“I’ll expect unquestioning service from you. I’ll expect you to be mine—not a trick, not a lover, not a person—just a piece of ass who happens to be my personal servant.” – Mr. Benson
Title: Mr. Benson: A Novel
Author: John Preston
Publisher: Cleis Press
Pages/Word Count: 230 Pages
Rating: 4 Stars
Blurb: Mr. Benson is the compelling story of a young man’s quest for the perfect master. In a West Village leather bar, he finds wealthy, sophisticated, exacting Aristotle Benson, who leads him down the path of erotic enlightenment, teaching him to accept cruelty as love, anguish as affection, and ultimately, Mr. Benson as his master.
If John Preston, the masterly, handsome author of more than 30 books, was himself a gay icon, his character Mr. Benson defined the culture of gay sex for an entire generation. When Mr. Benson appeared in the pre-AIDS early 1980s, its unabashed celebration of male sexuality made it a cult favorite among gay men, many of whom wore T-shirts declaring that they were “looking for Mr. Benson.” The novel’s fresh voice and insights into identity, desire, power, and love influenced a generation of writers and editors, including Anne Rice, Samuel Delany, Michael Lowenthal, Laura Antoniou, Joan Nestle, Michael Rowe, and Cecilia Tan. Mr. Benson was Preston’s first novel and was followed by many more books from the proud, self-styled “pornographer.”
Review: When you see John Preston’s name anywhere in relationship to gay erotic fiction, you rarely ever see it mentioned without the words iconic and/or pioneer used somewhere nearby. He’s been credited with contributing to, if not spearheading, the evolution of quality gay fiction, and based upon his book Mr. Benson, I’d say he, at the very minimum, elevated BDSM erotica to a kinky literary art form before his passing in 1994.
I was going to begin this review by saying Mr. Benson isn’t a book for everyone, but I’m not sure it’s my job to give content warnings for the books I choose to read, so let me just say this—if BDSM is usually a sub-genre of M/M fiction you gravitate toward, please know that John Preston takes it to the extreme. Not only is Aristotle Benson an enthusiastic sadist, but Jamie, the book’s narrator and Mr. Benson’s devoted slave, is an equally enthusiastic masochist, and there’s nothing in the way of tenderness in their relationship, at least not in an overt or clichéd romantic way. There’s nothing that Jamie won’t trust his master to do to him, and Mr. Benson pushes Jamie to take everything he sees fit to dish out.
Mr. Benson is exemplary in its portrayal of a man who must dominate and a man who must be owned and dominated, and working to get inside the mindset of these character was sublime. They’re not role playing master and slave for the kinky thrill of it; they are master and slave and are committed to taking and giving what the other needs. Why Jamie needed to prove himself worthy of Mr. Benson by allowing all manner of humiliation to befall him isn’t really a question that’s answered. His fundamental need–why is being owned by Mr. Benson imperative to Jamie?–isn’t a question that needs answering because there is no reason to desire. What needed proven was that Mr. Benson was the man who was worthy of Jamie’s unquestioning devotion, and John Preston did a good job of convincing me that these two men were the yin to the other’s yang. Mr. Benson becomes Jamie’s anchor and, in turn, Jamie becomes more to Mr. Benson than just a trick. They worked together as not only Dom and sub but as owner and owned. Where this book took a slight left turn into cliché-land was with the requisite Big Misunderstanding that delivers these two men to their eventual resolution. That said, however, why the misunderstanding is significant to the plot is in the illustration of just how fragile Jamie is, and what happens to Jamie after, both psychologically and physically, serves to define the magnitude of his needs and Mr. Benson’s influence on his life.
Where the book went off the rails for me, just as I was deeply engaged in the roles Mr. Benson and Jamie would play in each other’s lives—where Mr. Benson would serve Jamie’s needs, and Jamie would be the submissive Mr. Benson wanted, and grows to need—is in a rather unfortunate jumping-the-shark kidnapping and human trafficking subplot that was resolved far too easily to serve any sort of meaningful purpose other than showing the reader that Mr. Benson’s feelings for Jamie perhaps run far deeper than he’s willing to express verbally. Although, I must say the epilogue told from Mr. Benson’s point-of-view, which I loved, goes some way toward redeeming the event that he affectionately understates as his little bastard’s ridiculous mess.
Mr. Benson was originally published in 1983, and as I was writing this review I couldn’t help but wonder if John Preston were alive today, what he’d think of a straight woman living in the heart of the Midwest reading his book. And not only reading it but liking it. Thirty years has wrought a lot of change.
The only caveat I will throw out there about the book is this: be prepared for sticker shock. It would appear the publisher is attempting to capitalize on this author’s legacy by woefully overcharging for Mr. Benson’s scant two-hundred-thirty (somewhat poorly edited) e-pages. But, then again, I bought it, so I guess it’s true: there really is a sucker born every minute.
You can buy Mr. Benson: A Novel here: