Tiny Tim might be gay, to begin with.
Of course, the boy who did NOT die is none too tiny now. As revealed in Louis Bayard’s new novel, Mr. Timothy, Dickens’ once-sickly moppet is, aside from a slight limp, physically fine, 23 years old, and living in a London brothel. And yet despite the fact that he is surrounded by barely clad fillies, he can’t seem to get any blood going to his frustratingly flaccid manhood.
“Can’t even get hard with my own hand,” admits Bayard’s “gentleman slummer” with typical narratorial flourish. “My fingers clamp on like limpets, but no divine spark issues from them. I might as well be making sausage.”
Failed tumescence aside, there’s also Tim’s jumbled regard for a former tutor who was a tad too chummy in his pedagogy. Given that Bayard has been labeled a “gay writer,” and that his first two novels were labeled “gay books”this irks him just a bit, if you must knowyou gotta suspect that maybe, just maybe Master Cratchit is in need of some soul-searching.
But enough of that for now: The 40-year-old Bayard, who grew up in Springfield, Va., and now lives on Capitol Hill with his partner, Don Montuori, also 40, and their 3-year-old son, Seth, doesn’t allow Tim to dwell on his sexual identification for long.
Besides, if Tim is holding on to one whopper of a secret, it’s this: All that “God bless us, every one” nonsense capping A Christmas Carol was just that. The crutch-wielding kid was, lo and behold, a sham, a con, a bullshit artist. And he hates himself for his goody-goody actespecially now that most of his family is dead and his father’s ghost keeps popping up.
“I happened upon Tiny Tim because he was, in my mind, the least satisfying of the Dickens characters,” says Bayard, whose self-described “cannibalizing of dead authors” was published by HarperCollins this past October and is already generating book-of-the-year buzz. “He was the one I couldn’t stand growing up. I never believed in Tiny Tim.
“I remember, in third grade, my school was putting on a production of A Christmas Carol, which they did every year. I was little for my age then, so they asked me to play Tiny Tim. I must have had a third-grade diva moment, because I didn’t want to be Tiny Timeven then I was resisting his model. I hung on for the little boy at the end who goes to fetch the turkey for Scrooge. Because he gets to say, ‘The one as big as me?’ and ‘Right-o, guv’nor!’ I felt that was by far the best line in the whole play.”
So naturally, Bayard made Mr. Timothy’s title character haunted, faithless, and impotent. “That’s the only way to go with that character,” he says. “To steer hard in the other direction.”
Bayard laughs: “I had to rough him up a little bit and besmirch his good name. But I’ve come to the point where I do like him. Maybe that was the ultimate purpose of the book: to get at peace with Tiny Tim in my life.”
A flirty fellow with GQ looks and an easygoing charm, Bayard can be seen in a recent issue of People magazine having a full-blown runway-model moment, sprawled out on the grounds of a park near his North Carolina Avenue home and flashing a come-hither look.
When Seth saw the picture, which sits big and eye-catching above a drooling book review, the toddler said, “Papa fall down.”
“Leave it to a 3-year-old to keep everything in perspective,” says Montuori, who met Bayard when they were both doing graduate studies in journalism at Northwestern University 16 years ago.
Although Montuori jokes that sudden fame has turned Bayard into an “egotistical bastard,” he eventually allows that “it’s exciting. He’s rightfully very proud. Success is a funny thing, though. It raises the bar.” (It should be noted, however, that Montuori has yet to read Mr. Timothy. Bad man.)
For his part, Bayard has yet to quit the freelance-writing gigs that still pay many of his bills: articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Salon.com, as well as mass mailings for nonprofit environmental groups (and one story for the Washington City Paper). In June 2001, he published “Two Men and a Baby,” a lengthy Washington Post Magazine piece about his and Montuori’s arduous efforts to adopt Seth. Funny, devastating, and ultimately hopeful, it was perhaps his finest turn as a writeruntil Mr. Timothy, that is.
“This was a bit of a risk,” says Bayard of his latest book, which took him two years to write. “I had to leave the people who published my first two books [1999’s Fool’s Errand and 2001’s Endangered Species], because this wasn’t a ‘gay’ book, and I had to put myself back on the auction blocks….It was a big departure. Scary and fun at the same time.”
