, particularly his ex-wife. It very quickly becomes clear that, Richards is the killer, driven to murder by his own repressed homosexuality.
In one of the book’s few genuinely interesting plot points, Lynch kills a man who acts strangely towards him on a beat, stabbing him with a knife he has bought for self-protection. To his horror, the man turns out also to be an undercover cop. He mutilates his victim to make it look like the MO of the serial killer. Meanwhile, Richards snaps when he discovers that his ex-wife was pregnant to him and gave up the child for adoption. He goes into a gay bathhouse and kills six patrons before being killed in a struggle with the staff.
While Friedkin’s film was the target of fierce protests by New York’s gay community and harsh critical reviews upon release, it has since come to be viewed as a flawed but, nonetheless, important landmark in the depiction of queer culture on the big screen. The same sentiments cannot be said about Walker’s novel.
Critical reaction was mixed. Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book, ‘It’s fetid filth and you should go out of your way to avoid it’. Interestingly, the cover of the 1980 Star Book movie tie in (below) includes a quote from public intellectual and novelist, Gore Vidal, that the book was ‘An unforgettable study of one of America’s most persistent sexual nightmares’. Vidal had himself dabbled in crime fiction in the 1950s and his second novel, The City and the Pillar (1948) had caused controversy for its matter a fact depiction of a young man coming to grips with his homosexuality.
In addition to its treatment of gays, the book is laced with racist invective. The only reason for the contemporary reader to revisit it is the degree to which it functions as a text depicting the backlash against the increased power and visibility of New York’s gay community post Stonewall. There is no evidence of the joy or empowerment felt by many from the events unleashed in the early hours of Saturday June 28, 1969, only a Manichean world of sexual repression and violence. It is interesting to speculate about Walker’s politics, which are unknown, because while his book could be said to be an accurate portrayal of how some felt towards the growing conspicuousness of gay culture, this worldview is depicted with such clarity and ferocity, you have to wonder whether these thoughts were his own.
The edition of Cruising above was published by Bantam, 1980 and the cover scan is courtesy of Tim Hewitt.