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'X' looks at a subculture that mainstream American art has frequently shied away from

X, Davey Davis
Catapult

Lee, the narrator of Davey Davis' X, could be any person you see walking the streets of Brooklyn.

They have a day job at a big corporation, they're crashing at a friend's apartment after a messy breakup, and they spend their time listening to true-crime stories and hooking up with people they meet at clubs and parties. There's one difference, though.

"I listen to the murder podcast when I go for my late-night walks, salt squeaking beneath my boots," they explain. "In the dark, I'm not a pedestrian or a potential victim. I'm the street silhouette observed — or not — by those inside. I'm the dangerous one. I like that."

Lee is a sadist, given to violent fantasies, trying to put their life back together after a failed relationship, while at the same time navigating the dystopian society that America has become. X is far from an ordinary love story — it's a shocking and moving novel about what it means to be an outsider in a world that's crumbling around you.

X opens with Lee in a dungeon, having agreed to take part in a woman's dark fantasy. Although Lee prefers to give pain rather than receive it, they're indulging in the woman's "Lynndie England fetish" — she wants to waterboard Lee for her own gratification. It's "not political, just sexy," she explains to them.

Lee is submitting to the fantasy because they think the woman might know the location of X, a woman they met at a warehouse party. Lee is immediately drawn in by X's dark vibe: "There was something about her that was familiar, the way she held and moved her body, a visual aroma twisting against itself, a dynamic tension — as if the Helmut Newton photos of Grace Jones and Sigourney Weaver had locked eyes in the midst of an orgy, recognizing each other from a previous life. I didn't know her, but I instantly knew something important about her, which was that I had never seen anyone like her before."

Lee follows X to her room in a punk commune, and X subjects Lee to an intense sadistic sex session on a bench fitted with stirrups. "Of course I cried," Lee recounts. "I knew what she was going to do, but I wasn't angry ... I wanted my anger, but I couldn't find it." Afterwards, X disappears and Lee, now obsessed with her, searches for her in the spaces of New York's queer scene.

It's a difficult search. The rumor is that X is planning to "export," or leave the country after being ordered to by the government, which is running a program to get people they consider undesirable — people of color, antifa and Black Lives Matter activists, "drug users" and sex changers" — out of the country. "It's all fun and games until your fascist state asks you to leave," Lee notes.

At the same time, Lee reflects on their doomed relationship with their ex-girlfriend Petra, the masochist to Lee's sadist: "It's probably bad — in some queer theory-type way — to wonder why I'm a sadist, but I do," Lee observes. "Like with Petra. Despite everything, I was in love with her, and I knew it from the moment I started to plan how I'd style her for her funeral viewing. I know wanting to see your lover dead and beautiful isn't normal, but it's always felt normal to me."

There's a lot going on in X, but Davis weaves the threads beautifully. The novel is elegantly structured, with seamless transitions between the present — as Lee looks high and low for X — and the past, when they discuss their childhood and young adulthood as a budding sadist. The technique amps up the narrative tension — as we learn more about where Lee came from, we become more invested in their search for X.

Lee themself is a fascinating character; introspective but not navel-gazing, and at times drily funny. Davis leaves it up to the reader to decide just how reliable they are — there are hints that they might not be telling the whole story, and maybe charming the reader the same way they charm their lovers.

As you might expect from a book set in the world of kink, there are sex scenes in X, and Davis handles them extremely well — nothing in this novel is done for the sake of shock value. (That being said, if you were scandalized by the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, this book will almost certainly make your head explode.)

Davis is a remarkably self-assured author, and X is a dizzying, beautiful novel, and a fascinating look at a subculture that mainstream American art has frequently shied away from. It's also a grim take on what happens when a government gives in to intolerance and hate and turns its back on its own people. As Lee puts it, "In a world of certain death, what could I possibly have to fear?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.