Bayard, whose previous novels were both romantic comedies, “was attracted to the idea of revisiting a familiar character or literary work. And when I thought about an author I wanted to work withcollaborate with, in effectI thought about Dickens, because he’s always been my hero in a way. He’s the writer I’ve been reading longer than anyone.”
It shows: As well as being an up-all-night read, Mr. Timothy is a heartfelt homage to the master, a blend of fanciful Dickenspeak and thrillerish plot that just begs to be Hollywoodized (“starring Orlando Bloom,” Bayard says dreamily). With the help of an Artful Dodger-like rapscallion named Colin the Melodious, Tim tries to save an orphan, Philomela, from a club of pedophilic noblemen. There’s also a subplot involving a character named Uncle N, whose dusty home is alwayswink, winkdecorated for Christmas.
“I felt a total freedom to do whatever I wanted, because I figured [the source material] could stand up to any punishment I inflicted on it,” Bayard says. “It’s so powerful, so entrenched in our culture. It will never be dislodged. There’s nothing that I or any other writer could do to change that.”
That didn’t stop Bayard from trying to get each and every detail just right, thoughfrom era-appropriate vocabulary such as “peeler,” “poppet,” and “bunghole” to the geography of the dark and stormy fun house that was 1860s London. To that end, the author immersed himself in the work of Henry Mayhew, “a journalist and a contemporary of Dickens, who basically just walked around the streets of London and interviewed people, took notes, gathered statistics. He had tables on the amount of manure on London’s streets per year….”
It’s a milieu a long way from the contemporary gay Washington Bayard explored in Fool’s Errand and Endangered Specieswhich makes him worry a little about backlash from fans who’ve been with him from the start. “I’m proud of the books that I wrote, and I’m happy to be identified as a gay writer,” he says. “But when I go into Borders or Barnes & Noble, I tend to be ghettoized on the ‘Gay and Lesbian’ shelf. It’s nice that there’s a shelf like that, but it’s always in the back of the store, always in the margins. I wanted to be in the front of the store for a change.
“I don’t think of it as a sellout,” he continues. “To me, Mr. Timothy has a gay vibe of its own. And to me, it’s clearly the work of a gay writer. I don’t feel like I’m back in the closet….’Gay writer’ is an innocent, meaningless label.”
Even so, it’s one that has often been problematic for Bayard. His first two books, he notes, received their “most hostile” reviews from gay reviewers. “I’ve been flagged for not having enough sex in my books, for not having enough lesbians in my books,” he says. “Edmund White has lots of sex scenes, and I get tired of it.”
The famed novelist and critic is actually a particular bugaboo of Bayard’s. “My friend and I collect bad Edmund White lines,” he says. “One of them was, ‘His anus tasted of stale cucumbers.’ I wouldn’t know what a stale cucumber was. Does it get hard? Does it shrivel? And how is the taste affected by that?”
Bayard’s next novel, due to his editors at HarperCollins by the end of next year, will star not another author’s creation but another author: Edgar Allan Poe. “It’ll be a detective story,” Bayard says, “because Poe was the father of the detective story. I think it’ll be set at West Point, because Poe spent seven feckless months there.”
Although he’s already heavy into the research phase, Bayard is having a hard time totally letting go of Tim and Colin and that tough little cutie with the red ribbon in her hair, Philomela.
“I spent a morning blubbering in Starbucks over Philomela,” he says. “Is that narcissistic? You become attached to these characters, and you think of them as people. They occupy such a percentage of your thoughts all the time, so you worry about them….But I don’t worry about Timothy so much anymore. I think he’ll be fine.”
Hmmm: And will Dickens’ little wonder be coming out of the closet anytime soon?
“I never resolved it in my head,” Bayard admits with a smile. “I asked my agent, ‘Is Tiny Tim gay?’ We never really decided. I just figured that he’s depressed and grief-ridden and kind of broken. I’m not trying to be coy about it. I just never did resolve it in my head whether he was or not.
“I was talking to a gay interviewer yesterday. And there’s a reference to a guy [Tiny Tim] meets on a ship in the very last section of the book, and the interviewer was saying, ‘I was just hoping they’d get it on.’”
Bayard smirks: “That’d make a good sequel, I guess.” CP
Bayard reads from and signs copies of Mr. Timothy at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9, at Borders, 11301 Rockville Pike, Kensington. For more information, call (301) 816-1067.