Carl Driver, Publishers Export Co. / French Line, 1968 (undated; I'm making an educated guess)
There's cruising and then there's cruising. The double-entendre title of the briskly entertaining Gay Cruise alludes to both, which doesn't mean there's nothing more on its smutty little mind than gay times on the high seas.
Yes, the bar pictured on the cover below is on a yacht and it's literally cruising the French and Spanish coasts, stocked with gourmet food, top-shelf liquor and a smorgasbord of high-end hustlers. This sleek floating brothel is the brainchild of personable Mark Anderson, a one-time actor with more looks than talent but brains enough to realize that Hollywood was home to multiple markets for his assets — some more profitable than others. Having prudently amassed a considerable stake by reporting only his modest acting income to the I.R.S. and taking the cash he's earned by discrete hustling and stashing it in multiple safe-deposit boxes under a variety of names, he's on the lookout for a business opportunity — a cash-based one, given that the bulk of his financial assets are liquid and undeclared — and recognizes it as soon as he spots an ad in Yachting magazine.
The Prince Edward is old, large and expensive to run, a luxury white elephant with such limited dock appeal that Mark acquires her for little more than salvage value. He pointedly renames her Svengali — make what you will of the fact Svengali was the name of a famous silent-film villain who used his charisma to bend others to his will — spruces her up, hires a crew, acquires captain's papers so there will never be any question as to who's in charge here, greases palms everywhere he might want to drop anchor and recruits 15 young hustlers whose faces and physiques have been carefully curated to appeal to a broad range of tastes. These “guests,” as he calls them, then signed six-month contracts that spell out their terms of employment in unambiguous terms, even though Mark knows the odds of finding a court that would uphold them are slim to none. But what really matters is that the contracts establish a tone: Mark is delivering quality services to consumers who expect the best.
Gay Cruise is a classic American Dream novel, a story of ambition, imagination and a subtle understanding that you are what you can pull off — subtle because it recognizes without ever explicitly acknowledging that Mark embodies the status quo. As an actor whose youthful good looks commoditized him when his acting ability could not, he’s internalized the ruthless rules of the marketplace: Attractive flesh is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it and it’s the person who knows both how to match the product to the buyer and negotiate the sale who gets the lion’s share of the proceeds. Having learned how to sell himself, Mark understands the marketing, negotiation and fulfillment processes; what he has to learn on the fly is how how to manage a whole stable of talent, all of whom come with the kind of baggage you can’t check at the door.
Written at a time when being openly gay was a world class door-closer in most professions, Gay Cruise positions Mark as a model capitalist who works the system until it works for him. Mark's new and improved Svengali isn't a floating no-tell motel — it's a luxury vacation experience whose employees are consummate professionals, invisible until needed yet always close to hand — and Mark knows in his bones that you have to spend money to make money: By the time the fully-stocked and -staffed Svengali sets sail from Florida, Mark is in for close to $100,000 — a serious sum in 1968 (just over of $800,000 in 2022 dollars) — not counting crew salaries, fuel and the stipend Mark pays his '“guests” until they start working. Once they begin shaking their moneymakers, they'll kick back half of what they make per client, excluding tips and money earned on days off, should they choose to go ashore and work rather than rest up. Onboard fees are collected by the house and banked until guests finish out their contracts.
Author Carl Driver clearly gave considerable thought to the financial details and shares them accordingly — even more so than does Bert Shrader in his not dissimilar and surprisingly sweet Fee Males (also 1968; republished as A Gay Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), which chronicles the ambitious destination-prostitution endeavor of Travis Todd, also a retired male prostitute turned sex-entrepreneur, who rents an entire Mexican village, stages it to resemble an ancient Greek one and stages a classical-style Olympiad featuring nude athletes for after-hours hire. Both novels are steeped in the minutia of applying mainstream rules for legal business endeavors to providing services to customers whose wallets trump inconvenient laws. Make no mistake, neither book is a manifesto or overt challenge to the mainstream order: Gay adult novels were written by gay men for gay men and sold in gay book stores or, more often, by mail to buyers who had already purchased gay-oriented material. But books like Gay Cruise were subversive nonetheless: Without spoiling the ending, Mark's Svengali enterprise doesn't founder on the reef of societal disapproval. It's the victim of its own right-place/right-time/right business success.
And while I wouldn't go so far as to argue that Mark Anderson is a figure of Jamesian complexity, he's not a stereotypical callous pimp: He sees himself as businessman whose business happens to be sex. If there are gay men willing to pay for it — which he knows there are — then why not expand into selling the services of others in an atmosphere more pleasant than that of predatory street pimps, desperate junkies selling themselves for a fix or a bed for the night and crooked cops screwing everyone, both figuratively and literally? The Svengali isn't a utopia, but it's clean, orderly and far safer for all concerned than furtive encounters in alleys and cheap hotels. Mark's biggest regret is that he didn't realize what he didn't know about selling sex: He successfully ran his own career as a hustler, but entrepreneurs regularly crash on the reef of managing employees. Between the crew, the guests, the gourmet-kitchen staff, the barmen and housekeeping, Mark has at least two dozen people reporting to him — and it's no wonder that he finds himself wishing he'd thought to spend a couple of weeks working in a high-end house of ill repute and paying close attention to how management handled the day-to-day details.
Though Mark's enterprise drives the novel's plot, Driver devotes multiple chapters to the stories of various Svengali "guests," the term Mark prefers to hustlers. (Johns are called “clients", the better to get the sleaze out). Embittered Ricco's vicious abuse by an uncle was ignored by his impoverished family in return for financial assistance; his story contains striking echos of Paul T. Rogers' award-winning literary novel Saul's Book (1983). Sweet, upper-middle-class teen Danny's family abandoned him to prison when he was caught having sex with a boy his own age whom they perceived as socially inferior; when Danny catches the eye of a rich older man, Mark counsels him on preparing himself for the day his sugar daddy finds someone new. Otis — who's in his forties and African-American, both departures from vintage gay adult-novel norms that skew young and overwhelmingly white — doesn't identify as gay; he just doesn't mind having sex with men, especially if it will help fund his modest dream of buying and operating his own apple orchard. Uncomplicated sensualist Stan signs on for proximity to Mark, whom he's loved for years and knows doesn't love him in return. These vivid short stories-within-the-novel both open out and deepen the narrative.
Of Driver himself I know little, other that that under this name he reviewed theater for the gay-oriented San Francisco magazine Focus, whose contributors included the Reverend Ray Broshears (co-founder of the Lavender Panthers, the Gay Activists Alliance and San Francisco’s first gay-pride parade) and that he was the theater critic of the Broshears-edited tabloid Crusader. Some suggest the name “Carl Driver” was a pseudonym for a writer named Philip H. Lee, but I’ve never seen sourcing for that.
Note: Gay Cruise, from the San Diego-based Publishers Export Co., is undated, but it’s numbered as book 23 from the P.E.C. imprint French Line, placing it between Ben Carter’s Sixty Nine Gay Street (French Line 22) and Carl Corley’s A Lover Mourned (French Line 24), both 1967.